Being Blackballed – Part 1

Being Blackballed – Part 1

It seems that every English speaker is familiar with the term of “blackballing.” While some people associate it to the eight ball in pool or billiards, it really harkens back to Ancient Greece, and became an established part of the English language in 1770. It means the same thing today that it meant in 1770, or in Ancient Greece – to be rejected by adverse votes.

The function of “black balling” actually comes from the societies of Ancient Athens, where citizens were sometimes ostracized. Each year, during the Athenian assembly, the populace was asked if they wanted to perform an ostracism. If a particular city-state felt that a particular candidate for public office was effectually bad in the populace’s eyes (or, in some cases, might be bad), they would cast a secret ballot by writing the names of the person to be ostracized on a piece of pottery (ostraka). It’s speculated that some of the pottery shards were light in color and others dark. Names would be scratched into the shards on the black pieces and cast into an urn. After the balloting was counted, that person with the highest votes (6000 or more were needed) was ostracized for ten years. They could return after ten years with no loss of status, no loss of property, and no stigma. It was seen as a way to neutralize what might be an impending threat without any detriment to any party involved. Of course, the penalty for returning early, if not invited back, was death. Indeed, many were asked back in times of emergency or immediate threat.

Black pottery shards eventually became small balls of stone or wood, colored black and white, and urns became boxes made of wood. Many Freemasons would immediately recognize an early American (U.S.) ballot box as it is strikingly familiar to the ballot boxes used in Masonic Lodges today. The type of secret ballot used by Freemasons today originated in the mid-seventeenth century by not only governmental parties but gentlemen’s clubs, fraternities, and of course societies like Freemasonry. For significant choices facing the groups, such as admittance or expulsion, secret ballots are taken and then counted, the outcome such as rejection on admittance or approval of expulsion were enacted based on a specific count of black balls.

Hence, to be black balled is generally not good.

Balloting, or the original word, ballota comes from medieval Venice, where small balls were used in balloting by citizens (1540). At some point in history, these two terms coincided, ostracism and balloting, and today we have black-balled. Where voting is the raising of hands and out in the open, balloting is secret, hidden, and anonymous. While voting appears to be “light,” balloting implies a heavy judgement. One wonders, then, why we approve of anonymity when balloting? Why not take responsibility for so heavy a decision?

Perhaps it leaves the space for someone to be able to make that decision with a free mind and not be weighted down by the herd response of approval or disapproval. We seem to shun those who speak their minds and stand up for what is just and right. That may be a subject for another blog.

It does seem that one should put some care and thought into how they cast a ballot. We ask ourselves, when would I ever cast a black ball? What reasons could I give for supporting rejection of an applicant or expulsion from a group, rejection of an initiative or stalling someone’s progress in an organization? Who am I to judge? That seems to be a cop out. We are perfectly equipped to judge, as were are either the recipients of or the adherents to a particular group, government or organization. We passed. We were approved, for one reason or another. We are rational, thinking human beings and part of society – we are fully equipped to judge.

But do we judge well? “Justice to the applicant – we are taught to render justice to every man, not merely to Masons – requires that no black cube be cast for little reasons, small reasons, mean reasons,” wrote an anonymous, Ancient Free and Accepted Mason. This thought process should be taken by all humans, not just Freemasons, and in all situations, not just Lodge ballots. I’d say it should also not be for reasons of ego, personal gain, or to inflict punishment. We should be able to justify our ballots by reason, by well-considered examination of the facts, and a stoic assessment of what is better for humanity, the immediate humanity or the larger collective.

Most who cast ballots do not, also, attend to their own part in the process. We seem to cast ballots in a vacuum. Let others figure out the best candidate for the office, let some organization tell me what initiative is best for the way I think, or let others direct who should be included in my organization and who should not be. I trust them. Let them do the work. How infrequently do we actually read through the pros and cons of an initiative on a ballot, consistently – every election? What about reading through the minutes of our elected official’s meetings, or do a background check on an applicant, or better yet, get to know them? How often do we take our own personal lives out of the equation and figure out what would be better for humanity, not just better for our own little personal human?

