2016 US-to-UK Word of the Year: gerrymander

In a year like this year, it's no surprise that most of the Word-of-the-Year nominations related to politics, either directly or indirectly (like the 2016 UK-to-US WotY). Several of my correspondents have been noticing Americanisms in British political talk and Britishisms in American political talk. Partly, I put this down to the internationality of journalism. American reporters are in London, trying to make sense of British politics for American readers/listeners, and British reporters are in Washington doing the reverse. And there is cachet going both ways: using a bit of the other country's jargon makes you sound more cosmopolitan--at least that's why I think backbencher made it to the US last year.

This year, the US-to-UK Word of the Year was not just a stylish synonym of an existing BrE word, but a word with no native BrE equivalent. The word is (ta-da!):

gerrymander


To give a 19th century definition of the US-origin term (cited in the OED) a gerrymander is:
a method of arranging election districts so that the political party making the arrangement will be enabled to elect a greater number of representatives than they could on a fair system, and more than they should have in proportion to their numerical strength (National Encyclopedia, 1868)

The name is a blend (or 'portmanteau') of the name Gerry and salamander--as another OED quotation explains:

In 1812, while [Elbridge] Gerry was governor [of Massachusetts], the Democratic Legislature, in order to secure an increased representation of their party in the State Senate, districted the State in such a way that the shapes of the towns, forming such a district in Essex [County], brought out a territory of singular outline. This was indicated on a map which Russell, the editor of the Centinel, hung in his office. Stuart, the painter, observing it, added a head, wings, and claws, and exclaimed, ‘That will do for a salamander!’ ‘Gerrymander!’ said Russell, and the word became a proverb. (Henry Cabot Lodge, 1881)

Though gerrymander started as a noun, today the -ing form is often seen as a noun describing the process. In fact, the first instance of the verb in the OED is an -ing form used as a noun:
1812   Salem Gaz. 22 Dec. 2/4   So much..for War and Gerrymandering.

In the UK, the setting of constituency boundaries is done by a non-partisan commission, so it is supposed to be immune to gerrymandering. But the proposals for 2018 (submitted to the public for review this year) mean that the Labour party is expected to lose a number of seats and the Conservatives gain some. The word came to mind when I looked at the changes to the Brighton and Hove boundaries. It looked to me like it was designed to make it more difficult for Labour and the Green Party to keep their seats in the city. Hove (which goes back and forth between Labour and Conservative) had been  split up so that it swooped over into the part of Brighton that is a Green mainstay. (Just my gut reaction at the time, not trying to make any real claims about the Commission's intention.)

Labour MP Stephen Kinnock called the proposals "a bare-faced gerrymander", resulting in lots of responses also using the term:

The word gerrymander has popped up into British English with some regularity since the late 19th century--whenever boundaries are being re-set. The UK "gerrymanders" are considerably less amphibian-like than, say, the districts of North Carolina. It struck me this year that the word was easily used in headlines, newspaper articles, and blog posts with no explanation--it has become a word that British people are just expected to know.

Given its now-native-but-non-native status in BrE, the dictionary treatments of it are interesting (to me, at least). The OED online still marks it as "U.S.", but Oxford Dictionaries (the same publisher's more 'general dictionary' website) doesn't. Cambridge has gerrymander as a U.S. word only, but has gerrymandering in British. Macmillan has gerrymandering without marking it as U.S., but anti-etymologically has gerrymander as a word deriving from it. Then again, in BrE that might be what happened--the -ing form coming in from America and only later back-formed into gerrymander.


The Google Books ngram chart above gives data only from books, only to 2008. The News on the Web corpus (2010-yesterday) shows that the Google books chart is misleading in terms of how much people actually run into these words in each country:


The .049 per million in British news is steady across time in that corpus, and many if not most of the UK usages of the term are talking about US events. But since many this year are specifically talking about the Boundary Commission Review, with many news and opinion pieces boldly using the word, I'm comfortable making gerrymander the US-to-UK word of the year for 2016. I can't say "Welcome to the UK" to it, but I can say "Nice to see you in Britain".

19 comments

  1. How is it pronounced in BrE? The traditional AmE pronunciation is with [g] as in go rather than [dʒ] as in gem, following the pronunciation used by the Gerry family to this day, but AmE dictionaries seem to favor the spelling pronunciation [dʒ].

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    1. I think everybody says it like "jerry" now. It's often misspelt as such.

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    2. It is correctly pronounced with a hard G, similar to "get" and to "Geary Street" (in San Francisco). Please do not mis-pronounce with a soft g. It has nothing to do with anyone named Jerry. It was named after Elbridge Gerry with a hard g. Thank you.

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    3. Too late! What you call the 'correct' pronunciation doesn't exist in British English and (as far as I know) never has.

      It's not surprising that we use a spelling pronunciation. Slightly less predictable that so many of you use it in America. A pretty clear sign that it spread as a word which people discovered by reading, not be hearing.

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  2. I learned it with the j pronunciation in 7th grade civics in the 1970s (in Massachusetts even). I had no idea it had ever been pronounced any other way!

