Feeling topical this morning, I have been dittering around on the internet – and dipping in and out of my much loved Historical Thesaurus of the the Oxford English Dictionary – wondering if the word caucus originated in the States. Caucus, and in particular the -ing form (gerund or participle? maybe depends on the usage?) sounds like an old sort of word. It makes me think of wassailing, and I don’t think that’s only because caucus rhymes with raucous.
It seemed to me there would be a bit of history out there about caucusing and caucuses, but what I came across instead was the perfect literary use of caucusing that I am a) only sad I hadn’t remembered myself from reading the book, and b) delighted with because it pretty much summed up some of the electoral craziness that has been going on over here for months.
I refer, of course, to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and in particular, to this:
Chapter 3 of Lewis Carroll’s famous novel (first published in 1863) is called A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale, and here is the pertinent text:
“What is a Caucus-race?” said Alice; not that she much wanted to know, but the Dodo had paused as if it thought that somebody ought to speak, and no one else seemed inclined to say anything.
“Why,” said the Dodo, “the best way to explain it is to do it.” (And, as you might like to try the thing yourself, some winter-day, I will tell you how the Dodo managed it.)
First it marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, (“the exact shape doesn’t matter,” it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no “One, two, three, and away!”, but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out “The race is over!”, and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, “But who has won?”
This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”
Particularly given the close results in the Democrat caucus last night, it seems to me that Alice might have grown up and turned into Hillary Clinton and that Bernie Sanders could be The Lory, who also takes part in the Dodo’s race and claims superiority over Alice because he’s older than she is. No? Just a thought.