Q From Jennifer Painter: A recent piece on the NBC Nightly News included the origin of the word lobbyist. The host, Brian Williams, explained that the word originated with President Ulysses S Grant, who liked to get out of the White House and often went to Washington’s Willard Hotel for brandy and cigars. Anyone who wanted access to the President to make their mark on Presidential politics would know to find him in the lobby there. President Grant was the first to refer to these DC power brokers as lobbyists. This was presented as part of the story on Washington’s new ban on smoking in bars and restaurants and how it brings to an end the era of politics conducted in smoke-filled rooms. I hadn’t previously heard this. Is it correct?
A This old tale has become so embedded in the unconscious of the US nation that it sometimes appears in quite reputable reference works. But it isn’t true; even a perfunctory look at the history of the word shows it can’t be.
You only have to look at the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. The first example given there appeared in the Cornhill Magazine in January 1863. Grant was president from 1869 to 1877, so the word was in use before he took office. A further nail in the coffin of the tale might be that the Cornhill Magazine was British, not American. But using electronic archives and casting my net wide for your delectation, I’ve been able to find examples of it in US newspapers a few years earlier still, including this from The Lafayette County Herald of Shullsburg, Wisconsin, dated 15 January 1857:
In classifying the lobby members of Congress the female representatives of the ‘third house’ occupy no unimportant position. Indeed, I may say that one experienced female lobbyist is equal to any three schemers of the other sex with whom I am acquainted.
It would not be surprising to find still earlier examples. The job of the lobbyist had by then existed, unnamed, for many years (though third house, the humorous collective term for them mentioned in the piece above, is known in the US from the 1840s). The OED’s first example of the collective term lobby meaning “persons who frequent the lobby of the house of legislature for the purpose of influencing its members in their official action” is dated 1808.
The original lobby was the one attached to the chamber of the British House of Commons, in which members could meet and talk to outsiders. This sense (and function) is recorded from the middle of the seventeenth century and was adopted in Congress when it was established more than a century later.