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  3. I'm kind of surprised to see this as your word of the year.

    As I've said before I'm a biologist by training, that makes me a functional, applied statistician, and like a lot of statisticians I'm an amateur (distinctly amateur) psephologist too. Perhaps that makes gerrymander and its variations part of my specialist vocabulary and, as you say, it's come back and forth before but this year seems to have entered the mainstream. But it's a word that I've used happily for 20 years or more and would expect most people around me to understand.

    On the pronunciation, as Lynne says, like Jerry. I wouldn't occur to me to use the hard G sound, but it wouldn't occur to me to use it for the family name until someone corrected me either.

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  4. Believe it or not, it was hard to find a US-to-UK word that fit the criteria this year! So, I went with this one on the criterion of topicality more than newness. (Newness has never been much of a criterion here anyhow.)

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  5. I, too, was surprised to find you have chosen this word - it is totally not a new immigrant into the UK, as it was widely used in relation to (and the thing itself was arguably a major cause of) the Troubles in Northern Ireland back in the 1970s. I assumed that it was a word in widespread use in all versions of English.

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    1. I completely agree and was very surprised by the suggestion that “gerrymander” is new to British English. I am old enough to remember the Norther Ireland civil rights movement and gerrymanding to the disadvantage of Catholic citizens was an important factor in the development of that movement. Here's a link to a BBC page that gives a simple account of the background - http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/northern_ireland/understanding/events/civil_rights.stm

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  6. I did actually know that the word came from the US, but that was a long long time age.

    We use the word in Britain when the practice is suspected. As Mrs Redboots says, it was on everybody's lips in Northern Ireland before we in Mainland Britain took on the phenomenon and its name in the 1970's.

    The Boundary Commission has enjoyed a relatively positive reputation in recent decades, so the accusation has not so often been levelled. What prompted the upwelling of suspicion is the move by the Tory government to reduce the number of constituencies — indirectly forcing the Boundary commission to redraw electoral boundaries in such a way as to favour the Tories.

    When the phenomenon re-arose — at least in some people's opinion — we didn't have to turn to 21st century America to find a word for it.

    The word regicide is less popular than it once was for similar reasons. Not to mention defenestration. Nor is the accusation of personation bandied about much these days.

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    1. I think the suspicion was disingenuous. There were two issues; (i) the desire to reduce the number of MPs; (ii) the need to rebalance the constituencies - make their populations more equal - after demographic changes. The issues are independent. For various reasons Labour-voting constituencies had lost population. This gave an unfair advantage to Labour. Whether or not the number of constituencies was reduced or increased, this unfair advantage would be reduced by the redrawing of boundaries to equalise populations.

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    2. There were many issues. The Tories chose two. It was they, not the Electoral Commission ,that decided that these two issues must be addressed by wholesale boundary changes.

      It's asking too much of the opponents — in several parties — of the Tories to believe that they were guided by any but self-serving motives.

      Of course it wasn't by any standards a case of genuine gerrymandering. The government itself did not redraw the boundaries. But if your gut feeling is that the Government indirectly forced those changes to happen, then the word is a handy accusation.

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  7. Good gracious! I'd always thought this was a Br word and that is was 'Jerrymandering'.

    When, as a kid, I asked why 'Jerrymandering' for manipulating political boundaries, my nan (b.1910, London) told me, “Nothing good comes with Jerry.”

    Then she gave me the examples of 'jerry built' (my grandad was a builder – a decent one, not a bodger [botcher?]) and 'the Jerry', being the war-time name for the Germans (my nan had survived two world wars – some of her relatives hadn’t – so she was a little blinkered on the topic of nationality).

    In the late 1980’s the ‘Homes for votes’ scandal at Westminster Council ensured that everyone in the UK knew what ‘g/jerrymandering’ meant, even if the original meaning of moving boundaries had been morphed, in this instance, to moving the populace (and thereby, voting allegiances) within the same boundaries.

    Now when I hear the word ‘gerrymander’ my mind will form a picture of the pet salamander I had as a child (alas, mine had no wings!) wrapped around a map, instead of ‘Dame’ Shirley Porter in a German tin helmet holding a homemade carpenters rule. Result!

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  8. Well I'm very surprised by this choice. I thought gerrymander had always been in heavy use in the UK. It always has been with the people I know, although one of my main interests is psephology so maybe that has skewed things.

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  9. First attested use of "jerry-built" is 1856; of "Jerry" as "German" is WWI.

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  10. I remember seeing the word as a page heading in a dictionary I used to use as a (UK) schoolgirl in the 60s. I hadn't remembered the exact definition, just that it was some political misdemeanour.

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  11. @Unknown:

    The eponym of Mount Everest pronounced his own surname like the two word phrase "Eve wrist". Pronunciation, like other aspects of language, is determined by actual usage.

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  12. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  13. 'gerrymander' has been well-known in England for as long as I remember, which in political terms is over 40 years. Hardly a new borrowing. But always referring to American practice. I don't think it happens here, luckily, despite recent accusations.

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)