This word carries an air of improvisation, with its echoes of jerrycan, jerry-built, and jury-rigged, and it has a wandering sense, with its clear hint of meander and its long, wandering form (starting with that squiggly g). It almost sounds like a phrase (‘Dja remand ‘er?). In usage, it inevitably has a sense of seaminess, corrpution, or anyway political dirty-dealing: redrawing the borders of electoral districts so as to give an advantage to one party.

This is a word the exact origin of which is well known – it traces to a political cartoon (see The governor of Massachusetts in 1812, Elbridge Gerry, signed into law a redistricting the state to disadvantage his opponents and favour his party to ensure more wins than a strictly proportional representation would have allowed. One of these districts wandered in a shape that a political cartoonist (Gilbert Stuart) saw as like a salamander. His editor, Benjamin Russell, suggested the term Gerrymander as a blend of Gerry and salamander.

There are two things to know about Gerry and salamander. First, while today we just think of a house-pet lizard when we see salamander, the salamander was long given mythic qualities and endowed in the imagination with various magical powers, including a great affinity to fire. In effect, it was akin to a dragon in the mind of the Massachusetts man in 1812. Second, the last name of Elbridge Gerry (not Eldritch, but given what we’ve just said about salamanders, you may wonder) was pronounced like “Gary,” not like “Jerry.” (There’s a town in New York State that has this same issue: Gerry, near Jamestown, not said like “Jerry.”) But most people don’t know that, and haven’t known that for a long time, so gerrymander starts with the affricate, not the stop.

Gerrymander is both a noun (the original usage) and a verb (the now more common usage). Some may argue that there is value in gerrymandering, constructing anfractuous districts to form coherent voting blocks of like-minded people to allow them representation. However, it may be argued that this is not really gerrymandering unless it results in their having significantly less (or more) representation than they would proportionally get: it is not simply the form but the results that matter in the definition. If you create districts such that party A gets overwhelming wins in a few districts and narrow losses in many others, you can allow party B to get more seats with fewer voters by letting them win narrowly in many districts and lose by wide margins in a few. That’s gerrymandering; putting together districts that allow different groups to have a reasonable voice in the legislature isn’t.

But it also has to be deliberate. The sort of accident of geography that allows the Bloc Québecois to gain far more seats in the Canadian Parliament than a national party with many more voters (Kim Campbell may remember this especially bitterly) doesn’t count. Gerrymander imputes deliberate wrongdoing, and without the deliberateness or the wrongdoing it’s just funny-looking or unfortunate… or proof of the need of a better electoral system.

Thanks to Dianne Fowlie for suggesting today’s word.


One response to “gerrymander

  1. No relation, that I know of (Dianne, I mean). Odd to have two of us with this rare surname following you.

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