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The intractable word caucus

At the moment, the word caucus is in everybody’s mouth. This too shall pass, but for now, the same question is being asked again and again, namely: “What is the origin of the mysterious American coinage?” A correspondent of The Washington Post asked me about it, and of course I told her that no one knows the answer and probably never will. She also asked me whether there are many such intractable words in English. I’ll devote an essay to her second question later. Today, I will highlight the main points in the long search for the etymology of caucus. My collection of about forty notes (almost all of them from old journals) covers the period from 1855 to 1943, and it may be of some interest to our readers to be exposed not only to the tentative results of that search but also to the process of discovery. The way to the truth, as we know from Hegel, should itself be of the truth.

In 1855 (this is my date), Latin caucus “cup, vessel,” from Greek, allegedly, “a vessel for receiving voting papers,” was suggested as the etymon of our word. Later researchers used to refer to drinking at meetings, rather than voting (!). This will be DERIVATION NO. 1. It still has a few supporters.

Two names loom large in our investigation. John Pickering, the author of an invaluable collection of Americanisms (1810), quoted William Gordon’s History of the American Revolution(1788) to the effect that the word had been around for “more than forty years.” If this statement is trustworthy, caucus must have been in use around 1738. Our earliest known mention of the word dates back to May 5, 1760. It occurred in The Boston Gazette (I have not seen the relevant page). The standard reference is to the diary of John Adams, the second President of the United States. To some investigators such an early date of caucus seemed unlikely, because caucuses originated in Boston (there is no disagreement on this point) close to the beginning of the Revolution.

Modern ship caulkers: no conspiracies. Caulking the Schooner, Falmouth Harbour, by Joseph Savern, Yale Center for British Art. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Pickering derived caucus from the meetings of the caulkers of Boston for political purposes. A certain S.S. wrote in the first issue of The Historical Magazine that this derivation might be correct but wondered why the phrases caulker’s [his spelling] club or caulker’s meetings never turned up in print.  Ship caulkers’ duties were most important: they filled in any gaps, to make the ship watertight. Pickering’s etymology has been accepted and rejected many times. Terms going back to the meetings of professionals occur not too rarely and tend to be obscure: compare the history of wayzgoose (see my post for December 9, 2009). Thus, DERVATION NO. 2: from caulkers. However, even if caucus has anything to do with shipyards, those caulkers were not workers but “disguised patriots of Massachusetts who met in shipyards.” Remember Pickering’s political purposes! “Caulkers meetings were held at night in Boston to talk over the ways and means for helping to drive out the English troops in the decade made famous for America by the declaration of 1776.” We end up with a kind of password, a piece of political slang, whose meaning was first clear only to the initiated. In the 1860s, Webster also derived caucus from caulkers. He wrote: “Private meetings of Boston citizens just at the outbreak of the Revolutionary war on behalf of some of the Caulkers of the town, killed by the British soldiers, the name being corrupted or changed to caucus meeting.” “The Boston Massacre” occurred on May 5, 1770. The second edition of The Century Dictionary says: “Such a corruption and forgetfulness of the original meaning of a word so familiar as calkers is improbable.”

Image of James Hammond Trumbull
James Hammond Trumbull. Walter Stollwein CDV Collection. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1872 (if not earlier), James Hammond Trumbull, a first-rate expert in Native American languages, traced caucus to cau cau as’u, which he defined as “promoter.” The corresponding verb meant primarily “to talk to.” Variants of the Algonquin etymon of caucus have been defended and rejected in numerous publications ever since. This is DERIVATION NO. 3. In 1885 and much later, Walter W. Skeat supported, even if cautiously, Trumbull’s idea, and so did the 1890 edition of Webster’s dictionary. I can only join those who doubted that the Bostonians of the middle of the eighteenth century would have gone so far as to understand a Native American phrase, cherish it, and transform it into caucus. The existence of the word cockerouse ~ cockarouse “a person of importance among American colonists,” certainly from Algonquin, throws no light on the history of caucus.

It seems preferable not to squeeze the remaining information into the allotted space (my post usually fills about two computer pages, though this length is self-imposed) and to draw some preliminary conclusions. In investigating an obscure etymology, we can at best weigh the probability of the existing conjectures, and opinions are bound to differ. Responsible sources, unless they only say that the origin of caucus is unknown, tend to offer, even if hesitatingly, one of the three solutions mentioned above but do not give details for justifying their choice. Thus, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary (the online version) calls attention to the putative Native American source and to the derivation from calker’s [sic] meetings. A short essay follows, and more is said on the subject. There, we also find a brief reference to the first edition of The Century Dictionary, which (I must say, unexpectedly!) traced caucus to the Latin word for “cup.” As we have seen, the cup etymology predates the CD by almost fifty years.

Regardless of this chronological detail, I find a mere listing of conjectures counter-productive: it seems better to say as much as is known on the subject or nothing at all. Anticipating my conclusions, I’d like to note that that in my opinion, deriving our word from Latin caucus is fanciful. A description of those “smoke-filled” early meetings is extant. Drinks, we may assume, were provided, but unless the medieval ritual mentioned above (a loving cup going around) or some kind of communion cup defined the atmosphere, the conspirators hardly looked upon themselves as “the members of the cup,” similar to the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table. A vessel for voting papers looks even more fanciful.

King Arthur’s Knights, or a medieval caucus. Holy Grail Round Table, Bibliothèque nationale de France. Public domain via Picryl.

I tend to agree with the statement that the idea of a speedy “corruption and forgetfulness” of the word calkers inspires little confidence, unless the alternation was intentional, to hide the word’s origin. Finally, I do not share most lexicographers’ enthusiasm (even if guarded) for the Native American etymology of caucus. To repeat: did those people who met “for political purposes” know enough Algonquin to pronounce a long phrase correctly and change it into an English short word? Most Algonquin words in English are straightforward and denote animal names and other objects connected with the environment. Perhaps the only “societal” terms of Algonquin origin still used in American English are powwow “gathering” (and even that one is the result of a misunderstanding!) and mugwump “a person staying away from party politics.” The origin of those two nouns is straightforward, while deriving caucus from Algonquin presupposes a rather complicated process. I may refer to my favorite maxim that the more ingenious an etymology is, the greater the chance of its being wrong.

To be continued.

Iowa Caucus Night by John Edwards. CC by 2.0, via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    Another guess on the etymology of caucus:

    “The celebrated Dr. Bentley, an enthusiastic admirer of the two Elisha Cookes, fancied that the word Caucus was derived from Cooke’s-house, in which popular meetings were frequent.*”
    [The house location is given in the footnote.]
    A Memoir Biographical and Genealogical of Sir John Leverett…by C. E. Leverett (Boston, 1856) page 97.
    I suggest the celebrated one is William Bentley, D.D. (1759-1819).

  2. Roger

    There’s the further confusion of the “caucus race” in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), which begins and ends where anyone likes and the runners “all must have prizes” Carroll defines it. so it wasn’t a widely-used term, but how did a US term cross the Atlantic to and reach the ears of an Oxford don?

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