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I learned this morning (from Adam Nagourney and Ian Lovett, "Whitey Bulger is arrested in California", NYT 6/23/2011) that

James (Whitey) Bulger, a legendary Boston crime boss indicted in 19 murders and who is on the F.B.I.’s 10 Most Wanted list, was arrested by federal authorities Wednesday night in Santa Monica, ending an international manhunt that had gone on since Mr. Bulger disappeared nearly 16 years ago, the F.B.I. announced.

This made me think, not of crime and punishment, but of euphony and usefulness.

Also cleverness, marketing, and chance.

In "Euphony and usefulness",  5/22/2006, I pondered the lessons of this passage from Frank Phillips, "Redistricting plan OK'd; critics assail contortions", Boston Globe, July 9, 1992:

Few of those who created the map seemed to want to take responsibility for it. Democrats blamed [Republican governor] Weld for the strange-looking districts, saying his insistence on creating a Merrimack Valley seat forced the mapmakers to create contorted districts.

But the governor shot back, charging that Senate President William Bulger had created the problem with his demand that any new map protect Rep. Joseph Moakley, a South Boston Democrat, dean of the Massachusetts delegation and chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee.

"We accommodated Joe Moakley and then we had to put a Bulgermander around that district," Weld said. "That's {Rep. Barney} Frank's district. It's very odd looking."

When asked to explain his use of the word Bulgermandering, Weld said: "Bulgermander. It's more euphonious than Weldmander. Weldmander will never stick. It's too hard to pronounce."

[The tenuous connection here is that William Bulger, then president of the Massachusetts Senate, is Whitey Bulger's brother.]

Of course, it takes more than euphony to make it to a Word Induction Ceremony. Bulgermander didn't stick either, despite also evoking the shape-distortion of bulge — the only current Google hits are to my 2006 weblog post and a couple of references to it.

But Gerrymander, the original 1812 Massachusetts coinage for the design of complex electoral districts to optimize political goals, has certainly caught on. Here's the picture that made it famous:

Here's a version of the coinage story, from Justin Winsor, Ed., The Memorial History of Boston (including Suffolk County, Massachusetts), v. 3, 1881 (as usual, click for a larger version):

According to his Wikipedia entry, Elbridge Gerry "was the unsuccessful Democratic-Republican nominee for governor of Massachusetts in 1800, 1801, 1802 and 1803. In 1810 he was finally elected Governor of Massachusetts as a Democratic-Republican. He was re-elected in 1811 but defeated in 1812 over his support for the redistricting bill that created the word gerrymander." He was James Madison's vice-president for a year and a half, starting in 1813, and died in office at the age of 70.

The other actors in this little lexicographical drama were Benjamin Russell, the founder and editor of the Columbian Centinel, and the famous painter Gilbert Stuart, who drew the head, wings, and claws on Russell's copy of the redistricting map.

I haven't yet found an image of the original newspaper article, but a version of the story circa 1820 can be found here, which claims that "All that we can learn of the natural history of this remarkable animal, is contained in the following learned treatise, published in the newspapers of March, 1812 …"

Note that this use of -mander, split off from salamander, was a sort of one-time application of the process at work in cases like sportspocalypse, snowmageddon,  and so on. Unlike these other liberated fragments, -mander doesn't seem to have spawned many further coinages, and none of them (as far as I know) have been even modestly successful. So -mander was freed from Salamander only to be caged again in Gerrymander.

In case you were wondering, -mander is not known to be a morpheme from the etymological point of view. According to the OED, the English word salamander is

< French salamandre (12th cent.), < Latin salamandra, < Greek σαλαμάνδρα.

Neither LSJ nor L&S offers any further decomposition.

Anyhow, to confirm that the spirit of Elbridge Gerry is not dead, here is the map of Pennsylvania's 6th Congressional District, the location of my current legal residence:

The opinion of the learned Dr. Watergruel on the genus and species of this shape has not yet been determined. But the map is courtesy of govtrack.us, a site created and run by Josh Tauberer, recently awarded a PhD in linguistics  from Penn.


  1. Bobbie said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 7:21 am

    Your Congressional district is not half as convoluted as some in New Jersey! District 12 spans almost the entire state from East to West, and District 13 contains non-contiguous sections! See them here. http://www.nationalatlas.gov/printable/congress.html#nj

  2. Bill Walderman said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 7:26 am

    Chantraine, Dictionnaire etymologique de la langue grecque, while not offering an etymology for salamandra, notes that it rhymes with certain obscure words such as skolopendra, "centipede" and mandra, a sort of park or enclosure–words that are supposed to have been borrowed from an unknown non-Indo-European Asian language. So who knows? Maybe mandra (or possibly andra) was ultimately a discrete morpheme in some language.

  3. GeorgeW said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 7:53 am

    Salamander sure feels like two (or more) morphemes from some language. I wonder how many 4-syllable words are primitive in any language.

  4. Layra said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 8:21 am

    No idea of credibility, but Wiktionary claims that "salamandar" comes from the Persian "samandar" and splits as "sām" (fire) and "andarūn" (walker). Can anyone evaluate this claim?

  5. Ian Preston said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 8:26 am

    @Layra: Here's a similar claim in a Persian-English dictionary (though it says "andarūn" means "within").

  6. Spell Me Jeff said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 8:50 am


    Your shape is that of a leprechaun smoking a pipe while holding an automatic weapon at parade rest.


  7. Chris said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 9:00 am

    A few years back, Slate ran a slideshow of the most gerrymandered Congressional districts.

