A History of the Word “Gubernatorial”

Where I live in Illinois, the race for Governor in 2018 is starting to heat up which typically means more politicians will be going to jail. A couple of months back, I saw Democratic candidate for Governor Chris Kennedy speak, and while blogging about it, pondered why gubernatorial is used rather than governal. There is fascinating history behind the word “gubernatorial” which I am happy to share with you in this essay.

The origins of the word “gubernatorial” can be traced back to the pre-Civil War Deep South. Back in those days (and still today in some southern states), educated people were mocked and ridiculed. Those literate types running for public office like governor were regularly called derogatory names. One of the most popular derogatory name thrown at candidates was “goober.”

At southern political rallies in the early 1800’s, one could always hear taunts of “hey you goober!” directed at the candidates. Southerners are not known for being long-winded, and as the 1800’s drew close to the mid-point, the “you” in “hey you goober” was combined with the “goober” part to create a single word taunt of “guber!”

As a side note, producers of the old Andy Griffith Show originally planned for two country-bumpkin brothers on the show named Guber and Gomer Pyle, eventually played respectively by George Lindsey and Jim Nabors. Lindsey was a Southern history fanatic, and only agreed to play one of the brothers if the original spelling “Goober” was used, and that is how George Lindsey became Goober Pyle rather than Guber Pyle.


Lindsey turned the Goober Pyle character into a career, portraying Goober on other shows like Mayberry R.F.D and Hee Haw. Little known about Lindsey is the fact that he was African-American, and was a believer that the Confederacy had won the Civil War. In order to avoid being discovered and returned to his suspected roots in slavery, Lindsey lived most of his life and portrayed the Goober Pyle character while wearing whiteface. Here is a rare shot of him without make-up …


Anyway, back to gubernatorial. In the pre-Civil War Deep South, governors were not chosen at the ballot box, but more often than not, at the ole swimmin’ hole. Candidates would swim across the pond and back, and the winner became governor. In the Deep South, the loser was sometimes eaten by a gator. The race for governor in the Deep South was commonly referred to as the “goober race across the swimmin’ hole.” That eventually was shortened to “guber swimmin” as the Civil War drew nigh.

After the North beat the South in the Civil War, the Reconstruction era saw attempts to standardize life across the USA. In a concession to the South, the North decided to adopt the term “guber swimmin” to denote races for governor. Educated Northerners decided to make it sound a little more official, so they took the Latin verb nato meaning “I swim,” and substituted that for “swimmin.” That is how elections for governor went from being known as “guber swimmin” to “gubernatorial.”

You can believe this because you read it online!


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