The Iowa Caucus indicates that election season is now in full swing in the United States. Presidential hopefuls are preparing for an exciting year of campaigning and competition. But what exactly is a caucus?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines caucus as, “a closed meeting of a group of persons belonging to the same political party or faction, usually to select candidates or to decide on policy.” That sounds straight-forward enough, but the origin of the word caucus has long been shrouded in mystery, since it first began to appear in the U.S. prior to the Revolutionary War.
The word appears as early as 1760 in the Boston Caucus Club, a members-only social and political club. In this instance, it is likely the word was taken from the Modern Greek, kaukos, meaning “drinking cup.” In 1763 the word is being used to describe a private meeting of party leaders or local voters, which is similarly how it is used today. In a private diary entry, a Bostonian man describes meetings of the Caucas Clubb as a group of locals who meet to drink, smoke, and decide leadership.
Similarly, caucus means “drinking vessel” in Latin, as well. Yet another possibility is that caucus is derived from the Algonquian word, caucauasu, meaning “counsel”. Interestingly, there is no direct translation for the word caucus in most other languages.