caucus

A caucus is a meeting in which leaders and insiders set the agenda and policy of a larger organization or select candidates for office. It also can be used as a verb meaning to meet in a caucus.

The etymology is uncertain and there are several competing hypotheses. It has been claimed to date to before 1736, but the first recorded use of the term is from 1763 in John Adams’s diary:

This day learned that the caucus club meets, at certain times, in the garret of Tom Dawes.

It is likely that this Caucus Club formed the basis for use of the word, but where did the members of the club get the name?

The most likely explanation is that it comes from the Algonquin caucasasu, meaning an advisor. The form and sense fit and the adoption of native names for such organizations was a common practice. We don’t, however, know this to be true in this case.

Another possibility is that it comes from a medieval Latin word caucus, meaning a tankard or drinking cup, a reference to some of the activities of the club.

Other possible, but less likely, explanations include a derivation from the name of the Boston neighborhood of West Corcus or to meetings of Boston ship-builders, or caulkers. These are really just speculation with no evidence to support them.

An explanation that is sometimes offered but that is certainly false is that caucus is an acronym for a group of eighteenth century, American politicians: Cooper, Adams, Urann, Coulson, Urann, and Symmes. Besides the usual objection that acronymic derivations are almost invariably incorrect and that there are no examples of acronymic word origins prior to the late 19th century and these are vanishingly rare until the 20th, these men are simply not likely candidates to give birth to such a common word. With the exception of Adams, they are all very obscure and Thomas Urann had to be listed twice to make the acronym work.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Edition; Mencken’s The American Language and its Supplement I)

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