The Etymology of Caucus

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Sun Oct 28 15:14:23 UTC 2007

"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 -

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