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What Is a Caucus?

By
Mignon Fogarty,
January 28, 2016

what is a caucus

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 Monday, and it's the first time voters get to weigh in on the 2016 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. 

And that's your tidbit. 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.” Happy caucusing.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.