This article is a preview from the Winter 2017 edition of New Humanist.

referendum (from Latin, gerund of referre, “to bring or take back”)

As the UK thrashes itself to a froth in the wake of the EU referendum, a much more serious issue has emerged: is the plural of “referendum”, “referenda” or “referendums”? No surprise that the word comes from Latin, though not from the Romans. It was a mid-18th-century coinage, meaning a proposal referred to other people for approval. The “other people” in this early use were the heads of regional authorities.

That first specific use faded away and was ­replaced by the one we are familiar with today: the process of the whole electorate being asked to vote on a single political question. The first time the word was used in this sense in Britain was in 1816 in a ­Morning Chronicle article about a proposed referendum in Switzerland.

The word “referendum” focuses our attention on the idea that the issue is referred to the people. At first glance, “referendum” possibly looks as if it could mean the “thing that someone has made reference to”. Let’s say, “he referred to his uncle”, so his uncle could be the “referendum”. But no. The way Latin grammar works is that if you put that “-endum” on the end of the stem of a verb, you create the meaning “the thing to be referred or passed over to”.

Slight problem: we don’t use the word that way. If we did, “referendum” would refer to the issue being voted on, and not the vote itself. Membership of the EU would be the “referendum”, not the voting.

So be it. But are we any nearer to deciding: is it “referendums” or “referenda”? In a nit-picking, ­etymological sort of a way, “referenda” means in this cod-Latin “things or issues to be referred to the people”, but the plural of “referendum” in the way we use the word today means two votes not two issues. Every time you hear someone say “referenda” you can have a little chuckle to yourself that it may well sound as if they’re getting their Latin right, but in fact, they’ve got it arsy-versy.

Step forward “referendums”, then? Yes, it’s a fine example of how languages borrow foreign words and then nativise them.