Monday, January 25, 2010


    Reforming a pirate
    is tantamount to
    executing one:
    either way,
    the world contains
    one less pirate.
Of pirates and politics

Filibuster initially appeared in the English language around 1587 as flibutor meaning pirate. Most etymologists say that the root of the word is ultimately derived from the Dutch term vrijbuiter. Fashioned from vrij meaning free and buiter meaning plunderer this offered up for American English the word freebooter or "One who plunders or pillages without the authority of national warfare." And if you're wondering if booty is a related word you're right! The boot in freebooter means advantage or profit. So filibuster and freebooter are doublets, both coming at first from the Dutch vrijbuiter. It was apparently a very functional word because the French purloined it as well and muddled it a bit more into flibustier which one must not befuddle with bustier! The French "filibuster" came from the Dutch word flieboot meaning flyboat. They were small fast boats that pirates used in the Caribbean. While the English also used the French word with a variety spellings the Spanish buccaneered it from the French and turned it into filibustero. In all of this pillaging and plundering of the term, the English didn't recognize it already had two forms of the same word in flibustier and freebooter and nicked the expression from the Spanish so that by the middle of the 19th century a freebooter was "anyone who lives by plundering others, especially a pirate."

American filibuster in Nicaragua

So what was going on that caused all of this fast and furious finagling of a Dutch word among the Europeans? Mostly it was a bunch of lawless adventurers from the United States who were stirring up revolutions in several Central American countries. These wannabe Conquistadors were not simple pirates, but profiteering adventurers who flouted "international law, ran guns and fomented revolution against the European colonial powers throughout the West Indies, Central and South America." Possibly the most legendary filibuster is William Walker who started by trying to confiscate part of Mexico and invaded Nicaragua twice and was tossed out both times. Born in Nashville, Tennessee Walker was:

    ...a qualified doctor, a lawyer, and a journalist by the time he was 24, sought a more adventurous career. After a short stay in San Francisco, his filibustering expeditions began with an invasion of Lower California (1853–54) intended to wrest the region together with Sonora from Mexico. The invasion failed miserably. He was tried for violating neutrality laws but was acquitted by a sympathetic jury. In June, 1855, Walker set out on another filibustering expedition, this time to Nicaragua, at the invitation of one of the country's revolutionary factions. His capture of Granada brought an end to the fighting, and, after obtaining recognition (May, 1856) from the United States for the new government, Walker declared himself president of Nicaragua in July, 1856. An alliance of hostile Central American states and the enmity of his former friend Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose Accessory Transit Company controlled Walker's supply lines, led to his defeat and surrender to the U.S. navy in May, 1857. Considered a hero by many Americans, Walker was again acquitted of violating neutrality, but he then alienated U.S. public opinion by blaming his defeat on the U.S. navy. From the Islas de la Bahía of Honduras, Walker made a final abortive attempt (1860) to conquer Central America but was forced to surrender to the British navy. He was turned over to Honduras and was shot by a firing squad Sept. 12, 1860.

Politics as usual

There were several colorful filibusters who conducted assaults against Cuba, the Caribbean, and Texas when it was still part of Mexico. The exploitations of the "filibusters" were the focus of a great deal of debate in the United States at the time. Enter Virginia Senator John Randolph (1773–1833) who was an eccentric figure of the same era that claimed Pocahontas as a fore bearer. Many of his constituents admired him for his concise wit and biting tongue, he also possessed a brilliant mind and during his lifetime he became a distinguished orator. Eventually he acquired the custom of making long and immaterial speeches on the floor of the Senate for the purpose of putting off a vote on a particular subject.

The Senate became so fed up with these tactics that it voted to give the presiding officer explicit power to deal with such problems. Schuyler Colfax who was the Vice President under Ulysses S. Grant put an end to this hasty handling of Senate business with his ruling that "under the practice of the Senate the presiding officer could not restrain a Senator in remarks which the Senator considers pertinent to the pending issue." Within a few years the use of these delaying devices in the Senate was rampant. As a result a senator or group of senators could speak on extraneous topics and phrases like reading the telephone book are still frequently used. Now that the rules of the US Senate allow for debates to go on as long as the vocal cords of the senators held out, they could stop legislation from moving forward.

During this time the term filibuster had become commonplace and a few historians suggest that because the savage and illegal attacks of the filibusters had acquired a such negative undertone, they have little doubt that at some point one U.S. Senator became outraged by the obstructionist legislators and possibly claimed that they "pirated" the debates comparing the scheme with the military filibusterers who had recently been wreaking havoc in other countries. Thus filibustering was born and what was once "an attack" lives on today as "long, boring delaying tactic."

Reforming politicians

By 1917 the Senate granted cloture which is a way for ending the debates called. Cloture calls for the signatures of sixteen Senators and the votes of three- fifths of the Senate. Even though many attempts of cloture have been attempted it's rarely applied. Efforts to streamline requirements have been unsuccessful, in part because the Senate is reluctant to interfere with the institution of free debate, which incorporates the right to speak on anything no matter how irrelevant--even if it is simply to keep the floor.

Today's tradition of filibuster in the US Senate is very strong and has been employed by assorted alliances of Senators for a great variety of reasons. The example Pseudo_Intellectual mentions was a filibuster led by conservatives resisting civil-rights legislation in the 1960s. Beginning in 1945 Congress had considered a civil rights bill every year, but didn't pass one until 1957. Eventually The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on February 10 by a vote of 290 to 130. Two weeks later, the U.S. Senate voted the bill onto the Senate calendar, sidestepping the Judiciary Committee that was dominated by members from the southern states. "On June 10, 1964, the Senate adopted a motion-for-cloture vote that ended a filibuster on the bill, 71 to 29, and on June 19, 1964, the Senate passed its own version of the Civil Rights Act by a vote of 73 to 27. The House approved the Senate bill on July 2, 1964, and President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law the same day." Today's filibusters are not officially constrained to the U.S. Senate, but that's where the tactic works best and given the peculiar rules of the Senate the term filibuster is most often used in reference to that body.


The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology edited by Robert K. Barnhart (New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1988).

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1990).

Take Our Word For It Issue 42

Online Etymology Dictionary

Walker, William:

Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1997).

Word Detective:


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