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Word History

Where Does the Word 'Delegate' Come From?

From 'ambassador' to 'a representative to a convention or conference'

We're hearing a lot about delegates this election season. But where does the word come from?

A legatus in Latin was an “ambassador,” “deputy,” or “provincial governor.” That word came from the verb legare, which means “to send with a commission or charge” or “to appoint as one’s representative.” The term eventually made its way into English as legate: an official representative of the pope, or, later, an official emissary of any kind.


Cardinal Roberto Ubaldino, Papal Legate to Bologna (1627). A 'legate' is an official representative of the Pope; the term eventually acquired the prefix 'de' ("away from oneself") to emphasize the ambassadorial nature of the word. Today, a delegate is "a person who is chosen or elected to vote or act for others."

So how did legate become delegate? The de- in delegate comes from the Latin prefix meaning “away from oneself,” which serves to emphasize the ambassadorial nature of the noun’s meaning. Delegate entered English a few centuries after legate, but with essentially the same meaning. Its use in the contemporary political sense as “a representative to a convention or conference” began in about 1600.

The verb delegate appeared about a century after the noun, meaning “to trust someone with (a job, duty, etc.)” or “to choose (someone) to do something.” The verb and the noun are pronounced differently from each other: the noun is usually pronounced \DEH-luh-get\, but the verb is pronounced \DEH-luh-gate\.

Whether a noun or a verb, the meaning of delegate is simple: a delegate is a person chosen to act in your place, or the act of choosing someone to act for you.

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