What is a Referendum?
There has been a lot of talk recently about the referendum on membership of the European Union. It seems that we cannot turn on the television without hearing about it! But what is a referendum?
A referendum is a vote, not an election by which we choose the people to represent us, but a choice in which all the people who can vote are asked to accept or reject (not accept) a course of action.
What this means is that voters are called to say yes or no to a question. You might think that this sounds perfectly reasonable; why shouldn’t everyone have a say in what our country is doing? But it is not as simple as that.
Most questions are decided by votes in Parliament; after all, this is why we elect them to represent us, and in practical terms, we cannot all expect to be experts on all the subjects that must be covered by the government. So this doesn’t happen very often.
Referendums in the UK
In fact, in the UK there have only been twelve, yes, just 12 referendums since 1973. Twelve referendums over the course of 43 years, of which only two have covered the entire country. You can see that this is not a large number.
You might be surprised to learn that the first to cover the whole country was in 1975, and it was on membership of the European Economic Community (EEC), which is what the European Union was then known as. The second was in 2011, and related to a reform in the voting system known as Alternative Vote.
All the other major referendums in the UK have been related to questions of devolving power – or the governing of the distinct regions of England, Wales Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Origins of the Word Referendum
The word came into use in English in 1847. But at that time, it was mostly about Switzerland, whose system of direct democracy involved (and continues to involve) a large number of referendums. The word was coined, or created, from Latin referendum, which means “thing to be referred”. This is because, in a referendum, the decision is referred to the people.
The word referendum in Latin is from the verb referre. This verb means “to bring back, to take back’, which is the very essence of a referendum: a question is being brought back to the people who will be affected by it.
What is the Plural of Referendum?
A lot of people think that the plural of referendum is ‘referenda’, but is it really?
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”The Oxford English Dictionary” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Referendum is logically preferable as a plural form meaning ballots on one issue (as a Latin gerund referendum has no plural). The Latin plural gerundive referenda, meaning ‘things to be referred’, necessarily connotes a plurality of issues.[/perfectpullquote]
What does that mean?
A gerund is a grammar term used in Latin and other languages. In Latin, ‘referenda’ would mean ‘more than one thing to be considered’, whereas a referendum as a vote tends to be on one single issue.
We can use ‘referendum’ as a plural if we wish, but ‘referendums’ has also become normalised in English, as the word has been accepted in popular use in English, and of course the usual way to make a plural in English is to add ‘s’.
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Dad walks over to me. He’s carrying several slices of bread.
‘Hi,’ I say, giving him a look which I hope he understands means, I am so not impressed with this new pre-birthday arrangement.
Dad doesn’t seem to have noticed my look. I wonder what he’s doing with the bread.
‘For the ducks,’ he says when he catches me staring at it.
I nod and decide not to mention that I am no longer five years old and that feeding the ducks in the park doesn’t exactly excite me anymore.
‘Right,’ I say, as we head over to the pond.
‘So, Grace, how have you been?’
We sit down on the bench next to the willow tree.
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Some people think stories are just for little kids, but stories are all around us. We watch them on television, we read them in books – we even listen to them when someone’s telling us about their great weekend!
Stories aren’t just fairy tales, they can be about businesswomen and athletes just as much as about princesses and trolls. They can even be about princess-like businesswomen and athletic trolls!
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