As I looked up in Larousse and other dictionaries, 'ballot' means a package (mostly under a cube form) of stuff for sending, like 'bundle' in English; while in Vietnamese, where a lot of words are borrowed from French, uses 'ballot' as backpack, or 'sac à dos' in French. I asked some of my French friends if they use 'ballot' sometimes as the 'sac à dos' meaning and none of them justify it as 'sac à dos'. Does anyone know the history of 'ballot' and 'sac à dos', is there really any linguistic relation between them?

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    I'm not really surprised of this semantic shift, although if one had guess which word would got it I would have said baluchon (which I associate with personal belongings while I associate ballot with goods). Feb 26, 2014 at 13:32
  • "Ballot" now also has a meaning of something/someone dumb/stupid "tu as perdu ton portefeuille, c'est ballot" ("you lost you wallet, that's too bad"). And interestingly, whe have the term "ballottage" when at an election no candidate has majority on first round (related to "urne (électorale)" which is ballot box in English). Returning to your question, "ballot" also makes me think of a (more or less big) packed bundle of goods, not a backpack.
    – FredP
    Feb 26, 2014 at 13:45
  • The word balluchon hit me once. But from balluchon to ballot under a pronunciation manner is hard to imagine, don't you agree? Plus, as stated in Robert (even Larousse), ballot has another special meaning: paquet individuel, in my opinion, that relates a lot to backpack (sac à dos) meaning, rather than the action of "creating" a 'ballot' or 'sac à dos' (sac à dos is individual right?). About the 'stupid' meaning. Agree, I saw it to, so I had better pay attention. Feb 26, 2014 at 13:54
  • @FredP: All terms surrounding elections ("ballot", "ballotage", etc.) come from Italian ballota that was a small ball used to express the votes. Italian ballota gave ballotte, then "ballot" (for voting) and "boule". Same etymology as "balle"/"ballot" then but the specialized meanings go back a long way. Haven't found (yet) how "ballot" meaning a nitwit relates to this etymology. A metaphoric use maybe for someone clumsy as a cumbersome bundle one has to carry.
    – None
    Feb 26, 2014 at 14:17

1 Answer 1


"Ballot" derives from French "balle".

"Balle" has different meanings nowadays, all deriving from old Germanic word "ball", the word for a small round object, itself from Indo-European root "behl" (blow).

Until the 17th century "balle" was used in French to name a bundle of goods, usually wrapped up in a piece of cloth. (Nowadays we'd translate "ballot" as "bundle" into English) "Ballot" is a small "balle", i.e. a small bundle one could carry on their backs and was first used in the 15th century.
The word "ballot" later gave another diminutive balluchon.

"Sac à dos" is a twentieth century word, the direct translation of German Rucksack and it is nothing else than a sophisticated "ballot" with two straps that go over the shoulders for easy carrying. The first "sacs à dos" were made of heavy cloth, they are the direct offsprings of the "ballots".

My answer derives from various entries in Le Dictionnaire historique de la langue française (Alain Rey & al).

  • Actually, I think "balle" can still be used in a similar acception, at least for a "balle de foin" (hay bale)
    – FredP
    Feb 26, 2014 at 14:02
  • This explains quite something, back to history, the 'ballot' (19th century meaning, somehow as 'sac à dos' nowadays, I assume) is always a backpack of soldiers, and it's usually rounded like a ball. Today it's different, but people have habit of using such word. Feb 26, 2014 at 14:04
  • @FredP: indeed. Same word history. Balle - or ballot - de foin used to be round when rolled with fork and hand, although now machines can make them into parallelepipeds, they're still called "ballots".
    – None
    Feb 26, 2014 at 14:25

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