Caucasus - caucuses

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Do not confuse the (near) homophones caucuses and Caucasus. Both are quite rare words, and unlikely to be confused, except by a slip of the mind, or an idiot spellchecker. Both are pronounced'CAWK-a-se (or u or i) s, IPA: /ˈkɔːk ə səs/. Only very careful speakers are apt to distinguish the last syllable, 'sers /əs/' for Caucasus from 'sizz' /ɪz/ for caucuses.

  • The Caucasus (or Caucasia) is the mountainous area of land lying between the Black Sea and the Azov Sea (to the west) and the Caspian Sea (to the east). It is largely characterized by two mountain ranges, the Greater Caucasus (also known as Ciscaucasia [~ 'this side of the Caucasus' to the Russians, who largely govern it] to the north, and the Lesser Caucasus (Transcaucasia) to the south. It has been regarded as the boundary between Europe and Asia since classical times. The adjective for 'coming from or to do with the Caucasus is caucasian.
Etymological note: the origin of the name Caucasus is obscure. Difficulties in tracing it include the fact that there are more languages spoken in the Caucasus than almost any area of comparable size on earth; some unique language families; and more than 50 ethnic groups, each with its own myths. The name certainly came to English from Latin Caucasus, a transliteration of Greek Καύκασος (Kaúkasos). Pliny the Elder said, in his Natural History, book six, chap. XVII (77–79 AD) that it came from a Scythian word similar to kroy-khasis, literally '[the mountain] ice-shining, white with snow'; but is possibly from a Pelasgian root kau-. The 'mountain'. Encyclopædia Britannica (on-line 2020) traces it to "Kaz-kaz, the Hittite name for a people living on the southern shore of the Black Sea". In a more specifically ethnic tradition, Georgian sources say that "[t]The term Caucasus is derived from Caucas (Georgian: კავკასოსი 'Kawḳasosi') the son of the Biblical Togarmah [the son of Japhet, grandson of Noah], legendary forefather of Nakh peoples [speakers of Nakh languages]." According to an XIth century Georgian chronicler, the word Caucasian is derived from the Vainakh ancestor Kavkas. "The Vainakhs are the ancient natives of the Caucasus. It is noteworthy, that, according to Leonti Mroveli, the legendary forefather of the Vainakhs was "Kavkas", hence the name Kavkasians, one of the ethnicons met in the ancient Georgian written sources, signifying the ancestors of the Chechens and Ingush. As appears from the above, the Vainakhs, at least by name, are presented as the most "Caucasian" people of all the Caucasians (Caucasus - Kavkas - Kavkasians) in the Georgian historical tradition." This may serve to show the complexity of etymological research in early times.
The German linguist Paul Kretschmer (1866–1956) noted that the Latvian word Kruvesis also means "ice" ([2020].)
  • Caucuses (the spelling to be preferred over caucusses) is the plural of caucus. A caucus is a group within a group, usually a pressure group or faction within a political party, set up to promote a particular policy or person. The word originated in the US, where it remains more common. (It forms one way in primaries of determining presidential candidates.) It seems originally to have been a means of controlling the outcome of elections, not just promoting particular candidacies. In early times there is often a sense of a caucus being a controlling group of the elite members of a party, manipulating the votes of ordinary members.
Etymological note: the etymology of caucus is obscure. It is first recorded in 1760, often in Collocation with 'club' or 'society'. One suggestion of its root, in The Century Dictionary (1889), is the post-classical Latin caucus drinking-cup, from the Byzantine Greek καῦκος or καυκίον 'cup' - which may suggest that the caucus of the elite was, like the classical Greek Symposium, a drinking party. It was suggested by John Pickering in 1816 that caucus may have been a mis-spelling of caulkers, implying that the first such club to have politically manipulative effect may have been the caulkers' club of Boston, a trade association of the men who made the joints between planks of ships' hulls watertight. (Shipyards have often been focuses of radical political thinking.) In 1872 Dr. J. H. Trumbull, an early specialist in Native American philology, suggested that the word might be derived from the Algonquin word caucauasu, which has the meaning of "one who advises". (Information from OED and [Webster's on-line dictionary].)