August 6, 2014

Case File #014.08.06: CABAL

Contrary to tradition and popular belief, the noun cabal did not originate as a seventeenth-century political acronym. While it's true that the five nefarious noblemen—that is, Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley-Cooper, and Lauderdale—who comprised the Privy Council of Britain's Charles II were often referred to collectively as the Cabal (or sometimes as the Cabal Ministry), the word was neither coined specifically for them nor formed from the initial letters of their names. (That these letters can be used to spell cabal is mere coincidence, though one that has likely fueled the acronym myth.) The noun cabal actually entered the English lexicon in the early sixteenth century, about 100 years or so before Charles II or the members of his Privy Council were born, only back then its meaning had little, if any, connection with conspiracy or intrigue. In fact, the word originally meant “a Jewish or otherwise arcane interpretation of the Old Testament,” and this isn't too surprising when you consider that its roots wind all the way back to the post-Biblical Hebrew word qabbalah (often transliterated as kabbalah), which itself means “a received or traditional Jewish method for mystically interpreting the Hebrew scriptures.” Medieval Latin borrowed the Hebrew to form the word cabballa, and this subsequently passed into French as cabale. Around 1530, English borrowed the French but Anglicized it to cabal, and it was about a century or so later, when Charles II and his future advisers were still in diapers, that both the English word and its French cognate lost their association with religious arcana and came to mean “a private group or clique, especially one that meets for purposes of conspiracy or political intrigue” and “a secret scheme or plot.”

©2014 Michael R. Gates

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