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The filibuster is back, in all its swashbuckling glory

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Sometimes, studying the derivation of a word can add to your understanding of the thing that word describes.

Take “filibuster.” It’s been in the news a lot lately. Maybe you heard – a Republican, Scott Brown, won the special election in Massachusetts to fill the late Democrat Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat. The GOP now has 41 senators, enough to filibuster Senate action to a standstill.

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That happened for the first time in the Senator Brown era on Feb. 9, with the Republican Senate caucus successfully blocking President Obama's choice of a union lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board, one Craig Becker. 

Well, the English term “filibuster” probably comes from an old Dutch word for “pirate,” with stops in French and Spanish along the way.

To early-19th-century Americans, “filibuster” meant “an adventurer intent on overthrowing a foreign country.” William Walker, who invaded Mexico in 1853 at the head of a private army, was perhaps the most notorious filibuster of the age.

The word entered Washington’s lexicon about the time Walker was arranging his own election as president of Nicaragua. In the mid-19th century, the press and public began calling lawmakers who seized the Senate floor, so as to prevent a bill’s passage, “filibusters.” (They were pirating the chamber’s proceedings, see?)

Who knew etymology could be so exotic? Decoder had to stop writing for a moment there. The mental image of Johnny Depp demanding a quorum call was just too much.

Also, please put those cutlasses down – Decoder is not calling Republicans pirates. Both parties threaten to filibuster to block things they don’t like, when they’re in the minority.

No, what we find interesting here is how a word that today defines a type of interparty warfare, a clash of teams, used to refer to individuals.

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The filibuster used to be a revolt, not against the other party, but against the Senate itself. The senator doing the talking could be a lone swashbuckler, of a sort.

Populist Louisiana Democrat Huey Long was perhaps the greatest individual practitioner of this sort of rogue obstructionism. On June 12, 1935, he grabbed the Senate floor and held it for 15 hours straight, talking about everything from Shakespeare to salad-dressing recipes in his attempt to retain a provision in a bill that was opposed by the Roosevelt administration.

By the end, Long – once described as “a circus hitched to a tornado” – was asking spectators in the gallery to suggest subjects for further gab. He did not stop until the morning of June 13, when, hoarse and exhausted, he ceded the floor and stumbled off toward a men’s room.

His proposal was defeated.

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