As I was watching the Iowa results last night, a friend asked me what the Latin root of the word 'caucus' was. I had no idea, but vaguely remembered knowing at some point in the distant past that 'caucus,' while sounding vaguely Latin [or Greek] in origin, wasn't. So off to the OED I went, and found this etymological explanation:
"[Arose in New England: origin obscure. Alleged to have been used in Boston U.S. before 1724; quotations go back to 1763. Already in 1774 Gordon (Hist. Amer. Rev.) could obtain no ‘satisfactory account of the origin of the name’. Mr. Pickering, in 1816, as a mere guess, thought it ‘not improbable that caucus might be a corruption of caulkers', the word “meetings” being understood’. For this, and the more detailed statement quoted in Webster, there is absolutely no evidence beyond the similarity of sound; and the word was actually in use before the date (1770) of the event mentioned in Webster. Dr. J. H. Trumbull (Proc. Amer. Philol. Assoc. 1872) has suggested possible derivation from an Algonkin word cau´-cau-as´u, which occurs in Capt. Smith's Virginia 23, as Caw-cawaassough ‘one who advises, urges, encourages’, from a vb. 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.]"
Then, as if on cue, a post from J.L. Bell over at Boston 1775 came across the transom. That 1763 quotation mentioned above, the first known use of the word 'caucus,' was from a diary entry written by [drum roll please] John Adams. He wrote in February, 1763:
"Boston Feby. 1763. This day learned that the Caucas Clubb meets at certain Times in the Garret of Tom Daws, the Adjutant of the Boston Regiment. He has a large House, and he has a moveable Partition in his Garrett, which he takes down and the whole Clubb meets in one Room.
There they smoke tobacco till you cannot see from one End of the Garrett to the other. There they drink Phlip I suppose, and there they choose a Moderator, who puts Questions to the Vote regularly, and select Men, Assessors, Collectors, Wardens, Fire Wards, and Representatives are Regularly chosen before they are chosen in the Town. ..."
Bell's got more on the process, and promises another post today on the origins of the Boston caucus. I'll post a link to that when it's up. [Update: John's follow-up post is here; a third post covers three of the possible origins of the word].