J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, July 18, 2019

Why Do We Pronounced “Gerrymander” with a Soft G?

The story of the gerrymander is well known. In 1812, the Massachusetts General Court drew a state senate district that collected the large south Essex County towns of Marblehead and Salem and then snaked up through Andover and along the northern bank of the Merrimack River to Salisbury.

An artist at Russell and Cutler’s Boston Gazette saw that map and said the district shape resembled a salamander. To heighten the resemblance, he drew wings extending west out of Methuen—because salamanders have wings.

The Boston Gazette was a Federalist newspaper. The legislature was then in the hands of the Jeffersonians, and the governor who signed this districting plan, Elbridge Gerry, was also a Jeffersonian. So the newspaper decided to dub that supposedly monstrous district a “gerry-mander.”

A term spread a bit. In the seventh edition of The Olive Branch: or, Faults on Both Sides, Federal and Democratic (1815), Mathew Carey expounded on it and the practice it lampooned:

The senates, in almost every case, are composed of members chosen by districts, formed of two or more counties, which districts elect a number of senators in proportion to their population. . . .

The above arrangement and the adjustment of these districts opens a door to a considerable degree of intrigue and management, and invites to chicane and fraud—in one word, to the political sin, which I have styled Gerrymanderism. . . .

To accomplish this sinister purpose, counties are frequently united to form a senatorial district, which have no territorial connexion, being separated from each other by an intervening county, sometimes by two or three. Of this heinous political sin, both federalists and democrats, as I have said, have been guilty.

The state of Massachusetts was depicted, two or three years since, as a sort of monstrous figure, with the counties forming the senatorial districts, displayed on this unprincipled plan. It was called a Gerrymander, in allusion to the name of the late vice-president of the United States, then governor of that state. Hence I derive the term Gerrymanderism. To those who gave the title of Gerrymander, it might not unaptly be said—“men of glass; throw no stones.”
As that last paragraph makes clear, Elbridge Gerry had become a national figure, not just a regional one. He had been elected Vice President under James Madison and even served a year and a half before dying. So politically savvy people—the type of people who would use the term Gerrymanderism—knew about him. And knew that he pronounced his name with a hard G, as in glass.

Why, then, do we now all pronounce the word gerrymander with a soft G, as in Elbridge?

On a hunch, I ran the term through Google Books Ngram Viewer, and this is what it showed.
Although the term gerrymander was coined in the early republic, it really became popular around 1890, with additional booms after 1910, 1945, and 1960.

By the time the word really took hold, Americans had largely forgotten Elbridge Gerry, despite his career as a Signer of the Declaration of Independence, skeptical member of the Constitutional Convention, diplomat, Congressman, governor, and Vice President. Or at least people knew him only from the printed page, not from political discussions. Nobody was practiced in pronouncing his name.

Following the usual rule, folks assumed a G followed by an E was soft. Hence, gerrymander.


Charles Bahne said...

Some sources say that Gilbert Stuart was the artist who drew the claws and wings on the district map, to turn it into a beast. I have no idea how accurate that attribution may be.

Also, an older meaning for "salamander" was "a mythical lizard-like creature said to live in fire" or "an elemental spirit living in fire". That may be why this artist's creature had wings, unlike the salamanders we know today.

J. L. Bell said...

I’ve read the Gilbert Stuart story, but I think it's an example of celebrity attracting myth. It comes via Joseph T. Buckingham, who said the printer Russell coined the term "gerry-mander.”

Samuel Batchelder (1784-1879) of Cambridge wrote that the picture was made by Elkanah Tisdale, who's indeed established as an artist and engraver in Boston at the time. He said the poet Richard Alsop came up with “gerry-mander.”

Another tradition, published by James S. Loring and attributed by him ultimately to Benjamin Russell, says Tisdale did the drawing after Washington Alston and James Oglivie collaborated on the idea and the word.

Since the original point was that the long, curving district looked like a salamander, adding the wings strikes me as cheating. It gives away the Federalist game. The point wasn't so much that the district looked like a salamander as that a few added details and a label can associate the district map with something demonic.

Also not noted in this article is the claim by Gerry’s son-in-law and biographer James T. Austin that he opposed the districting but felt that as governor he had to defer to the legislature on all laws except those he felt were unconstitutional. Washington had a similar attitude early on, so perhaps that's true. We'd have to look at all of Gov. Gerry's vetoes.