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Etymology of Great Legal Words: Gerrymander

By George Khoury, Esq. | Last updated on

Great legal words come in all shapes and sizes. Take for instance the word gerrymander.

You might not believe it, but the word's origins are about as simple as they sound. It's a portmanteau of sorts of the name Gerry and salamander. But the history of how the term came to be doesn't trace back to Latin, Greek, or even French. The origin of the word actually doesn't go back that far, and stems from right here in the U.S.A.

Accidental Legacy

The term came into use after a Massachusetts bill was passed in 1812 to redraw the voting districts so as to give the party in power a better chance at keeping that power. A newspaper published a picture of the newly drawn districts, which were oddly shaped, narrow, and included embellishments such as claws and wings, and several highlighted districted to make the new district map resemble a salamander. The political cartoon was named the "Gerry-mander," combining then Governor Elbridge Gerry's name with the nefarious looking salamander.

Believe it or not, Governor Gerry did not want to sign the redistricting bill. But at the time, tradition held that the Massachusetts governor would not veto a bill unless it was unconstitutional, so Gerry signed it, forever sealing his legacy. Unfortunately for Gerry, he is not remembered for being a founding father, nor as one of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence, nor even as Vice President to President Madison. He died just two years after signing the gerrymandering bill, while serving as VP.

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