Words for Bodies of Lawmakers
This post discusses an assortment of words employed in English to refer to a group of people responsible for representing the general populace and passing laws, or to pertain to the room in which they meet to do so, or both.
Assembly, from Anglo-French by way of the Latin term assimulare (“together”), is used in many states and nations to refer to a body of legislators, usually one of two in a bicameral, or two-house, system. It also refers in general to a gathering.
Burgess was used in England’s Parliament and subsequently in some of the British colonies in North America to refer to legislators. It is related to burg and borough, which often form part of the name of a city or a district of one; the term basically means “citizen.” (When the term was widely used, any citizen of at least modestly prosperous standing conceivably could serve as a burgess.) The Latin origin, burgensis, mutated into the Old French word borjois, which then entered English as burgeis and was later spelled in its present form. Later, bourgeois, the Modern French form of borjois, was borrowed directly into English; it now collectively denotes people with conventional middle-class values.
Chamber is from the Latin word for an arched roof, which is borrowed from a Greek term meaning “vault.” It can also apply to a meeting room for legislators or to a judge’s office or to a reception room for a person in a position of authority, or any room in general. (The root word of bicameral has the same origin, as does camera.)
The word also applies to an artificial or natural enclosed space or cavity, such as a portion of a cavern, a section of a machine, or a segment of a heart. In addition, it describes a compartment for a bullet in a gun. The word can serve as an adjective, as in “chamber music,” or a verb describing the action of occupying a space.
Congress, from the Latin term congredi, which literally means “walk together,” came to refer to a formal meeting of representatives from different places. Its current sense stems from the name of the Continental Congress, attended by delegates from each of the thirteen original (and distinct) British colonies in North America. When the fledgling US government subsequently named its bicameral legislative body, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives, Congress, the meaning shifted to refer to a body of representatives from the same country or state. (Congress is also employed, though rarely, in the sense of “a sexual union.”)
Council, which derives from the Latin term concilium, which roughly means “call with,” refers to a group that makes decisions, rules, or laws or provide guidance. Formal lawmaking councils usually are limited in scope to jurisdictions such as cities or towns.
Diet, ultimately from the Greek term diaita, meaning “regimen” or “way of life,” came to refer to daily rites or obligations and then daily meetings of counselors and officials, and it still is employed as part of the formal name for the national legislature in Japan. (The use of the word in reference to eating and nutrition has the same etymological source.)
Legislature is an extension of legislator, itself directly stemming from the Latin phrase legis lator, meaning “one who proposes a law.” (Legis is the progenitor of legal.) The word is widely used generically to refer to a body of lawmakers and is frequently part of such a group’s formal name.
The spelling of the Old French term parlement, meaning “a talk,” was altered, influenced by the Latin word parliamentum, to parliament to refer to a conference. A later sense of an assembly commanded by a monarch contributed to the naming of England’s Parliament, its national deliberative body. Parliamentarian originally referred to member of Parliament’s faction in the English Civil War, but in modern use it pertains to someone knowledgeable about parliamentary procedure, a protocol for conducting formal meetings.
One term that didn’t survive into the modern era is witenagemot, a compound word referring to advisory groups consisting of members of the ruling class in various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the early Middle Ages. The first element is a plural form of wita, meaning “wise man,” and the second part of the word, gemot, means “meeting.” That word is related to moot, extinct as a noun and used rarely as a verb but present as an adjective in the idiomatic phrase “moot point.” Moot and the second syllable of gemot are related to meet, meeting, and met.