28 June 2007

Speaker of the House

Why is the presiding officer in the House of Representatives called the Speaker? and not (as in the Senate) the President or President pro tem, or (as in committees on both sides) the chairman, chairwoman, or chair?

Why "Speaker"?

I've heard that this is the case throughout the English-speaking world. Countries that used to be England's colonies have bicameral assemblies. One of those chambers is more "popular" than the other -- more frequent elections and all that. The popular assembly is presided over, in each case, by a Speaker. Why?

I half-believe that the practice dates to -- or at least was cemented by -- an event in 1642. Tensions were rising between the high-Church King and the low-Church House of Commons. Charles I and armed servants of his entered the House of Commons in hopes of arresting some MPs that he considered especially incendiary.

In those days, there weren't any cable news shows, and Charles didn't necessarily know what a particular MP looked like. He was the guy who had signed such-and-such a pamphlet, that was all. So the King walked up to the presiding officer, William Lenthall, and asked that Lenthall point out the perps he wanted.

Lenthall replied,: "May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here."

Soon, England was at war with itself, and in due course, Parliament had King Charles executed.

This story explains why no subsequent monarch has set foot in the House of Commons.

But does it also really explain why people with the same function as Lenthall are called the Speaker? What title did Lenthall himself, or his precursors, have?

I'd love further explication from some wise reader of this humble blog.


Cicily Corbett said...

From wikipedia--for what it's worth:

The office of Speaker dates to the 14th century. The Speaker presides over the House's debates, determining which members may speak....The office of Speaker is almost as old as Parliament itself. The earliest year for which a presiding officer has been identified is 1258, when Peter de Montfort presided over the Parliament held in Oxford. Early presiding officers were known by the title parlour or prolocutor. The first "Speaker" of the House of Commons was Sir Thomas Hungerford, who took office in 1376....

Christopher said...

Thank you, wise reader. That makes sense, since "parlour" has the same etymology as the word "parliament" itself, and by Hungerford's time there was presumably an interest in Anglicizing those fancy Norman French terms. I like the Lenthall story better, though.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.