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July 26, 2019  |  Friday words #181  |  400 hit(s)

Recent politico-social scandals (not worth mentioning which one, since there's a new one every week) brought another new-to-me term: the missing-stair problem. The term, apparently coined in 2012, describes an unpleasant (or worse) situation, but it's a vivid metaphor.

How many times have we heard about some scandal, and we discover that people who were close to the perpetrator clearly knew that something was going on? (Every time? Seems like it.) The question always arises about how people could have seen the bad behavior, whatever it was, and not have done something about it. This is the missing-stair problem: people recognize that something is wrong, but they (figuratively) step around the issue, as they might do if a stair were broken at their house.

We often see the missing-stair problem in the context of illegal or immoral behavior. But it can apply in other situations. Another example is how a team will accommodate and work around and possibly even excuse the incompetence of a co-worker who's not pulling their weight.

The point is that people get so used to this incorrect state of affairs that they no longer recognize it as a problem. In contrast, people who aren't accustomed to the situation come in and immediately see that something's wrong—just the way that they would see that a missing stair is something to fix, not to step around.

For fun origins this week, I note that it's election time here in Seattle, with a slate of candidates for city council and other local government jobs. Which means we get to pore over the voter guide and divine who the best candidate might be for Port Commissioner, and duly mark our ballot. Why do we call it a ballot?

Oddly, the etymology is right there in the word: ballot is related to the word ball. Once upon a time—which is to say, in medieval Venice—votes were taken by having voters put small, colored balls into a container. The votes were tallied by opening the container and counting the little balls. Not only is ball right there in the word, so is the "small" part: in French, it's ballotte, a diminutive.

The word ballot has relatives in English. A bale is bundle (ball) of merchandise, all tied up. A balloon is another type of ball-like item, which harkens back to the original-original root, which was "blow, swell." That sense of the root also gave us the word phallus. (You do the math.)

A more obvious relative is the term blackball, meaning to vote against, or more generally, to shun. This is directly related to the Venetian system of voting using little balls. Only for blackballing, the voting took place in England, the issue was membership in a club, and the "no" vote against a potential member was a black ball. ("Two balles a white and a blacke to be putt by euery of the counsaill in two seuerall pottes,..the sute to take place if th[eyr] shalbe putt mo white thenne blacke balles.") The literal meaning of a black ball, present in English in the 1500s, evolved into the metaphoric sense of "exclude, shun" by the 1800s.

On our ballot, we use a #2 pencil to fill in little circles. In a weird sense, we're also blacking little balls. Only in our case, of course, a black mark is a vote of confidence.

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