If we don’t know the reasons for casting a ballot as we do, or cast it out of ignorance, how can we be entrusted with the welfare of humanity? Being a citizen, a legal inhabitant of a country which affords you its protection, requires a payment in return; that payment is to follow its rules and join in a common effort to create a positive, thriving society that creates safety for everyone. Citizenship is a very Western idea, again rooted in Ancient Greece and Rome, the concept is akin to a Freemasons Lodge. Each person who is a Freemason has a responsibility to the Lodge as she does to her own country: to participate in the creation of a positive thriving society of free-thinkers, educators, and promoters of humanity. It seems that the methods of a Freemason’s Lodge are akin to what we would like to see in our societies, our countries. Participation is key – in all aspects of our lives. This is a very practical application of Freemasonry: to learn how to participate fully, judge well, and learn how to improve the world around us. It starts with a Lodge. It can become so much more.


Part 2 will focus on why would we cast a black ball, and what does it mean to be black-balled.

The American Lexicon: The Bikini, Ground Zero, and Meeting on the Level

The American Lexicon: The Bikini, Ground Zero, and Meeting on the Level

Can we communicate effectively without understanding the origin and history of our common language? The American Lexicon includes many terms that Americans utilize often without knowing where the phrase originated. The English word “lexicon” is derived from Greek words “lexis,” translated as “speech,” and “legein” translated as “to say.”

Defined as “the words used in a language or by a person or group of people,” lexicon encapsulates a multitude of words and phrases, including “Google” which most people now attribute to the sea7liberalartsandsciencesrch engine without realizing that the company’s name is a clever spelling of the mathematical term Googol. Coined by U.S. mathematician Edward Kasner in the late 1930s, “Googol is a noun meaning, “a number that is equal to 1 followed by 100 zeros.”  

Freemasons are encouraged to study the Liberal Arts and Sciences: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.  Grammar teaches us the system and structure of a language, including word meaning, punctuation, verb tense, and sentence structure. Proper understanding of the art of grammar  provides a strong foundation for studying and mastering rhetoric, or the art of persuasion.  Rhetoric can understood as the ability to communicate effectively through the establishment of common ground between speaker and listener.  Is the study of etymology an integral component in mastering the arts of grammar and rhetoric? 

The study of etymology provides an enhanced ability to understand and communicate, thus improving our grammatical and rhetorical skills. By studying grammar through the lens of etymology, one begins to see patterns and gain understanding about the development of the English language.  Comprehending the history of words and phrases helps to establish rhetorical ethos allowing for appeals to the audience’s beliefs, history, morals, or ideals. Studying etymology, including a phrase’s history, original meaning, and present usage, can provide clarification of meaning that can be otherwise lost or misconstrued by the passage of time. 

The American Lexicon: Ground Zero

After September 11, 2001, the term “Ground Zero” was permanently affixed to the tragedy at the World Trade Center. Few people realize that the term was originally coined by the physicists of the Manhattan Project at the U.S. Atomic Bomb testing site in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Known under the code name Trinity, the test was the first detonation of a nuclear weapon conducted by the United States Army on July 16, 1945. The phrase, however, did not enter the American Lexicon until the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a June 1946 report, the phrase “Ground Zero” was used to describe the spot on the ground directly underneath the aerial detonation of the atomic bombs:  the spot in the air was called “air zero” and the spot on the ground was called “ground zero.” Following World War II, the report received tremendous attention from the press and the public. Becoming part of the lexicon, the general public used the term in reference to a nuclear bomb during the years of the Cold War.

In the latter part of 20th Century, “Ground Zero” was symbolically expanded to mean the “center of an explosion” or the site of activity where an explosion has occurred. American Language Expert, Ben Zimmer, explained that during this period the phrase, 911-GroundZero-TwinTowers“developed a kind of metaphorical meaning. Some people used it to mean, basically, the same thing as square one. So, back to ground zero, back to the original place.”

