When bullet first appeared in print in English, it described a cannonball of metal or stone. The cannons in use back then often had a tapered barrel, because cannonballs varied in size. You simply shoved the ball down the barrel until it got stuck, then you lit the fuse. If the barrel was made of wood, as they sometimes were, and the ball was really wedged in tightly, the back of the cannon would sometime exploded in one’s face. A few years after 1557 the word bullet was being used the way it is today, to describe a small ball of lead fired from a pistol or other gun of small calibre.

Bullet comes from the French boulette, meaning “little ball,” and ballot comes from the Italian ballota, also meaning “little ball.” A bullet looks like a ball, but a ballot is simply a sheet of paper we mark on election day. It comes from the Italian word for “little ball” because balls have often been used in elections.

The ancient Greeks voted by dropping a white stone ball into a container when they favoured a candidate and a black stone ball when they didn’t. Even today we speak of someone being blackballed from a club.

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