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.
“Trump overhauls campaign again,” ran many headlines after news this week that Donald Trump took on Breitbart News’ Stephen Bannon as his campaign’s chief executive. Let’s haul out the etymology of this overhaul, abuzz as it is in the political ether.
As we see in many metaphorical extensions of words, overhaul originated as a nautical term. The Oxford English Dictionary first finds record of the verb in 1626, when Captain John Smith uses it in a kind of “sea grammar” for young sailors. Back then, to overhaul entailed slackening ropes. This required pulling, or hauling, them opposite to its hoisting, hence over. In this way, sailors could take apart the rigging, inspect it, and make any changes if necessary. (Trump likes to claim voting is “rigged,” but overhauling doesn’t address that kind of rigging.)
By the 1700s, such an examination, or overhaul, was being done to a variety of equipment and apparatus. By the 1900s, the overhaul metaphor had settled into its modern form: a “significant repair” or “revision,” said of engines, education systems, campaigns.
And if weoverhaul overhaul? Well, it’s functioning pretty well as it is, I’d say, but we can at least take it apart and give it a look-over. Over is Germanic in origin, related to words like uber and super, which share a common Indo-European root meaning the same, essentially (“over”). Its form in Old English was ofer, found in the oldest records of the tongue.
Haul, attested by the late 1500s, is a variant of hale, hauled into English from the French and Germanic roots before it. No relation to “strong and healthy” hale, the meaning of this hale is “to fetch” or “draw.” Indo-European philologists suppose an even more basic sense of “to shout.” Not unlike the Swahili rallying cry we saw rooted in Harambe, we can imagine some ancient foreman shouting to his muscly crew when to heave, ho, and haul.
Thanks to its “pulling,” haul has roped its way into many other usages, from hauling someone over the coals to a long haul on the road to bringing back a good haul of candy on Halloween. Overhauled or not, it’s now only 80 days to election day, so both campaigns will be hauling ass until then. Haul ass – another term born on the seas, this one as US Navy slang, originally “get out,” during World War I.
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.