Why ‘gerrymander’ was originally the name of a monstrous salamander.

MEANING

 

The noun gerrymander denotes a redistricting of voting areas to the advantage of one party or disadvantage of a group, region, etc.

 

ORIGIN

 

This noun appeared in 1812 as Gerry-mander, a blend of the surname of the American statesman Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814) and the noun salamander.

As a Democratic-Republican, Elbridge Gerry was elected to the governorship of Massachusetts in 1810, and re-elected in 1811. In 1812, his administration enacted a law redistricting the state in such a way as to give the Democratic-Republicans disproportionate representation in the senate of Massachusetts.

A satirical drawing, first published in the Boston Gazette (Boston, Massachusetts) of Thursday 26th March 1812, transformed the irregularly shaped outline of a district into a monster with claws and wings, named the Gerry-mander.

That drawing, and the text accompanying it, were exactly as follows in the Boston Gazette of that day:

The Gerry-mander.
A new species of Monster, which appeared in Essex South District in January last.

The Gerry-mander’ - Boston Gazette (Boston, Massachusetts) - 26 March 1812

“O generation of Vipers! who hath warned you of the wrath to come?”
[see footnote 1]

The horrid Monster, of which this drawing is a correct representation, appeared in the County of Essex, during the last session of the Legislature. Various and manifold have been the speculations and conjectures among learned naturalists respecting the genus and origin of this astonishing production. Some believe it to be the real Basilisk, a creature which had been supposed to exist only in the poet’s imagination. Others pronounce it the Serpens Monocephalus of Pliny [see footnote 2], or single-headed Hydra, a terrible animal of pagan extraction. Many are of opinion that it is the Griffin or Hippogriff of romance, which flourished in the dark ages, and has come hither to assist the knight of the rueful countenance in restoring that gloomy period of ignorance, fiction and imposition. Some think it the great Red Dragon, or Bunyun’s [sic] Apollyon [see footnote 3] or the Monsirum [sic] Horrendum of Virgil [see footnote 4], and all believe it a creature of infernal origin, both from its aspect, and from the circumstances of its birth.
But the learned Doctor Watergruel who is famous for peeping under the skirts of nature, has decided that it belongs to the Salamander tribe, and gives many plausible reasons for this opinion. He says though the Devil himself must undoubtedly have been concerned, either directly or indirectly in the procreation of this monster, yet many powerful causes must have concurred to give it existence, amongst which must be reckoned the present combustible and venomous state of affairs. There have been, (says the Doctor) many fiery ebullitions of party spirit, many explosions of democratic wrath and fulminations of gubernatorial vengeance within the year past, which would naturally produce an uncommon degree of inflammation and acrimony in the body politic.  But as the Salamander cannot be generated except in the most potent degree of heat, he thinks these malignant causes, could not alone have produced such diabolical effects. He therefore ascribes the real birth and material existence of this monster, in all its horrors, to the alarm which his Excellency the Governor and his friends experienced last season, while they were under the influence of the Dog-Star & the Comet—and while his Excellency was pregnant with his last speech, his libelous message, and a numerous litter of new judges and other animals, of which he has since been happily delivered. This fright and purturbation [sic] was occasioned by an incendiary letter threatening him with fire-brands, arrows and death; (if his proclamation is to be credited) which was sent to him by some mischievous wight, probably some rogue of his own party, to try the strength of his Excellency’s mind. Now his Excellency, being somewhat like a tinder-horn, and his party very liable to take fire, they must of course have been thrown into a most fearful panic, extremely dangerous to persons in their situation, and calculated to produce the most disastrous effects upon their unborn progeny.
From these premises the sagacious Doctor most solemnly avers there can be no doubt that this monster is a genuine Salamander, though by no means perfect in all its members; a circumstance however which goes far to prove its legitimacy [see footnote 5]. But as this creature has been engendered and brought forth under the sublimest auspices, he proposes that a name should be given to it, expressive of its genus, and at the same time conveying an elegant and very appropriate compliment to his Excellency the Governor, who is known to be the zealous patron and promoter of whatever is new, astonishing and erratic, especially of domestic growth and manufacture. For these reasons and for other valuable considerations, the Doctor has decreed that this monster shall be denominated a Gerry-mander, a name that must exceedingly gratify the parental bosom of our worthy Chief Magistrate, and prove so highly flattering to his ambition, that the Doctor may confidently expect in return for his ingenuity and fidelity, some benefits a little more substantial than the common reward of virtue.
That asstute [sic] naturalist Lubricostus however in the 26th section of his invaluable notes upon the Salamander, clearly shews that this word is a corruption of the Latin Salimania, expressing the characteristic dislike and almost hydrophobic antipathy of that animal for sea salt: “Oweinge (to use the words of the author) to the properties and virtues of the sayde mineralle, as is well knowen to moste folke, in dampeinge the heate of that elemente of fyre, wherein the sayde beaste doth abide, so that if a piece of salt, or any marine thinge be placed neare it, it dothe fret it sorely, and enrage it to such madnesse that it dothe incontinently throw from its mouthe a venomous spittle, which dothe tarnishe and destroy all that is of worth or value that it fallethe upon: A further and most manyfest proofe of which deadlie hatred appearethe in that, whereas, on and neare the renouned salt mountayne, so called, amydst alle the marvells and wonders with which it dothe abounde, not any of this Lizarde species hath been discoverable thereyne.” We therefore propose, with the utmost deference to the ingenious Doctor’s opinion, that the term Gerry-mania be substituted for Gerry-mander, as highly descriptive both of the singular ferocity of the monster in question, and the influence which the moon at certain periods, more especially on the approach of April, is supposed to exert over it.
A friend of ours has further suggested that there is a peculiar felicity at the present time in adopting the term Gerry-mania, as according to his definition, Gerry is derived from the French Guerre, or the Italian Guerra, (war) and that it therefore possesses the double advantage of expressing the characteristic ferocity of this monster, and that magnanimous rage for war which seems to have taken such possession of our worthy Chief Magistrate and his friends. But we mention this merely as an ingenious speculation, being well convinced ourselves, notwithstanding appearances, of the truly pacific sentiments of that great man, whose mild and charitable denunciations of his political opponents have had such a wonderful effect in convincing their reason, allaying the spirit of party, and in reconciling all conflicting opinions.

 

Notes

 

1-: O generation of Vipers! who hath warned you of the wrath to come? is a misquotation of the gospel of Matthew, 3:7, and of the gospel of Luke, 3:7:

gospel of Matthew, 3:7 – King James Version (1611):
But when he [= John the Baptist] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his Baptisme, he said vnto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

 

2-: The phrase Serpens Monocephalus (i.e., monocephalic snake) does not seem to have been used by the Roman statesman and scholar Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus – 23-79) in Naturalis Historia (The Natural History – 77). The only instance that I have found predating the article published in the Boston Gazette is from Tænia, a thesis in biology that one Georges Dubois presented in 1748 at Uppsala, Sweden, before a jury presided by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (Carl von Linné – 1707-78).

 

3-: Apollyon is a monster in The pilgrim’s progress from this world to that which is to come delivered under the similitude of a dream, wherein is discovered the manner of his setting out, his dangerous journey, and safe arrival at the desired countrey (London, 1678), by the English author John Bunyan (1628-88).

 

4-: This is from the description of the Cyclops Polyphemus in the Aeneid, by the Roman poet Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro – 70-19 BC):

monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lumen ademptum
     translation:
a horrible monster, deformed, huge, whose eye had been taken

 

5-: The word illegitimacy was used instead of legitimacy in a broadside (Salem, Massachusetts – 1812) reproducing the drawing and text originally published in the Boston Gazette.

 

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