Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 32: A Caucus Cacophony

This week on Grammar Grater, we're going to examine a word that is appearing a lot in headlines and news stories lately. With so much attention being put on the U.S. elections, the word caucus is all over the place.

So naturally the question follows, what's a caucus?

Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary shows the word caucus is a noun that, in American politics, describes a meeting of a group of persons belonging to the same political party, and the meeting is usually organized to select candidates or to decide on policy.

The word caucus can also be used as a verb, and it means to hold or to meet in a caucus. Therefore, it can be used in these ways:
I'm planning to attend the caucus tonight.
Are you going to caucus this year?
Yes. In fact, I'm caucusing next week.
The etymologies in the dictionaries we looked in suggested the word caucus comes from an Algonquin Indian word. Caucus entered the English language through its use in the United States. The first print citation of the word happened in 1763.

It's important to note that the word caucus isn't confined to American politics; however, there are differences in the way the word caucus is used around the English-speaking world.

In the podcast, we got on the phone with David Roach in Saskatchewan, who told us that in Canada, a caucus is a group of members of parliament or of a legislative assembly belonging to the same political party. The term caucus is often used for regional subgroups of the larger caucus. Roach then went on to give examples from his home province.

Roach also said that caucus is used in other Commonwealth states. "Caucus means much the same thing in New Zealand and Australia as it does in Canada," he says, "but interestingly in Australia, the term caucus is only used by the Labor Party. And the term caucus is not really used in the U.K."

The plural form of caucus is caucuses, and that sounds just like the name of the mountain range, the Caucasus. Note the important spelling difference, however.

Located between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, the Caucasus range is generally considered the divide between Europe and Asia. It is the location of Mount Elbrus, which, at 18,510 feet or 5,642m and situated in the western Caucasus in the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, is the tallest peak in Europe, although Mont Blanc in the Alps sometimes argues that title.

Meanwhile, the members of the white race of people are sometimes called Caucasians, and this word is derived from the name of the mountain range, where it is supposed these people originated. Caucasian people are light-skinned people who are from or have ancestry in Europe, North Africa or Southwest Asia.

And although Caucasus Mountains and Caucasian sound a bit like the political word caucus, they are not connected.

Sources: Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary; Oxford Dictionary of Current English.

Music from this Episode: "Come Together" by Ike and Tina Turner; "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.

MPR News
Radio

Listen Now

On Air

Morning Edition®

Other Radio Streams from MPR

Classical MPR
Radio Heartland

Services