The Origin Of The Popular Word Cabal

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Many at times, the word cabal is being used incessantly in our various organizations, association, groups and most especially in politics. 

It is said that from the earliest times, the Sovereigns of England had a body of trusted advisers who became known as the Privy Councillors.

When King Charles II came to the throne (1667-73), a period that covered the third Anglo-Dutch war, he found this large body of privy councillors too unwieldy. He vowed not to discuss the important matters of the State with so many councillors.

He selected a few of his favourites from among them as his closest advisers and would consult them before presenting any matter to the Privy Council.

These selected favourites of the king used to meet in the King’s cabinet, hence the name cabinet. The action of the king was very unpopular and the cabinet was contemptuously referred as the Cabal.

This narrative went on to say that the word cabal was formed from the initial letters of the surnames of the King’s favourites, Sir Thomas Clifford, Henry Bennet (Lord Arlington), George Villiers (the Duke of Buckingham), Anthony Ashley Cooper (Earl of Shaftesbury) and John Maitland (Earl of Lauderdale). Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley and Lauderdale — CABAL.

However, the earliest known acronyms date from around the time of the First World War (the military slang AWOL, “Absent Without Leave”, is among the earliest, which newspaper reports around 1918 demonstrate was being said as a pronounceable word) and yet the source of cabal is dated on this theory to an acronymic origin some 250 years earlier.

What scuppers the idea is that cabal is known from earlier in the seventeenth century through usages linked to Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. It came into English via French cabale from medieval Latin cabbala (these days more usually Kabbalah). This is an esoteric secret Jewish system of mystical practices based on a study of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. Kabbalistic teaching was based on oral transmission from a personal guide, so cabal, at first referring directly to the Kabbalah, came to mean a private or semi-secret interpretation. By the middle of the seventeenth century it had developed further to mean some intrigue entered into by a small group and also referred to the group of people so involved.

The word was indeed applied to the five ministers (in a pamphlet issued in 1673), but it was no more than a scurrilous joke based on the accident of their initials. Unfortunately, it’s a joke that has long since gone sour on etymologists, who have to keep explaining the facts, a problem compounded by historians, who continue to refer to the Cabal Ministry as a convenient shorthand.

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