Now that U.S. voters are deeply enmeshed in the presidential primary season, I’ve been thinking a lot about the word primary. (Or maybe it was last week’s column on subprime that primed the pump.) Primary and its colleague caucus are distinctly American political terms for the processes by which a party’s candidates are selected, and tracing the usage of these words offers a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of the nation’s electoral process.
Before the advent of direct primaries for the election of presidents and lesser officeholders, candidates for the major political parties were nominated by local policymakers in small meetings known as caucuses. The origin of the word caucus is not certain, but the best guess is that it derives from the Algonquian word cau’-cau’-as’u meaning ‘adviser.’ Though there is no direct evidence of this etymology, it seems plausible given that the earliest known caucuses were clubs in New England, where the use of Native American names was quite popular. Along similar lines, the Narragansett words sachem ‘chief’ and powwow ‘meeting’ were extended into the early American political scene.
The first known use of caucus or caucas has generally been assumed to be a diary entry by John Adams in February 1763: “This day learned that the Caucas Clubb meets at certain Times in the Garret of Tom Daws.” But a slightly earlier variant appeared in the Boston Gazette of May 5, 1760, in an article about a political club known as “the New and Grand Corcas.” (Two researchers, Stephen Goranson and J.L. Bell, recently discovered this article independently of each other.) It’s helpful to know that by the mid-18th century, New England dialects had already become non-rhotic or “r-less,” so that the spelling corcas would be pronounced roughly the same as caucas or caucus. There are some claims that the caucuses of Boston actually date back to the 1720s, but for now 1760 is the date to beat for the term, regardless of its spelling.
Soon after caucus became popular as a noun, it also appeared as a verb, again from the pen of John Adams. In a letter to James Warren dated May 12, 1776, Adams wrote: “For God’s Sake Caucass it, before Hand, and agree unanimously to push for the same Man.” In that passage caucus is used as a transitive verb meaning ‘decide on (something) in a caucus.’ By 1788 the verbal noun caucusing was in use, and the intransitive verb caucus ‘to hold a caucus’ followed on its heels. Even now we read about voters in Iowa or Nevada going caucusing, since those states have inherited systems for selecting delegates for presidential candidates that can be traced back to those early New England caucuses.
Most states, however, now have direct primaries instead of caucuses, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Progressive movement in the early twentieth century. Primary is of course short for primary election, contrasted in the U.S. with the general election in November when candidates from different parties face off. But even before primaries as we know them took shape, the word was used as an adjective to describe primary assemblies or primary meetings that chose candidates or delegates in a caucus-like (caucusoid?) manner. The phrase primary election is first attested in 1835, and by 1859 it had been shortened to just plain primary: a New York Times article from that year said of a candidate for District Attorney in Brooklyn, “the primaries gave him the coveted nomination.”
When states began experimenting with the modern primary system about a century ago, the word primary followed the path of caucus and was transformed into a verb. In one early example from the populist leader Tom Watson in 1904, white primary was used as a verb to refer to the discriminatory practice of holding all-white primary elections in Southern states: “What can the negro do? He has been disfranchised in nearly every southern state, except Georgia, and in Georgia he has been ‘white primaried.’” In a 1908 newspaper article from Sandusky, Ohio, we find the nonce verb out-primary: “The senator was out-primaried, if we may use that term.” And in 1916 a paper from Fort Wayne, Indiana used primary as an intransitive verb to mean ‘hold a primary,’ much like caucus before it: “Texas Democrats today are primarying on everything from prohibition to dog warden.”
In more recent years primary has been used as a verb in a rather different political sense, referring to the candidates themselves and their campaigns against party opponents. Thus the Syracuse Herald Journal reported in March 1978 that Robert Byrne was “considering primarying against [Rep. William F.] Walsh for the Republican nomination.” Primary as a transitive verb meaning ‘to oppose (someone) in a primary’ begins showing up in 1982, as when a local candidate explained in the New York Times, “John primaried me and won — by about 95 votes.” Nowadays the verb typically shows up when an incumbent politician falls out of favor with a faction of his or her own party and runs the risk of “getting primaried.”
As we make our way to February 5th, a.k.a. Super Duper Tuesday or Tsunami Tuesday, when about half the country participates in presidential primaries, American voters should keep in mind the rich history encapsulated in our electoral terminology. Happy primarying, or caucusing, as the case may be!
Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here