The Word of the Week is — gerrymander

“Gerrymandering” is the practice of drawing voting districts in convoluted shapes in order to benefit a certain group. The Supreme Court is going to issue an opinion on the practice in the months to come, but they might not mention the origin of the term. It came into use in the early nineteenth century when the Governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, earned the scorn of cartoonists when he drew a district so contorted that it resembled a salamander.

A word derived from a person’s name is an “eponym” and we have many. Scientific terms are familiar examples. Consider “pasteurized milk.” Diseases, scientific laws and theorems. Begonias and magnolias are named after botanists. It’s an honor.

Some words, however, seem to get attached to people who had no intention of cultivating such a legacy. The sandwich is named for the Fourth Earl of Sandwich who had a real gambling problem. During marathon gaming sessions he couldn’t bother to stop to eat. He ordered a slice of cold meat between two pieces of bread so he could snack without disturbing the game. The pompadour hairstyle is nothing new. It’s from the 19th century, named for a mistress of Louis XV, the Marquise de Pompadour who wore her hair with an upswept style. A leotard was named for a French acrobat, Jules Leotard.

A “mulligan” is golf terminology for a second chance, not allowed by the formal rules, after the first shot goes awry. Etymologists have had a hard time with the origin of “mulligan”, considering that it might have originated with a Canadian golfer whose friends pinned it on him although he preferred to call it a “correction shot.” A more colorful character is “Buddy” Mulligan, a locker room attendant from New Jersey who sometimes played a round with a reporter and the assistant pro after hours. He argued that he’d been working all day while they practiced and wheedled them out of the extra shot. Then bragged about it to the whole club and the members began to award themselves “mulligans” in his honor.

Bad actors are sometimes memorialized with a word that lives on. To “bowdlerize” means to censor, derived from Thomas Bowdler who had the nerve to publish an expurgated version of Shakespeare’s works, suitable for consumption by women and children. To “lynch” is associated with William Lynch of Virginia who led a vigilance committee during the Revolution to keep order. The original meaning was any form of summary justice, but it evolved to refer specifically to hanging, and after the Civil War, to the killing of black people by white mobs. Defenders of William Lynch may take comfort in the fact that some etymologists believe that the term originated with a different fellow, Charles Lynch.

Words are derived from fictional characters, too. A “malapropism” is a mistaken use of a word in place of one with a similar sound. E.g. “to dance a flamingo” (instead of “flamenco.”) The word refers to Mrs. Malaprop, a character in one of Sheridan’s plays. (I can’t pass up the opportunity to report that former Texas governor, Rick Perry recently referred to the states as “lavatories of innovation and democracy.”)

In prior opinions, the Supreme Court justices have hinted that, at some extreme point, gerrymandering to create a “safe district” for a political party might actually be unconstitutional if it deprived the minority party of a meaningful vote. The question would be, what test the judges could apply to determine when we’ve crossed that line. I’d like to propose that the court apply The Salamander Test, in honor of Elbridge Gerry. My own district would have a hard time passing.