    My favorite is Illinois's 4th, which comprises two halves that are connected by a thin strip containing only a tollway.

  8. Marc Cenedella said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 9:19 am

    Beautiful turn of phrase on this "So -mander was freed from Salamander only to be caged again in Gerrymander." Huzzah!

  9. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 9:19 am

    What about the change in pronunciation from the /g/ Gerry to the /ʤ/ gerrymander?

  10. Robert Coren said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 9:54 am

    Two mostly irrelevant sidelights:

    I note that on the cartoon map, my second-home location (not part of the highlighted district) is spelled "Glocester", which I understand to be the original spelling of the name of its English original, but I did not know that this spelling was ever current in the colonies.

    I'm amused that I first learned of the arrest of Whitey Bulger (which is, of course, a big deal locally) from Language Log.

  11. Mike Koplow said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 10:07 am

    We're moving a few miles so my son will be in a different school district. When people ask about the district boundaries, I tell them it's a gerryamoeba. But I've got to admit it doesn't come close to Illinois 4th. Nevertheless, I like "gerryamoeba" and will continue to use it.

  12. John F said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 10:18 am

    @Coby Lubliner
    Has Gerry ever not be pronounced with a /ʤ/ ?

  13. John F said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 10:27 am

    sorry, s/be/been/

  14. Spell Me Jeff said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 11:25 am

    @John F


  15. Mr Punch said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 12:34 pm

    The Gerry family name is pronounced with a hard g. There's an area of Cambridge, Massachusetts known as Gerry's Landing, which is pronounced quite differently from the former Jerry's Pit across town.

  16. Matt McIrvin said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 1:05 pm

    I always like to see this cartoon because it's my neighborhood. I live just outside the Gerrymander itself, on the bank of the Merrimack River opposite its throat.

    It's also of some currency, since Massachusetts is losing representation following the most recent census, and redistricting is in progress; the congressional district we're currently in (which isn't shaped like that) is in some danger of being split up, and my Representative is agitating all over for us to oppose this.

  17. RP said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 2:19 pm

    @Coby Lubliner,

    I don't think it is too surprising that the pronunciation has changed, as it is easy to see why people not familiar with the word's origin (or those familiar with it but without knowing the pronunciation of the Gerry family name) might assume it's a soft g. The OED gives both pronunciations and puts the hard g first – though I have never heard it pronounced that way.

    @Robert Coren,

    The English spelling is "Gloucester" with a "u". (It may well be that "Glocester" was in use at some point though.) It is pronounced "gloster" though. (There are numerous English placenames with this pattern: "Leicester", "Worcester", "Bicester", "Towcester" are pronounced "lester", "wuster", "bister", "toaster". The pronunciation of "Cirencester" varies; some favour "sissiter", but the full form "sirencester" is more commonly heard.)

  18. Robert Coren said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 2:48 pm

    @Coby Lubliner: Furthermore, former Congressman Gerry Studds, who is a descendant (I think direct, but possibly collateral) of Elbridge Gerry, pronounces his given name with a hard "g"; but very few of the people I ever heard refer to him did so.

    @RP: Yes, I know all that, and I get a little exercised at non-New Englanders who pronounce the first syllable to rhyme with "how". I once heard somewhere (likely not anywhere authoritative) that the city fathers of the parent city in England added the "u" to the name at some point so that their city's name would have more letters than its rival, Leicester. (Given the lack of standardization of pre-19th-century English spelling, this seems unlikely.)

  19. Rubrick said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 6:47 pm

    @Spell Me Jeff:
    "Your shape is that of a leprechaun smoking a pipe while holding an automatic weapon at parade rest."

    Damn, you're good. Although I have an ugly suspicion that that "pipe" is actually another firearm.

  20. Lars said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 7:22 pm

    The OED says salamander is derived from the Greek σαλαμάνδρα through the Latin salamandra.

    [(myl) To be specific, as I pointed out in the body of the post, the OED says that English salamander is

    < French salamandre (12th cent.), < Latin salamandra, < Greek σαλαμάνδρα. ]

  21. Zora said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 10:22 pm

    Anderun, within, is also the Persian term for the women's quarters … the world within.

  22. micah said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 10:44 pm

    I've seen both "dummymander" and "baconmander" used in political blogging circles, though they may be too specific to catch on more generally.

    (A dummymander is an overly ambitious gerrymander that could backfire easily — say, giving everyone in your own party a district where you expect them to get 51% of the vote. A baconmander is a particularly egregious kind of gerrymander where you carve up a city into little tiny strips to redistribute its vote more effectively — like this proposal for New York which has congressional districts extending all the way from Manhattan to Buffalo.)

  23. Martin B said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 1:41 am

    There was a long-standing malapportionment in my home state of Queensland, Australia under Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen that became widely known within Australia as the 'Bjelkemander'. Google turns up a lot of hits for this term, although not so many primary sources.

  24. army1987 said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 8:01 am

    Unlike these other liberated fragments, -mander doesn't seem to have spawned many further coinages, and none of them (as far as I know) have been even modestly successful.
    Unless you count the Pokémon called Charmander. :-)

    [(myl) How could I forget? When my youngest was four or five, he could (and frequently did) sing this whole song…]

  25. James C. said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 9:28 am

    Funny thing about the Bjelkemander (and similar systematic malapportionments in South Australia and Western Australia; the latter was only abolished in 2007) was that they were not in the least oddly shaped. Shown a map, one would have thought that the electoral boundaries were drawn up with impeccable impartiality and respect for the interests of the population as a whole. It was just that the constituencies in the country each held only half as many people as the ones in the city.

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