History of the Word Filibuster

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The word filibuster goes back to a Dutch word for "freebooter," someone who took booty or loot. It came to mean a legislator who was "pirating" parliamentary proceedings.


The word `filibuster' comes from piracy.


The term first appeared in the English language in 1591, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The word was then `flee-booters.' Its origins are probably Dutch, with some Spanish and French influences.

NORRIS: In the 17th century, flee-booters raided the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and earned a bad reputation. They were also called buccaneers and freebooters. The stuff these flee-booters stole was called booty.

BLOCK: Eventually an extra syllable wormed its way into the word, and flee-booters became filibusters. It also took on political meaning in the 1850s. Filibusters were people from the United States who traveled to Central America and the Spanish West Indies in order to illegally encourage revolutions.

NORRIS: The Oxford English Dictionary says the first time a legislator was called a filibuster to accuse him of being an obstructionist was in 1889.

BLOCK: And the next year, 1890, was the first usage of the word `filibuster' to mean the tactic of talking for a long time to obstruct Senate business. Filibustering senators were, by extension, pirates raiding the Congress for their own political gain.

NORRIS: You can explore more of the debate and read experts' opinions on judicial filibusters in our Taking Issue feature at npr.org.

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