Congress, all caught up in their caucuses

A look at a distinctively American political term and its distinctively obscure derivation.

Eric Thayer/Reuters
U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley speaks to reporters after the weekly Republican caucus policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. on April 4, 2017.

As just about everyone knows, the divided and divisive United States Congress is divided not only into parties but into caucuses.

The House Freedom Caucus was blamed – or credited – for the recent failure of the health-care bill, for instance.

And during the president’s much-­discussed news conference Feb. 16, his attention was invited to the existence of the Congressional Black Caucus, with whom he later met.

Caucus is also congressional Democrats’ term for their representation as a whole in either chamber.(The Republicans call their blocs “conferences.”)

Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) on caucus:

“In U.S. A private meeting of the leaders or representatives of a political party, previous to an election or to a general meeting of the party, to select candidates for office, or to concert other measures for the furthering of party interests; opprobriously, a meeting of ‘wire-pullers’.”

The first part of the definition refers to what we might call the Iowa sense of caucus: part of choosing a president. The second, “furthering of party interests,” is the kind of caucus found in Congress.

And as for “wire-pullers”: As you read that, can’t you just picture the disapproving arching of the lexicographical eyebrow? A caucus meeting, we might say, is one that goes on in a smoke-filled room – even if no one smokes anymore.

What are the roots of caucus? “Origin obscure” is the OED’s summary – and it’s totally unrelated to the Caucasus, by the way.

Caucus was first used in Boston during the 18th century. The OED’s first usage example, from a Boston newspaper in 1760, was “The new and grand Corcas ... The old and true Corcas.”

Note the distinctive New England phonetic spelling – r’s are ah’s or aw’s here.

A few years later, John Adams noted in his diary: “This day learned that the Caucas Clubb meets at certain Times in the Garret of Tom Daws.”

But scholars have sought the true root of caucus since revolutionary times.

The Online Etymology Dictionary quotes an English historian fretting in 1788 that all “my repeated applications to different gentlemen have not furnished me with a satisfactory account of the origin of caucus.”

One possibility: that it comes from kaukos, a Greek word for “drinking cup”: The “Caucas Clubb” Adams knew of may have served refreshments, too.

Another idea: that it’s a Native American derivation. The OED identifies a plausible source in an Algonquin verb meaning “to give counsel, advise, encourage.” Moreover, New Englanders often borrowed Indian names for secret societies; “but there appears to be no direct evidence” that this verb led to caucus. And so caucus remains a distinctive part of American political terminology, even as its roots remain distinctively obscure.

Was “caucus meeting” originally a “caulker’s meeting”? Dictionaries dismiss this idea, but it’s grown on me: It suggests politicians trying to devise policies that, even if not watertight – or leakproof – will somehow at least hold together.

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