Word History

Registering the Politics of 'Register'

We hope this article registers with you.

What to Know

Register has a long history of being associated with politics and voting. As a noun, register (or registry) refers to an official list (such as, of people who are able to vote), and as a verb register refers to the act of enrollment on that list. The word register has a longer history of being associated with record keeping and enrollment but became heavily associated with voting toward the 19th century.

woman filling out voter registration

Making it official

First off, if qualified, did you register to vote? If not, we encourage you to add your name to the register of voters in your district or state. The meaning of the word register in the preceding statements, as a verb and as a noun, registers with the majority, but how exactly did register become registered in the language of politics?

The History of 'Register' and Voting

Register was elected to be the word for an official list of people entitled to vote in political elections as early as the late 18th century.

… the Elector of Mentz availed himself of the measure suggested by the Court of Munich, in order to communicate to the Diet in his capacity of Arch Chancellor, through his Directorial Minister, the important proposition, of which the following is the tenor: "His Eminence the Elector has heard through his Minister the Diet of the Empire, that the register for voters had been opened in the three colleges of the Empire on the Aulic Imperial decrees relative to the quintuple, and that the two superior colleges had actually concluded their votes on that subject."
The Northern Star (Belfast, Northern Ireland), 10 Nov. 1794

A frequent collocation applying this politically-charged sense of the noun is "a register of voters," and registry became a viable synonymous candidate for register in the early 19th century, about when registration was nominated as the word for the process by which a person's name is added to the official list of voters. This example attests to early usage of both nouns used in "voting" context.

Lord Nugent moved, for leave to bring in a bill for the registration of the names of persons qualified to vote for the election of members of parliament. The objects of his bill were, that a registry should be kept by the returning officer, of the number, names, descriptions, and qualifications of electors—that the returning officer should hold a court four times a year, for taking a registry of qualified voters— ... that each voter should receive from the returning officer a certificate of the entry of his name, which certificate should be equivalent as an evidence of his qualification to the registry itself— ... that no person should be allowed to vote who had not been registered twelve months before the election, with the exception of such as obtained their elective franchise by death, inheritance, or office, or any act not their own—and that authentic copies of the registry should be published at a low price.
The Guardian (London), 31 May 1828

Early Use of 'Register'

Both registry and registration were enrolled in English much earlier, however. They trace back to the 16th century. Early use of registry designates a book or system for keeping an official list or record of items, or a place where official records are kept. Registration, on the other hand, has been, since its election to English, the word for the act or process of entering information about something in a book, list, or system, and later for a document showing that something has been officially registered. Here are some examples of both.

I have been standing in line at the Registry of Motor Vehicles for hours.

Police officer to driver: "License and registration."

The couple spent the afternoon creating their bridal registry. (Registry, here, refers to a gift list kept by a store that is created by a soon-to-be-married couple; it dates to the early 1900s.)

Student registration begins today, and I can't wait to sign up for the course on American lexicography.

Voter registration is at a historical high.

The Origins and Etymology of 'Register'

The nouns are derived from the verb register, which can refer to various acts of enrollment—including the registering of new voters and a person's registering to vote or registering as a voter. The verbal "voting" use goes back to the early 19th century.

But what will the public—the discerning public—say to the fact, that, out of a population exceeding eight millions, and represented by 105 members, there are scarcely one hundred thousand registered voters in the whole of Ireland?
The Morning Chronical (London) 1 Jan. 1840

The grass roots of register—and its derivatives—is Anglo-French registre (a name for a book in which day-to-day affairs are recorded), which itself is rooted in Medieval Latin registrum, an alteration of Late Latin regesta, meaning "things recorded, records." Those Latin terms stem from the past participle of the Latinate regerere, meaning "to bring back, pile up, collect." (The base word gerere means to "to bear" or "to carry," and other gerere-derived English words are digest, exaggerate, and gestation.)

Since the 14th century, register has been generally applied to various records of regularly kept entries of items or details of a particular kind. A register might be a record of the baptisms, marriages, or burials in a parish church, for example, or of the births, marriages, or deaths in a city or town. A "police register" is a record of the daily dealings of a police force. In law, register might refer to a list or a book of patents, property titles, or shareholders, or to a collection of written accounts or entries of government acts or proceedings—or of business transactions. The word can also refer to a roster of qualified or available individuals for some particular end or service, such as "a civil service register," "a medical register" (a register of doctors legally in practice), or "an employment register."

The related verb form is also set down in 14th-century English, originally with the general sense "to record in writing formally and exactly." A bit later it gained the more specific meaning of "to make or secure an official entry of in a register" (often in compliance to the law). Today, the verb register commonly refers to adding information about something or about yourself or your property into a computerized system of records, as in "The company registered its trademark," "The students are currently registering for classes," "The car was registered under another name." But you might find yourself having to "register" at some places by hand with a pen or pencil in the register or registry.

In any case, when you register, you become registered, which means you are the undeniable owner of something or are formally recognized as someone in particular, such as a registered voter, student, guest, etc.



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