A Lobbyist by Any Other Name?

Host Liane Hansen speaks with Jesse Sheidlower, editor-at-large for the Oxford English Dictionary, about the origin of the word "lobbyist" — and how that word has been used through the centuries.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Last week, we aired a story about the Willard Hotel here in Washington. Barbara Bahny, the public relations director for the hotel, told us that the word lobbyist was coined there during the Ulysses S. Grant administration. It was said that President Grant used to come to the hotel's lobby to have a brandy and a cigar and was often surrounded by petitioners who eventually became known as lobbyists.

Well, many of you wrote in to tell us that was incorrect, and that the term lobbyist is older than that.

For a definitive answer, we've called Jesse Sheidlower, editor-at-large for the Oxford English Dictionary. Hi, Jesse.

Mr. JESSE SHEIDLOWER (Editor-At-Large, Oxford English Dictionary): Hi, Liane. How are you?

HANSEN: I'm well, thanks.

Ulysses S. Grant took office in 1869. Did the term lobbyist actually appear in print before that?

SHEIDLOWER: Yes, it appeared in print well before that. And the verb to lobby appears before that still, and not even in relation to Washington. Lobby appears in the early 1830s in Ohio, talking specifically about Ohio local politics, not about national politics.

Lobbyist itself shows up by the late 1840s, then chiefly connected to Washington, but certainly not having anything to do with the Willard Hotel. And if you look through the Washington Post, you don't see any connection in the entire 19th century between the Willard Hotel and the word lobbyist.

HANSEN: Hmm. So what's the real origin of the word?

SHEIDLOWER: Well, lobby originally, in the political sense, referred to one of the lobbies in the House of Commons. And you can find examples of this -- the OED cites examples back to 1640, talking about this specifically as the place where the public could go to speak to their members of the House of Commons.

HANSEN: Hmm. So did it always mean, someone who, I guess, tries to influence a politician?

SHEIDLOWER: Well, the sense of people who go to the lobby to influence politics is American, but again, very early 19th century. There are examples from 1808 cited in the OED, talking about Philadelphia, not Washington.

HANSEN: And so on and so on. Ohio...

SHEIDLOWER: And so on. All of this, you know, well before, certainly well before Grant and, you know, in relevant detail before any manifestation of the Willard Hotel itself.

HANSEN: Jesse Sheidlower is editor-at-large for the Oxford English Dictionary. Thanks a lot, Jesse.

SHEIDLOWER: Thank you, Liane.

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