Inquiring Minds: Where does the word ‘gerrymander’ come from?

Q. There’s a big case before the Supreme Court now about redrawing the lines of political districts. The word “gerrymander” has been used, and that’s what interests me.  Where does that strange word come from?

A. Without taking any position on Gill v. Whitford, the case that is currently being considered by the Supreme Court, we can talk about an interesting sidelight to the issue it raises. The plaintiffs in that case are asking the Supreme Court to rule on whether the Republican-dominated State Assembly of Wisconsin drew up an acceptable redistricting plan for the state in time for the 2010 election. Opponents claim that the plan was unfair, and they use the interesting word “gerrymander” when they accuse the legislators involved of ‘manipulating the boundaries of political districts in order to favor one political party or group over another.’ 

The word “gerrymander” comes from the last name of Elbridge Gerry, the governor of Massachusetts. In 1812, under his leadership, the Massachusetts legislature so contorted the outline of political districts in Boston that an opposition newspaper cartoonist sketched one district with head, wings, and claws to make it look more like a mythical salamander than a respectable political unit. “It’s not a salamander,” replied the editor, “It’s a gerrymander!” And thus was born the name for the process of creating oddly-shaped political districts for partisan purposes. One interesting side note is that we’ve been pronouncing Elbridge Gerry’s name wrong all these years. He and his contemporaries pronounced his last name as if it were spelt “gary.”  So strictly speaking, the Supreme Court will soon issue an opinion on “garymandering” in the case of Gill v. Whitford. 

(Oxford English Dictionary and online resources.)


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