At a certain webpage, someone claimed that the term prime minister was originally intended as a joke. I don't get see the jokiness in it.

“Prime Minister” was also originally a joke at the expense of Sir Robert Walpole. Now it's a standard political term used all over the world.

I have google researched the subject but didn't got anything informative. Is it a play on words that I'm simply missing or is there a cultural connotation to it that I'm ignorant about?


1 Answer 1


From the Oxford English Dictionary:

First used to designate the chief minister of certain non-British rulers. In British use, originally merely a descriptive title for the minister considered to be chief among the advisers to the monarch (as Lord Burghley or the Earl of Leicester under Elizabeth I). Sir Robert Walpole was the first political leader to whom the term was (frequently disparagingly) applied with any consistency, coinciding with George I's withdrawal from attendance at cabinet meetings (1717). The term became more widely used as, under William Pitt the Younger and his successors, the position took on more political importance and gained a higher profile.

From Wikipedia:

The term prime minister in its French form, premier ministre, is attested in 17th Century sources referring to Cardinal Richelieu after he was named to head the royal council in 1624. The title was however informal ... The term prime minister in the sense that we know it originated in the 18th century in the United Kingdom when members of parliament disparagingly used the title in reference to Sir Robert Walpole. During the whole of the 18th Century, Britain was involved in a prolonged conflict with France, periodically bursting into all-out war, and Britons took outspoken pride in their "Liberty" as contrasted to the "Tyranny" of French Absolute Monarchy; therefore, being implicitly compared with Richelieu was no compliment to Walpole. Over time, however, the title became honorific and remains so in the 21st century.

So, it isn't accurate to say that the term began as a joke, but this is a reference to the way it was used the first time when it was first applied in its modern sense to British politics.

  • I see. Just to be perfectly clear - are you saying that the claim made by the poster at the link provided in the question is incorrect and they are mistaken (alternatively making things up)? Dec 10, 2017 at 17:05
  • 1
    They aren't making things up: there is an element of truth in what they said. But essentially yes, they are wrong. The term "prime minister" was already occasionally used (in earnest, not as a joke) pre-Walpole. However, as a consistently applied term, which gradually became official, it only goes back to its use to describe Walole in the 18th century... and those applying the term may have been (in many cases) disparaging Walpole by implicitly comparing him to poorly regarded foreign leaders such as Richelieu.
    – rjpond
    Dec 10, 2017 at 17:14

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .