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Word of the Week: 'petition'


We take a closer look at the words and phrases that are trending online and in the media. This week: ‘petition’.


It’s been a big week for parliament.

The ‘People’s vote’ march on Saturday saw an estimated one million people take to the streets of London waving placards to protest Brexit. Since then, a petition – asking the government to revoke Article 50 and reconsider its plan to leave the EU – continues to grow and has just passed the five million mark, much to many cynics’ surprise. This makes it the most popular petition on the parliament website ever, and as historians report: the biggest petition to parliament in history. 

As a result, ‘revoke 50 petition’, ‘petition to revoke’, ‘revoke Brexit petition’ (basically every combination of those words you can imagine) have become breakout searches (meaning search volume has increased by 5000%) on Google Trends as people clamour to digitally sign their name.

As the anti-Brexit clan in the UK turn their hopeful eyes to the word ‘petition’ , and the government plans to debate the petition in parliament next week, we thought it would be worth diving in and discovering what it actually means.

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Where does ‘petition’ come from?

The word itself as a noun dates back to early 14th century Old French: “a supplication of prayer, especially to a deity” and draws from the Latin ‘petitionem’ meaning: “a blow, thrust, attack, aim”.

The first incarnation of a ‘petition’ as we know it was in Ancient Egyptian times, when slaves building the pyramids petitioned for better working conditions. 

Petitioning really took off as a form of protest in the UK in between the 18th and 20th centuries, when it is thought one million petitions were submitted to parliament between 1780 and 1918. The largest of these was the petition of Chartists. A mass call from the working classes to make the political system more democratic – can anyone spot a parallel?

Officially, a ‘petition’ is defined as: “a document signed by a large number of people demanding or asking for some action from the government or another authority.”

Rather emotively, its synonyms include ‘cry’, ‘entreaty, ‘plea’ and ‘prayer’.

It’s also known as: “a request made for something desired, especially a respectful or humble request, as to a superior or to one of those in authority; a supplication of prayer”.

We think the petition to reverse Brexit could be considered a “humble request” by many – at least for  approximately half the country who didn’t vote for it. “Please Mrs May, don’t make us leave the EU against our will”, they cry. You see? Humble.

Of course, the question many people are asking is, does it mean anything? Lots of people sign petitions without really expecting much to change. We’ve all dabbled with petitions like “Give everyone their birthday off” and the “Make the Eurovision song contest a national holiday” in the past. Things we may feel passionate about (yes, really), but don’t necessarily expect to come to fruition.

It is thought by academics that people generally sign ‘petitions’ “out of a sense of duty and self-expression” and to “discharge their own personal sense of responsibility.” By signing, we might feel like we’ve done our bit to tackle whatever burning injustice lands in our inbox. 

Today however, parliament officially responded to the petition by agreeing to debate revoking Article 50 next week, despite being set on honouring ‘the will of the people’. 

Like the original Latin meaning of’ ’petition’ – “a blow, a thrust, an attack, an aim” – the same fierce rhetoric of battle is being used around this Brexit petition. The retired lecturer who started the petition (and received death threats for doing so) has – in a tweet – called for more people to sign: “the battle draws nigh again, show your mettle”.

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Whether seen as a supplication or a blow, for many this is a last, galvanised, desperate attempt to turn this whole thing around, putting the Brexiteers to bed and restoring order. Possibly in time for the summer holidays, and continued easy travel and a good exchange rate.

Read more:

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Word of the Week: ‘self-made’