Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The origin of the word caucus: conclusion

Last week, I mentioned three etymologies of caucus: from caucus, Latin for “cup”; from an Algonquin phrase, and from calker’s or caulkers’. The derivation from caucus seems improbable to me, and the derivation from Algonquin unlikely (despite its support by many noted scholars). Calker is still up in the air. I am grateful for the two comments on the previous post. Both anticipated part of what I meant to include in today’s short essay. I do have two old messages from Dr. Stefan Goranson (initially left for dessert), and I hoped to finish this post with a flourish (a quotation from Alice in Wonderland). The remarks by our correspondents stole my thunder, but I’ll produce the intended rumblings anyway.

Stork with a baby. CC0 via rawpixel.

The hypothesis that will occupy us below is not unknown. Even the second edition of The Century Dictionary mentions it in a kind of postscript, but I have never seen it discussed. The main point is that in British English, calker and corker are homophones (compare also such words as stalk and stork). According to C. W. Ernst, the same pronunciation prevailed in Boston at the end of the nineteenth century (and by the same token a century earlier). C. W. Ernst, I am sure, is Carl Wilhelm Ernst (1845-1919), the author of, among other works, the book Constitutional History of Boston. He contributed two articles on caucus to the British weekly Notes and Queries, 8th Series, IX, 1896, pp. 126 and 510-11: February 15 and June 27. The suggestions by such a specialist should not be neglected. With regard to John Adams’s diary (see the previous post), Ernst wrote: “But Adams was not a Bostonian and his allusion to the ‘caucus club’ is suspicious. Political clubs did not exist in the Boston of 1763; and the combination ‘caucus club’ is contrary to reason as well as history.” At that time, Ernst continues, there had been a great fire in Boston [I could not find its date], and an appeal was made to the legislature to get wider streets. The appeal was sustained by merchants and opposed by mechanics. In derision, the mechanics called themselves the members of the old and true Corcas and the merchants the new and grand Corcas. Enter corcas or Corcas.

The mechanics were defeated. Obviously, it is not the legal battle that interests us here but the odd word Corcas. Ernst admitted that the word was new. He wrote: “About that time corks and bottling came to be common in Boston. The slang phrase ‘corker’ is still common in Boston. It would have been reasonable had the mechanics of 1760 called the merchants ‘corkers’, first in ridicule, and after election in good faith.” Corker “an unanswerable argument” and especially “doozie” is still very much alive in American English. Though in my opinion, Ernst’s reconstruction deserves attention, many details in the transition from corkers too caucus remain obscure, and Ernst must have been aware of this circumstance, as follows from his later publication. Reference to the old corcas, he pointed out, showed that in 1760 the term was not new or unfamiliar.

In 1741, the caulkers (!) of Boston organized the first trade union in New England. Much turmoil followed. The union “became the talk of the time and the etymon for a cast-iron agreement. By 1760, as appears from the Boston Gazette, the agreement of electors in selecting candidates for public office was known as caucus (!) action.” I don’t know whether Ernst solved the riddle, but I believe that with his explanation we are at least partly out of the dark. Caucus seems to have arisen in the interplay of calkers, corkers, and the mysterious Corcas. The r-less pronunciation that prevailed in Boston was a factor in the word’s history.

The rest looks like an anticlimax. In 1943, a note was found among the papers of no less a figure than John Pickering (see again the previous post) to the effect that caucus consists of the initials of the names of six: Cooper (Wm.), Adams, Urann (Joyce, Jr.), Coulson, Urann [again!], and Symmes (American Speech 18, 1943, P. 130). This CAUCUS must have been a joke in imitation of CABAL under King Charles II (a private group of high councilors between 1667 and 1672: Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley, and Lauderdale). The list only proves that the word caucus had already been known.

Alice and a caucus race. Illustration from the Nursery Alice. Public domain via Picryl.

In June 2015, Stephen Goranson posted two notes on the list serve of the American Dialect Society. He found “an impartial account of the conduct of the Corkass” [sic] going back to 1763. We read: “It may be expected that I should give the etymology of the word CORCASS, and some accounts of the Society, but as they keep no records, and their oral accounts are so various and dark, it is needless to mention them….” A classic teaser. Apparently, not only Ernst noticed an early Bostonian confusion of caucus and corcas(s). In the second note, Goranson quotes Samuel L. Knapp’s Biographical Sketches of Eminent Lawyers…. (1821): “The frequent political meetings at that house have by some… been supposed to be the origin of the caucus—a corruption of “Cooke’s House.”” Goranson also mentions the derivation of caucus from concourse. Etymological literature is full of such unsubstantiated guesses.

Enter Alice from Alice in Wonderland. The caucus race is described in Chapter Three. The satire is unforgettable. There is really no race, because all the participants run in different directions and begin running when they like, so that it is not easy to know at what time the race comes to an end. The question “But who has won?” received the unforgettable answer: “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” Alice is called upon to distribute prizes but is entitled to get one too. She produces a thimble from her pocket, gives it to the Dodo, and the Dodo gives it back to Alice, a procedure that seems ridiculous even to a little girl. Political processes do look ludicrous to outsiders and even to many insiders. Alice in Wonderland was published in 1865. By that time, the word caucus and the phrase caucus race had become quite familiar in England.

Ariadne’s thread. The golden fleece and the heroes who lived before Achilles. CC0. Via Flickr.

This is the end of my story. Whether, to paraphrase Dickens, it will convert into a dazzling brilliance that obscurity in which the early history of the word caucus would appear to be involved, the future will show. The main thing about solving etymological riddles is to know everything everybody has ever said about the troublesome word. Some ideas die without issue, while some others, even if not fully satisfactory, may lead the investigator to an important discovery. Ariadne’s thread is a useful tool. The picture is now before us, and anybody can pick up where I have left off.

Feature image: Beacon Street and the Common by John Rubens Smith. Boston Pictorial Archive. CC0 via Digital Commonwealth.

Recent Comments

  1. Paul twyman

    If in doubt I always go for Merriam-Webster = https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/caucus

  2. Jim Blue

    I don’t see in “Alice in Wondeland” anything referring to finish with a flourish.

    But elating to British pronunciation, there is this in “Alice”:
    `We called him Tortoise because he taught us,’ said the Mock Turtle angrily: `really you are very dull!’

  3. Jim Blue

    Type: relating, not elating of course.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *