Thursday, March 15, 2012


After the last post on "jerry-rigged", I thought that the fact that both Kathleen Kirk and I had some association to the term "gerrymandered" made a look at that word interesting.

We all know what gerrymandering is, I think. (Just play along if that's not true, because all will be revealed.) It's when a voting district's boundaries are tinkered with to change the voting demographic within it to create a more favorable output to the one who's doing the tinkering.

If you're like me, you probably thought this was an ancient custom, going back to the days when Germanicus used to tromp around Germania. Or something.

Well, it probably did, given human nature, but the name is much more recent than that. "Gerrymandering" has no ancient etymology. It takes its name from one Elbridge Gerry, who happened to be governor of Massachusetts in 1812 and signed a bill that allowed redistricting that favored the Democrats against the Federalists. His critics made fun of the district that was in fact created, saying that it looked like a salamander. So to gerrymander is a portmanteau word--gerry plus salamander becomes gerrymander.

A vulture here, but a salamander to others.

Can I just say quickly here how refreshing it is for a change not to have to go back to Middle English and then Middle French and so on to find a word's derivation?

Gerry is reported to have only reluctantly signed the bill into law, but his name got attached to it anyway. His name is said to have been pronounced Gary, but gerrymander usually is pronounced Jerry-. If he wasn't proud of his act, it's probably just as well. He didn't make out too badly from the tactic. Elbridge Thomas Gerry became the fifth vice-president of the United States.


Now a really sort of odd thing happened around this. And I think Kathleen, if she's reading along here, will appreciate it. I typed out the beginning of this a couple of nights ago, and then thought I'd leave it lie a day. The next morning I got up and with the time change it was pretty dark still. I was all set to take a shower when I looked at the tub and saw a creature sitting there on the rim of the tub. It was a salamander. Admittedly, at the time, I didn't think 'salamander' or make any connection to this blog at all. I thought 'Lizard!' and I was a little freaked out because it was so still that I thought it might be dead. But no, it is was a Santa Cruz Black Salamander, as I discovered later. It was very much alive, because it took the opportunity to duck back into a crack as soon as I had the decency to turn out the light.

I never knew of the existence of the Santa Cruz Black Salamander until now. One of my naturalist friends says she has usually only seen them smashed on the road. Despite my freak out, it was very nice of the cute little thing to pay me a visit on the morning after I researched this post. And it was actually pretty nice of it to make its presence known before I got in the shower... 


  1. I am indeed delighted by all this!!

  2. Glad you got a kick out of it, Kathleen. I know I did.

  3. Did you know that Gerry Studds, the former Massachusetts congressman who was the focus of a sex-with-a-page scandal almost thirty years ago, was a descendant of Elbridge Gerry?

    I sense a certain theme in your recent posts. I look forward to entries on "jerry can" and "jerry curl."
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  4. Did not know that, Peter. It seems that gerrymandering pays off down the generations as well.

    I think this may be a short run on the gerry/jerry theme, but you never know.

    I do wonder, though, why names like Elbridge and Elwood were once so fashionable and now are not.

  5. oh..i love it!
    and i love the ole portmanteau words as well...haha where i came up in the northern part of oz we had a pollie who was famous for his nutty gerrymandering and could manage to win seats in parliament and ultimately power on roughly 20% of the vote...his districts looked like an electrical plan they were that skewiffed...
    and here was me thinking that there was some bloke called gerald mander or something who invented it hahahah

  6. oh yeah..i forgot...dont salamanders eat people, or have poisonous teeth or something?
    just a thought...

  7. Dan, so you guys call it gerrymandering too, huh? I was wondering how far it it had traveled as a term.

    Yeah, I bet there are poisonous scary salamanders, but the Santa Cruz one is small and harmless. One of my friend's found a scorpion in her shower last year, so I guess I should just count my blessings.

  8. As ever, a remarkably interesting and varied post.

    I continue to recommend you blog to friends, it is such a mine of information.

    Belated Saint Patrick's Day greetings from Dublin.

  9. Thank you, Maria. I got a lot of St. Patrick's Day greetings for some reason this year, which isn't usually the case. As it was a very busy Saturday at work, I basically just came home and lay low.

  10. You read and maintain contact with enough Irish crime writers and readers, you'll start getting lots of St. Patrick's Day greetings, I expect -- though the crapulous celebration of the holiday is largely American.

  11. The Irish celebration of it is kind of what surprised me, Peter. They're taking it back, I guess.

  12. Thanks, Collagemama. Not so fun if you're living in a gerrymandered state, however.

    There is a follow up story about the Santa Cruz Black Salamander, though. In the major bathroom repair that happened between now and then, the bathtub was removed and apparently there was a whole nest of them living underneath it. I didn't get to witness it, but my landlady did and apparently was quite freaked out.