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shameless pleading






I use the Dust Bunny Decimal System.

Dear Word Detective: Well, I finally got around to reading Alice in Wonderland and learned that the race the animals who have been caught in Alice’s tears run in order to dry off is referred to by one of the animals as a “caucus-race.” This got me to thinking about the origin of the word “caucus.” The Oxford English Dictionary is no help — it says the word’s origins are obscure. Any thoughts? — Jackie.

Well, my first thought is that I don’t own too many books after all. It is true that I have perhaps 600 in my office and a few hundred more above the garage. It’s also apparent that our house is slowly sinking and my beloved books may be partially to blame. But I have long maintained that even the most obscure, dust-encrusted volume in my library may someday earn its keep, and today is that day. Halfway down a pile in the corner of my office I located (within thirty seconds, I must note) a dingy and dog-eared copy of “The Annotated Alice” by Martin Gardner. In erudite notes in the margins of both “Alice” and “Through the Looking Glass,” Mr. Gardner (who for many years wrote the “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American) explains many of the more obscure references and clever jokes Carroll hid in his “Alice” books. As we say in the explaining business, “Bingo!”

To begin at the beginning, a “caucus,” when the word first appeared in America just prior to the Revolution, was a private meeting of the leaders of a political party to pick candidates for office or conduct other internal party business. “Caucus” has broadened over the years to mean any sort of closed political meeting to decide policy, and has lately been in the news here in the US because some states use a “caucus” system (rather than primary elections) to apportion delegates to the national parties’ conventions.

As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes, the roots of “caucus” have been a mystery since it first appeared in English. It has been suggested that the term was borrowed from the Caucus Club, a social and political club in Boston at the time, which took its name from the Greek “kaukos,” or drinking cup. A more likely source is the Algonquin Indian word “caucauasu,” meaning “one who advises, urges, or encourages.” The OED is skeptical about this theory, but it makes perfect sense to me.

According to Gardner’s “Annotated Alice,” the “caucus-race,” in which various animals run in circles with no particular starting or stopping point, was a satire on the tail-chasing procedures of British political parties of the day, in which much energy and commotion produced little or no results.

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