Earlier this week, a raccoon dramatically scaled a skyscraper in St. Paul, Minnesota. Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) captured the event—and the attention and hearts of the internet. The #MPRRaccoon, as it came to be called, eventually summited the building, where it was caught and released into the wild, but not before going viral first.
This Groundhog Day, Punxsutawney Phil may be feeling that those Iowa caucuses stole his thunder – er, shadow – with all the attention on political prognostication, not marmot meteorology. But caucuses and groundhogs have more in common than just calendars: both caucus, as we recently saw, and woodchuck, another name for the groundhog, derive from Algonquian languages.
How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Let’s consult the etymologists.
The answer turns out to be pretty straightforward: None. No, I’m not dismissing the rodent’s timber-tossing abilities: I’m dismissing folk etymology. For the woodchuck has nothing to do with wood, at least as far as its name is concerned.
See, woodchuck, while it looks like a naturally formed compound of wood and chuck, actually derives from Native American languages. Scholars cite the Cree otchek or Ojibwe otchig, among other forms, which were native words for the marten. (Both Cree and Ojibwe are Algonquian languages.) As early as 1674, when the Oxford English Dictionary first cites the word, traders apparently made sense of the phonetically similar indigenous terms by altering it to the more English-y “woodchuck,” as well as transferring the name to the North American marmot, or groundhog. A variant form is wejack, which also refers to the pekan or fisher, from an Algonquian term that may have further influenced woodchuck.
During the next presidential election cycle, maybe we can take a page from the shared etymological histories of caucus and woodchuck . Forget all the fundraising, debates, campaign rallies, and polls. If the groundhog sees it’s shadow, we’ll have six more weeks of winter and then the Democratic party will – agh, then we’ll just be arguing over which party is associated with a longer winter.
The next Speaker of the US House of Representative is courting the Freedom Caucus while the next President of the US is courting the Iowa caucuses. But the importance of the caucus to the American political process isn’t new. The caucus – a meeting of members of a political party or movement, especially to choose a candidate for election or to decide on policy – has long been an important part of the American political process. This is evident even in the history of the very word: some of the first records of caucus involve John Adams, Sam Adams, the Boston Tea Party, and possibly even John Smith and Pocahontas. But, like so much of American democracy, the origin of caucus is subject to debate.
A significant and early citation of caucus comes from an entry John Adams made in his diary in 1763. In this entry, Adams writes that he learned the “Caucas Clubb meets at certain Times in the Garret of Tom Daws.” This private organization – whose social meetings were even then associated with tobacco and drink, as his notes remark – was influential in pre-Revolutionary politics, including a possible role in the Boston Tea Party.
The Oxford English Dictionary has two citations before Adams’ own in 1763. They give us more insight into the place caucuses held in the colonies, not to mention the historic phonology of the word, especially in the New England region, where the OED concludes it arose:
1760 Boston Gaz. Suppl. 5 May The new and grand Corcas….The old and true Corcas.
1762 O. Thacher in Proc. Mass. Hist. Soc. (1884). 20 48 The connections and discords of our politicians, corkus-men, plebeian tribes, &c.
But we do have a number of suggestions, some of which are more electable, shall we say, than others.
In Gordon’s own discussion of the word, he notes the Boston caucuses met at “the north end of town, where much of the ship-building business was carried on.” Noting this, philologist John Pickering in 1816 guessed the word originated in a cant term, caulkers, shortened from caulkers’meetings. Pickering suggests ship caulkers and their vocational brethren were known for their political meetings and activities. Scholars have swiftly dispatched this derivation.
Pickering surfaces again in 1943, thanks to the scholarship of LeRoy Barret, as we also learn in Mencken’s work. Barret cites an attempt by Pickering to derive caucus from the initials of six members’ surnames: Cooper, Adams, Urann, Coulson, Urann, and Symmes. With characteristic mordancy, Mencken dismisses this initialism in his account of the history of the work:
There is, furthermore, an unhappy tendency among amateur etymologists to derive words from the initials of proper names, often without justification.
Another effort, from the Century Dictionary in 1900, looks to the drink John Adams noted. This origin takes caucus back, via Latin, to a late Greek word, kaukos, a “drinking vessel,” emphasizing the conviviality of meetings and recalling Platonic symposia. Historians, such as William Harris in his own informative piece on this problematic word,¹ have serious doubts about the record of kaukos in itself, not to mention the unlikeliness these colonial Bostonians would have adopted such a recondite word for their club.
The Powhatan cau′-cau-as′u
Some may doubt these secret politickers used Latin or Greek names, but they may have taken Native American ones. According to the OED, philologist and Algonquian scholar James H. Trumbull suggested in the Proceedings of the American Philological Association in 1872 that caucus has a
possible derivation from an Algonquin word cau′-cau-as′u, which occurs in Capt. Smith’s Virginia 23, as Caw-cawaassough ‘one who advises, urges, encourages’, from a verb meaning primarily ‘to talk to’, hence ‘to give counsel, advise, encourage’, and ‘to urge, promote, incite to action’. For such a derivation there is claimed the general suitability of the form and sense, and it is stated that Indian names were commonly taken by clubs and secret associations in New England; but there appears to be no direct evidence.
Of all the etymological candidates for caucus, this one gets the most votes, though no nominee is ever perfect.
Caucus, then, may may come from the Algonquian spoken by the Powhatan peoples in what is now Virginia. The very political concept, too, may well have native roots. As the late Classics professor William Harris sums up in his: “And so it turns out that CAUCUS is a truly American word.”American English is indeed indebted to the very language of the peoples the colonists eradicated, to be frank. But so, too, in many complex ways we may struggle to comprehend or acknowledge, is American democracy.
¹ I did observe that Professor Harris states that Captain Smith married Pocahontas. She married John Rolfe. I felt the inaccuracy was worth noting.