Voguish Vocabulary: Caucus

From the news: Caucus Math 101: Bring a Calculator (In Iowa, Exercising One’s Right to Vote May Well Involve Some Head-Scratching), Washington Post, 17 Dec 2007, Libby Copeland.

The word caucus is everywhere in the news. Those of us who don’t live in Iowa have a vague notion that it involves Iowans trudging through deep snow on January 3, past the glare of television lights and shivering reporters, to register their preferences for President of the United States.

But where does the word come from? It seems to have a vague Latin or Greek sound to it, like so many English words. The truth is, no one really knows its origins.

Caucus first came into use in New England in the early 1700’s. According to the OED, its earliest written use has been found in an entry in the diary of John Adams from February of 1763, “This day learned that the caucus club meets, at certain times, in the garret of Tom Dawes.”

The most interesting theory is that the word was borrowed from the vocabulary of the Algonquian Indians, whose word “caucauasu” means to talk to or give counsel to. That word appears in the writings of Captain John Smith, the leader of the Jamestown, Virginia colony whose life was spared by the Algonquian princess, Pocahontas.

If caucus was borrowed from Native Americans, it would explain why its first uses were in the northeast United States rather than in Europe.

Some have also said that the word would have appealed to the colonists because of its suggestion of a grass-roots, town hall form of democracy, something many were looking for as antidote to the heavy-handed rule of European aristocracy.

Caucus retains that core idea today.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Great post. I’ve noticed various words become trendy. For awhile, every decorating show on TV sprinkled the word, “whimsical,” throughout their program. Often, it popped up not once but several times in a single episode. We invented a new game, counting how many times it was used over the course of an evening.

    As writers, we’re admonished to avoid cliches. I think we can add overused words to that category.