The Etymology of Caucus

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Sun Oct 28 16:41:59 UTC 2007

"Alleged to have been used in Boston U.S. before
1724" is right -- the (modern) historians say
that nothing can be found written about Elisha
Cooke Jr.'s 1720s caucus before around the 1770s.

But I don't think it is correct to write "later
also known as the North End Caucus" -- not the
same group.  Cooke's faction and strength had
dissipated around 1740, there were generally good
relations between the Assembly and the governor
between 1745 and 1760, and the pre-Revolutionary
caucus was I would think a new group, perhaps
adopting the word from the most recent and
well-remembered period of strong opposition to the royal government.

John Adams referred to the 1740 land bank crisis
as "rais[ing] a greater ferment in the province
than the stamp-act did".  (Cooke died in 1737,
but the paper currency issue between the Assembly
and the governor ran through the 1720s and 1730s
before reaching its climax in 1740.)  It is
perhaps interesting that Adams is the writer of
the earliest OED citation for "caucus".

Stephen Goranson writes
>The 1788 book, mentioned above, actually includes a clue to the origin, even
>while professing ignorance, by mentioning "the north end of town."

How does "north end" give a clue to the origin of
"caucus"?  Also, if it is a reference to the
pre-Revolutionary "North End Caucus", that was
later than Cooke's.  Is there evidence that
Cooke's too was a North End group?  (Probably
answerable from the literature about Cooke, but I don't have sources at hand.)

BTW, Dr. J. H. Trumbull's 1872 suggestion of
possible derivation from an Algonkin word (saying that "Indian names
were commonly taken by clubs and secret
associations in New England") sounds plausible to
me!  (Trumbull was a historian of Connecticut,
and also wrote about the "blue laws".)


At 10/28/2007 11:14 AM, Stephen Goranson wrote:
>"What IS a Caucus-race? said Alice...."
>The Caucus, a political group that originally
>met in Boston, later also known as
>the North End Caucus, was evidently named for the north wind, also known as
>Of the noun caucus the Oxford English Dictionary gives "Arose in New England:
>origin obscure. Alleged to have been used in Boston U.S. before 1724;
>quotations go back to 1763. Already in 1774
>[sic: this should read 1788; Gordon
>was then writing about 1774 in 1788] Gordon (Hist. Amer. Rev.) could obtain no
>'satisfactory account of the origin of the name'. Mr. Pickering, in 1816,
>as a mere guess, thought it 'not improbable that caucus might be a corruption
>of caulkers', the word "meetings" being understood'. For this, and the
>more detailed statement quoted in Webster, there is absolutely no evidence
>beyond the similarity of sound; and the word was actually in use before the
>date (1770) of the event mentioned in Webster. Dr. J. H. Trumbull (Proc. Amer.
>Philol. Assoc. 1872) has suggested possible derivation from an Algonkin word
>cau´-cau-as´u, which occurs in Capt. Smith's Virginia 23, as Caw-cawaassough
>'one who advises, urges, encourages', from a vb. meaning primarily 'to
>talk to', hence 'to give counsel, advise, encourage', and 'to urge,
>promote, incite to action'. For such a derivation there is claimed the
>general suitability of the form and sense, and it is stated that Indian names
>were commonly taken by clubs and secret associations in New England; but there
>appears to be no direct evidence." Another
>unpersuasive proposal appears in the
>American Heritage Dictionary 4th ed.: "possibly from Medieval Latin, caucus,
>drinking vessel."
>OED's earliest use for the noun is 1763 and for
>the verb 1850. Here's a May 12,
>1776 verb use in a letter from John Adams to
>James Warren (Papers of John Adams,
>Harvard UP, 1979 v.4 p. 243): "For God's Sake
>Caucuss it, before Hand, and agree
>unanimously to push for the same Man."
>The 1788 book, mentioned above, actually includes a clue to the origin, even
>while professing ignorance, by mentioning "the north end of town."
>A Biographical Dictionary: Containing a Brief Account of the First Settlers
> New England By John Eliot (of the Massachusetts Historical Society) 1809
>p. 472-3 wrote that the caucus "met in a house near the north battery." Dr.
>Warren and another drew up the regulations. As well as insuring that
>influential "mechanicks" were present, "It was a matter of policy likewise to
>assemble in that part of town. It has the effect
>to awake the _north wind_, and
>stir the _waters_ of the _troubled sea_. By this
>body of men the most important
>matters were decided." P. 473: "The writer of
>these memoirs has been assured by
>some of the most prominent characters of this _caucus_, that they were guided
>by the prudence and skilful management of Dr. Warren...."
>In the Boston Evening Post, May 4, 1764 an
>appeal was signed "The Caucus." That
>according to  Frederick William Dallinger, Nominations for Elective Office in
>the United States (1897) p. 10; the Caucus is
>said to have been involved in the
>Boston Tea Party.
>Stephen Goranson
>The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

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