We live in Iowa, where our state political caucuses play a crucial role in the selection and election of our next Presidents. (Why is this the case? Here’s my take. Should this be the case? No. Here’s why.) The year before we moved out here from New York (2011), I was managing a group blog called Indie Albany. In anticipation of the then-upcoming Presidential campaign season, I had registered a new blog portal called “Cerberus Caucus,” the underlying premise of which was that it would serve as a three-headed place where a liberal, a conservative, and an independent/centrist could argue political points of merit. I was prepared to play the leftist, and I had a hardcore (e.g. scary) rightist lined up, but was never able to secure a legitimate centrist voice, so that project was shelved in favor of others.
I still own the rights to the Cerberus Caucus domain, and a couple of weeks ago, I received a renewal notification for it. Before re-registering it, I did a Google search to make sure that I wasn’t holding something that had become toxic or noxious. I did not find anything problematic or offensive during that search, but I did stumble across an arcane document from 1844 that tickled me to pieces, given (a) how much I enjoy etymology, and (b) how we throw the word “caucus” around here in Iowa as thought it’s something that everybody in the country understands implicitly.
The document was from a book called Nugæ by Nugator, (which is Latin for Trifles by Jester, or Joker). The version of the document I found bore a stamp saying “Harvard College Library, Sheldon Fund, July 10, 1940.” Searches for the two names appearing on the attribution pages (“St. Leger L. Carter” and “Edward St. O. Carter”) mostly reveal a variety of documents from the Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia. If I had to guess based on what I’ve found, the two Carters are the same person, notwithstanding one source related to the recording of copyright where “Edward” states “I am not the author, but proprietor.” I imagine Mister Carter was a prominent citizen of a somewhat self-indulgent creative bent with sufficient community clout to be worthy of respectful deference by Virginia’s House of Delegates, hence the acceptance of Nugæ into the official record of the Commonwealth’s business. (If someone knows or finds otherwise, I’ll be happy to update this assessment).
I reproduce the cover/credit page of Nugæ, and the particular article that piqued my interest, below. The piece is framed as an unattributed letter to the editor, but I suspect it’s just the work of Mister Carter being cute, since its tone and language read very much like the rest of Nugæ to these eyes. Note that the piece (which references ex-President Martin Van Buren, a fave of mine, as a longtime Upstate New Yorker) was written during the 1844 Presidential election, which ended with Democrat James K. Polk defeating Henry Clay of the Whigs. I find the text both entertaining and topical, and it made me do a little research to discover that “caucus” isn’t an ancient Roman or Greek word (as I would have supposed), but is a relatively recent addition to our American English dictionaries, most likely derived from an Algonquian word. Huh!
I hope you enjoy this little nugget of bygone times as much as I did. And in closing, here’s hoping we Iowans use our own upcoming caucus wisely (as the Democrats did in 1844 when they selected Polk at the national convention), whether we really know what the word means or not.
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