The Grammarphobia Blog

The origin of “caucus”

Q: I’ve been reading a lot lately about Democratic and Republican caucuses on Capitol Hill. Do you know the origin of the word “caucus”?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary’s first published citation is from 1763 (a reference in John Adams’s diary to meetings of the “caucus club” in Boston). The precise origin of the word is unknown, however, and seems lost in the mists of time. There are three theories, two of them are doubtful.

The first questionable theory is that “caucus” comes from the Greek “kaukos” or the Medieval Latin “caucus,” meaning drinking cup. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language offers this view, but I think it’s improbable. If true, why would the term go underground for centuries and then show up out of nowhere in colonial Boston? Where was it all that time?

The second dubious theory is that “caucus” might be a corruption of “caulkers,” named after a political meeting first held in a caulkers’ shop in the shipbuilding district of Boston in 1770. The weakness of this theory is that the word “caucus” is at least seven years older than the political gathering.

The most likely theory, in my opinion, is that the word is of Algonquian origin. An authority on Native American languages, Dr. J. H. Trumbull, suggested in the “Procedures of the American Philological Association” in 1872 that the word might be derived from an Algonquian word, “cau´-cau-as´u,” mentioned in the writings of Capt. John Smith in the 17th century. The word was said to mean “one who talks with or advises.”