What Is a Caucus?

Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read
The Quick And Dirty

Nobody knows for sure where we got the word "caucus," but it started in America and may be derived from a Native American word that means “one who advises, urges, or encourages.”

In the US, some states have caucuses instead of having people go to the polls to cast their votes to narrow down the field to just one political candidate for each party. At the caucuses, Republicans gather together and Democrats gather together and decide among themselves who the candidate will be for their party. It happens in small local political party meetings where people can give speeches or have discussions, and sometimes people can change their minds and switch to support different candidates.

Everyone is talking about caucuses right now because the Iowa caucuses are coming soon: February 3, 2020, and it's the first time voters get to weigh in on the 2020 presidential candidates. But this is Grammar Girl, not Political Girl, so I wondered, why do we call these meetings caucuses.

Native American Origin?

The word "caucus" appeared in Boston in the 1760s, but nobody knows for sure where the word came from. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "caucus" may have come from an Algonquin word "cau′-cau-as′u," which meant “one who advises, urges, or encourages.” 

Greek Origin?

In 1763, John Adams mentioned a social and political organization called the Caucus Clubb in his diary, and clubs in New England were known to adopt Indian names sometimes, so that would fit with the Algonquin origin. However, the Online Etymology Dictionary speculates that it's also possible the club got its name from the Greek word "kaukos," which means “drinking cup.” The Native American origin seems most likely, but really, nobody knows for sure.

John Adams and the Caucus Clubb

Adams' description of the Caucus Clubb sounds a lot like caucuses today though. He described it like this in his diary:

They choose a Moderator, who puts Questions to the Vote regularly, and select Men, Assessors, Collectors, Wardens, Fire Wards, and Representatives are Regularly chosen before they are chosen in the Town. 

He wrote his diary during a time when English writers capitalized a lot more words than they do now.

Verbing Nouns

A caucus was originally a thing, a meeting. It was a noun first, but because it’s common to verb nouns in English, by the 1780s, "caucus" was also a verb. In addition to attending a caucus, you could then simply caucus or say that you were caucusing. By 1823, you could be a caucuser, and by 1885, you could be caucusified: in a Speech in the House of Lords, Earl Wemyss described a caucusified atmosphere. 

Happy caucusing.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.