[Ads-l] caucus, a little more

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Sat Feb 9 11:53:18 UTC 2019

Does the word caucus come from:

a) (ship) caulkers

b) an indigenous word from the area that became Virginia

c) Cooke's house

d) none of the above?

This has been discussed here before, including by Joel Berson [1].

Option (a) need not detain us, as caulkers were never a significant proportion of the early group, nor emblematic.

Option (b) was not proposed until very long (a century and a half) afterward, with no hint of earlier verbal or cultural relevance; it refers to a person not a group; it was not picked up by the colonists in that area (who did pick up barbecue for political gatherings), so why in Boston?

Option (d) has been boldly asserted on the ground that the original spelling was "corcas."  "All of those theories about “caucus” fail because the word started out as 'corcas.'" But there are very many spellings, by persons with greater or lesser knowledge, and it is quite an assumption to declare that one little-attested attempted version as the word's start, as well as an asserted counsel of despair. By the way, 18th-century New England newspapers mention shipping incidents at or near "West Caucus" and "West Caucases," perhaps references to what is today called West Caicos in Turks and Caicos Islands.

Option (c), the earliest proposal, has some suggestively favorable aspects. What became known as the caucus in Boston was founded primarily by Elisha Cooke, Jr.  For evidence, see, e.g., In Public Houses: Drink & The Revolution of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts by David W. Conroy (1995), esp. 169ff. Cooke owned Boston Public Houses, and had a reputation as a drinker. His ally and early fellow caucuser Samuel Adams was, among other things, a brewer. Early meetings of caucus (avant la lettre), in 1719 or the early 1720s, took place at Cooke's house. House can mean his residence or his Public House. The name survived Elisha Cooke Jr. (1678-1737), the Cooke ex machina.

Biographical Sketches of Eminent Lawyers, Statesmen, and Men of Letters, Samuel L. Knapp (Boston, 1821) p.289:
"*The frequent political meetings at that house, have by some (the late Dr. Bentley) been supposed to be the origin of the word "caucus"--a corruption of "Cooke's House."

The much abridged 1914 edition of the Diaries of William Bentley (1759-1819), one of the most learned and multilingual of the Americans of his day (his library was second only to Jefferson's), does not include this, but it does record that Bentley's father, Joshua, "was brought up in the school of the Cookes & had been often at Middlecott Cooke's house."(p. 589)

June 23, 1816, Democratic Press, Philadelphia, p. 4 citing a Salem MA paper (hometown of Wm. Bentley):

"CAUCUS:--A Boston Notion

>From the Salem Register

Whence comes Caucus? was a question to an old man in Boston. His answer was, above a half a century the Cookes had the greatest influence in Massachusetts, as Hutchinson will discover....I visited Middlecott Cook's [sic] house often on the political occasions of my times. From Cooke's-house, as the question was, are you going to Cooke's house to night? it came to Cooke-house, and thence to Caucus...."

Stephen Goranson


[1] Available, including bibliography, (though maybe not fully) via "caucus" search  http://cse.google.com/cse?cx=015166654881017481565:tinnmx85pdy

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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