The Supreme Court has ruled that gerrymandering is a state matter, CBS News reported June 27. Gerrymandering is a term defining the redrawing of voting districts. Where does political jargon come from and what does it mean for you?
Politically-charged terminology is becoming more and more complicated in the digital age, with countless new terms like “troll farms” and “birtherism” popping up in the news and in conversation. Last week, the Supreme Court decided that matters of “gerrymandering”—the partisan-based redrawing of voting districts—should be left in states’ hands. With gerrymandering back in the headlines, many people are left asking where some of the stranger-sounding Capitol Hill verbiage comes from and what it means.
The Etymology of Gerrymandering
The term “gerrymandering” takes its name from Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry, who was in office over 200 years ago. Gerry “later became vice president, and he was in power in 1812 as governor when the Democratic Legislature redrew the state’s districts in favor of their party in the State Senate,” said Dr. Anne Curzan, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan.
“The story of how we got to this term of gerrymandering is captured in an 1881 quote in the Oxford English Dictionary,” Dr. Curzan said. “The idea here is that when boundary lines got redrawn in Gerry’s home district—which was Essex—the district had a particularly striking shape; and when the painter Gilbert Stuart added a head, some wings, and claws to the map of that county, he declared to Mr. Russell, the editor of the Boston Sentinel, ‘That will do for a salamander.’ Russell is said to have retorted, ‘Call it a Gerrymander!’ and it stuck for the process of creating these weird-looking shapes for electoral regions.”
Dr. Curzan said it was originally a noun—a gerrymander—but it is now a verb, “gerrymandering.”
Pirates and Filibustering
Recently, many politicians have spent time on the Senate floor filibustering —obstructing or delaying legislation with lengthy speeches. However, the term “filibuster” actually originates with pirates. According to Dr. Curzan, the word seems to have been borrowed from Dutch, French, and Spanish at various times, but referred to pillagers of Spanish colonies in the West Indies in the 1600s.
“Between 1850 and 1860, ‘filibuster’ referred to bands of adventurers from the United States who violated international law by going to the Spanish West Indies or Central America to organize revolutionary activities,” she said. “By the end of the 19th century, the word ‘filibuster’ had generalized to anyone promoting unauthorized warfare in foreign states. In 1889, ‘filibuster’ was used for a person obstructing legislation—we get things like ‘a single determined filibuster.’ In 1890, ‘filibuster’ comes to refer to the activity itself, and it stuck for the activity, not the person.”
Political terms gain or lose negative connotations with the passing of time, including gerrymandering and filibustering. Keeping up with current meanings can take some effort. Knowing where legislative vernacular originates from and how its meaning has changed over time can help make sense of it all.
Dr. Anne Curzan contributed to this article. Dr. Curzan is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She earned a B.A. in Linguistics from Yale University and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan.