John Larrysson's Column: Universal Suffrage &c.

Many people have been demanding universal suffrage for Hong Kong. However they seem to be misusing the word. The term universal suffrage means the right of all citizens (formerly, all men) over a certain age, to vote in elections. Universal means everything, or in this case, everyone. Suffrage takes more explaining. 

[audio 1]

Suffrage does not mean to suffer. Suffer came from the Old French sofrir (Originally from the Latin sufferre) meaning to endure and tolerate. The Norman French colonial government in England made people suffer; so much that they replaced the Old English word þolian which had the same meaning. Suffrage came directly from Medieval Latin suffragium meaning the vote and a voting tablet. Suffrage more recently has taken on the meaning the right to vote. A 20th century version of suffrage is suffragette meaning a female supporter of the cause of women's right to vote.*

[audio 2]

In Hong Kong all adult permanent residents have the right to vote in the local elections. Hong Kong has had universal suffrage since 1991 with the first legislative council elections. As a comparison, the UK first had universal suffrage in 1928. At that time, the United States of America did not allow people of African ancestry to vote in many places, so it did not have universal suffrage. The real question to ask is does the United States have universal suffrage today? 

[audio 3]

The UK has universal suffrage, but one does not get to vote for who the next king or queen will be. The concept of universal suffrage does not mean that the elections are free and fair or that they elect people with any power or authority. Hong Kong has never elected any of its colonial governors and only indirectly its chief executives. Universal suffrage in British Hong Kong never meant that the governor was elected. 

There are other words for how fair an election is. Next time I will explain the words for unfair elections. 

[audio 4]

* Adding -ette or -ess to the end of a word makes a female version of the word. Sometimes such words are rather sexist, such as manageress and brunette.

Related articles:

What do political words mean?


Protester, Demonstrator & Rioter

by John Larrysson [email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


NOTE: Starting in 2016, this column has been published once every two weeks, on every other Tuesday.

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