In a Word: What Is a Caucus Anyway?

Exactly where we got the word “caucus” is unclear.

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

While the Iowa Republican Caucus proceeded easily this week, with a basic secret ballot and no real challenger to the incumbent president, the Democratic Caucus didn’t go quite so smoothly. Not only do Democrats have more candidates to choose from, but they also rely on a more complicated caucus system that involves voters at more than 1,600 locations physically moving around the room to show their preferences.

And while many have been wondering about the process, the outcome, and the future viability of such a system, some of us spent our time wondering, “Where does the word caucus even come from anyway?” That turns out to be a more difficult question to answer than “Who won the Iowa Democratic Caucus?”

Why? Because no one really knows for sure. Merriam-Webster Dictionaries lists the etymology of caucus as “origin unknown.”

Although we don’t know the word’s precise origin or derivation, there are some things we definitely do know about the word, and there are theories beyond that. Here’s what we do know about the word caucus:

  • It means “a closed meeting of a political party called together to choose candidates or decide policies,” and it can be used as a verb to mean “to gather for such a meeting.”
  • It is not related to caucasian. (That word, which originally indicated “of or from the Caucasus Mountains,” took on its current meaning starting in 1795 through the work of German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach.)
  • It’s primarily an American word. In the U.K. (and other English-speaking countries with a parliamentary government), you won’t find references to political caucuses — though there was a “caucus-race” in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, so the word must have meant something to the Victorians.
  • It’s definitely not a Latinate word, which means its plural is caucuses. (Don’t even try to pull cauci on anyone.)

According to Merriam-Webster, John Adams reported in February 1763 of the upcoming meeting of “the Boston Caucus Club,” a group of city elders doing just what a caucus does today: choosing who will fill which positions in the local government. Why he chose that word is a something of a mystery.

The primary theory about the word’s origin is that it comes from the Algonquian word caucauasu. Algonquian is a Native American language group that was widespread in the North and Northeast and is the source of such common English words as moccasin, chipmunk, and Wyoming. In a Virgina dialect, caucauasu meant “elder, advisor.”

But while Adams’ Caucus Club was ostensibly a political gathering, it was also a social one. It’s possible that the word was derived from the Modern Greek kaukos “drinking cup,” something one might find in large quantities at a Caucus Club meeting.

It’s doubtful that Adams himself coined the word. Though his Caucus Club announcement is the word’s first appearance in print in a political context that we know of, it likely was had been circulating for some while in speech and in other documents that have been lost to time. And the longer it circulated, the more opportunity it had to evolve from its earliest iterations.

So we’re left only with theories. Unless new historical documents are uncovered pointing a clearer way to the beginning of this word’s history, we may never truly know where caucus came from.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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