Editorials: Referendums: Yes or No? – When is it a referendum, and when is it a plebiscite? | Neal Ascherson/The New York Review of Books

Last week brought two passionate and dramatic popular votes for independence, in Iraqi Kurdistan and in Catalonia, Spain. Everyone, even those who dismissed both votes as illegal and meaningless, called them “referendums.” But were they? In practice, the two terms—”referendum” and “plebiscite”—are hopelessly tangled.   My young friend Joan (a male name in his country) has just voted Yes to the question “Should Catalonia become an independent republic?” He emails me: “I casted [sic] my ballot with watering eyes,” and a photo shows him smiling in order to hold back tears as he puts his vote in the box. This he calls a referendum. My late, far older friend Willy, who was a German schoolboy in 1921, got a French bayonet in his backside during a plebiscite. Germany and the resurrected Polish state were both claiming the coal and steel basin of Upper Silesia. Two bloody uprisings had solved nothing. So the Allied Powers at Versailles arranged a plebiscite, district by district, to determine the borders.