When the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, the press referred to the site as “Ground Zero,” and so it was already attributed to the World Trade Towers prior to 9/11. An ABC News Correspondent, John Miller was the first person to use the term in 2001. As a former deputy police commissioner of New York City, he was on scene reporting by 1:25 p.m. that day. Interviewing police officers he stated, “these are the stories of people who were there at ground zero when the first building fell.” The phrase was repeated in the evening broadcasts on the 11th, and it quickly became part of the American Lexicon used to describe the site of bombings in New York City.

The American Lexicon: The Bikini

Popularized by the actress Annette Funicello in the 1963 film “ Beach Party,” the ladies’ swimsuit known as the “Bikini” is well known in America. Although today the Bikini is ubiquitous within American culture, many people are unaware that the bikini also derives its name from a nuclear explosion. In the 1940s, Louis Réard, a French aspiring fashion designer, entrepreneur, and mechanical engineer, noParisPoolticed that women on the beaches of St. Tropez were rolling up the edges of their swimsuits to get a better tan. Mr. Réard was inspired to design and produce a swimsuit with less fabric which exposed the wearer’s navel for the first time. His bikini consisted of four triangles made from 30 square inches of fabric.

Holding a press conference to unveil his work, Louis Réard introduced his design to the media and public on July 5, 1946, in Paris at Piscine Molitor, a public pool in Paris.  Réard named his creation the “bikini,” inspired by the explosion of an atomic bomb by the U.S. Military at the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean five days earlier. The first nuclear weapon tests since Trinity in New Mexico, the United States tested two nuclear weapons at the Bikini Atoll under the name Operation Crossroads. The purpose of the tests was to investigate the effect of nuclear weapons on warships, and Operation Crossroads was the first nuclear test to be publicly announced and attended by a live audience including a large press corps. A fleet of 95 target ships was assembled in Bikini Lagoon and hit with two detonations of Fat Man plutonium implosion-type nuclear weapons, each yielding 23 kilotons of TNT. With a large press corps in attendance, the nuclear testing at the Bikini operationcrossroadsAtoll was a huge international press event with obvious impacts on popular culture and the international lexicon.

Réard reportedly termed his swimsuit the “bikini” because he believed its revealing style would create reactions among people similar to those created by the explosion of a nuclear bomb. His belief proved accurate as the “bikini” shocked the press and public because it was the first to reveal the woman’s navel. Less than a month after the swimsuit was unveiled to the public,  the U.S. military conducted the second atomic test of Operation Crossroads at the Bikini Atoll and named the bomb Helen of Bikini, which was detonated 90 feet underwater on July 25, 1946.

Whether the U.S. Military named the bomb in reference to  Réard’s creation is unclear. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that Greek women wore two-piece swimsuits, resembling the “bikini,” for athletic purposes, as depicted on Greek urns and paintings dating back to 1400 B.C. Regardless, the American public was shocked by the navel-revealing “bikini” and the swimsuit was not worn by the general public until the 1960s.

The American Lexicon: Meeting on the Level

Freemasonry was founded on the principal of the equality of all of mankind, symbolically illustrated by the builder’s tool of a level.  Although LevelPlayingFieldthe phrase, “Meeting on the Level,” is less commonly heard in today’s vernacular, it was once a staple of the American Lexicon. Today, Americans are more likely to use the expression, “meeting on a level playing field,” which denotes a situation where neither party has an advantage over the other.

In sports where the game operates on a playing field, such as Football, one team would have an unfair advantage if the field sloped in one direction. In order to make things equal or level regardless of any defects in a playing field, it is customary in American sports for teams to swap ends of the playing field at half-time.

In American Politics, the concept of a level playing field is often referenced in Presidential speeches regarding individuals’ access to education, employment, and health-care. On September 2, 2004, Former U.S. President George W. Bush used the phrase stating, “To create jobs, we will expand trade and level the playing field to sell American goods and services across the globe.” Similarly, President Barack Obama often discusses the importance of a “level playing field.” In a speech given on January 30, 2009, he expressed, “We need to level the playing field for workers and the unions that represent their interests, because we know that you cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement.”