Back

Gerrymander: A Peculiar Word with an Equally Peculiar Origin

Gerrymandering is an oft-discussed topic among political writers, television pundits, and lawmakers. A 2017 Associated Press report alleged Republicans had used the practice to tip election results in their favor. The Supreme Court recently weighed in, suggesting it may rule against a gerrymandering case that favors Pennsylvania Democrats. The ethics, and perceived benefits, of gerrymandering are what keep it front of mind in politics, but the word's origin offers a unique story that demands a closer look.

Merriam-Webster defines gerrymander as dividing an area into election districts that give special advantages to one group or political party. As a noun, a gerrymander is the resulting district or pattern, which tends to differ greatly in size or population compared to surrounding districts.

The word first entered the lexicon in 1812, and unlike many of the words we dissect here, which have Greek or Latin origins, gerrymander is a uniquely American creation. Then, Elbridge Gerry, a Founding Father who would later become the 5th U.S. Vice President, served as Massachusetts governor. Gerry was a staunch supporter of Democratic-Republicans and worked to reduce the influence of Federalists, even prosecuting newspapers that espoused Federalist views.

Democratic-Republican lawmakers reworked Massachusetts' Senate districts to benefit their party. Prior to the redistricting, the state had strictly followed natural county lines. Gerry signed the redistricting bill into law in February of 1812. That March, an illustrator named Elkanah Tisdale sketched a drawing of the new district, adding monster-like features like claws and a snakehead. The oddly shaped district resembled a salamander. Poet Richard Alsop suggested, instead of a salamander, that it was a Gerry-mander.

The drawing was published in the Boston Gazette that March, and the word grew in popularity. Despite the widespread ridicule, gerrymandering worked, and the redistricting gave the Democratic-Republicans the additional Senate seats they sought.

Gerry is most often remembered for the practice of gerrymandering; however, his political contributions weren't all unscrupulous. In addition to being a Founding Father, he played significant roles in debating or devising the Bill of Rights and limiting the power of government.

Some people mistakenly link gerrymander with another peculiar wordÔøΩ jerry-built. Unfortunately, the only thing these two words have in common is their pronunciation, and the fact that they aren't derived from Greek or Latin. Jerry-built is a colloquial word, meaning "built cheaply and unsubstantially" or "carelessly or hastily put together", and it first surfaced in 1844.

An argument could be made that a gerrymander is a just a jerry-built district. But officially, the two words are used in reference to different circumstances.

Though gerrymandering has a unique and humorous origin, the conversation surrounding the political practice in 2018 is quite serious. Aside from Pennsylvania, there are high-profile gerrymandering cases pending in Wisconsin, Maryland, North Carolina, and MichiganÔøΩ the outcomes of which could impact the upcoming mid-term elections. It seems gerrymandering, a word that came to fruition in the early 1800s, could reach a new peak of popularity in the months to come.