I’ve been writing about Boston’s caucus system for discussing who should serve in town offices, which brought up (as Ron commented) the origin of the word “caucus.” Over nearly two centuries researchers have put forward three theories, none of them entirely satisfactory and none of them coming with a supporting paper trail. Those hypothetical roots are:
“Caulkers.” In his 1816 book A Vocabulary; or, Collection of Words and Phrases Which Have Been Supposed to Be Peculiar to the U.S. of America, attorney John Pickering (1777-1846) hazarded this guess, quoting the account of the Rev. William Gordon:
these meetings were first held in a part of Boston where “all the ship-business was carried on;” and I had therefore thought it not improbable that Caucus might be a corruption of Caulkers, the word meetings being understood. I was afterwards informed by a friend in Salem, that the late Judge Oliver often mentioned this as the origin of the word; and upon further inquiry I find other gentlemen have heard the same in Boston, where the word was first used. I think I have sometimes heard the expression, a caucus meeting. [i. e. caulkers’ meeting.] It need hardly be remarked, that this cant word and its derivatives are never used in good writing.The caulkers of Boston were somewhat organized; the New-England Weekly Journal for 24 Feb 1741 contains an advertisement saying they had agreed to stop taking shopkeepers’ “Notes” or I.O.U.’s as pay.
However, there are big problems with this theory:
- First, Pickering distorted Gordon’s words, which were: “Mr. Samuel Adams’ father and twenty others, one or two from the north end of the town where all the ship business is carried on, used to meet, make a caucus and lay their plan...” Thus, caucus meetings weren’t held in the “ship-business” end of town; rather, a couple of men from that North End came down to the meetings.
- The men who met, as John Adams listed them in 1763, weren’t shipyard workers but office-holders and businessmen. It would have been odd for them to take on the guise of “caulkers”; not until the Jacksonian period did American political leaders try to identify themselves with the common man. And if the “caulkers” term was applied by enemies of the group to discredit it, as later authors suggested, why didn’t the 1763 critic make that connection instead of writing “Corkass”?
- Caulkers weren’t noted for being active in town politics any more than any other profession. Their 1741 agreement was an economic one, not political.
“Kaukos.” Scholar say this Greek term for a wine vessel became caucus in medieval Latin. Was such a vessel central to “Caucas Club” meetings? John Adams wrote of that group, “they drink Phlip I suppose,” and flip was an alcoholic drink. Antiquarian Alice Morse Earle described it this way:
It was made of home-brewed beer, sweetened with sugar, molasses, or dried pumpkin, and flavored with a liberal dash of rum, then stirred in a great mug or pitcher with a red-hot loggerhead or hottle or flip-dog, which made the liquor foam and gave it a burnt bitter flavor.A punch-bowl would have been more reminiscent of a Greek kaukos than a flip mug or pitcher.
Furthermore, if the “Caucas Club” first gathered to drink and only later came to talk politics, then the term “caucus” should come up in non-political contexts, and it doesn’t. Some etymologists also argue that classically-educated British-Americans were unlikely to know a medieval Latin term, or to use it when British gentlemen didn’t.
“Kaw-kaw-was.” In the 1870s, James Hammond Trumbull suggested to the American Philological Association that the most likely source of “caucus” was this Algonquin term for “counselor” or a word from a similar root.
An informal abstract of Trumbull’s paper in The Academy said, “As the settlers were fond of adopting native names for their political gatherings, the suggestion seems highly plausible.” Gentlemen in the Middle Colonies did adopt the Tammany name for political clubs in the late 1700s, and an odd celebration of that Delaware leader occurred at Valley Forge in 1778. However, I don’t recall the same sort of behavior in Massachusetts. Bostonians blamed “Mohawks” for the Boston Tea Party precisely to distance that action from their political leaders.
Curiously, John Pickering was a scholar of Native American languages, publishing a treatise titled On the Adoption of a Uniform Orthography for the Indian Languages of North America, but didn’t see this connection.
Lexicographers today seem to lean toward the third of these theories, but they also say that no one can be sure where “caucus” comes from.