Tuesday, October 7, 2008


I'm reading Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787 by Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier. It was published over twenty years ago (1986) and I'd thought about reading it before, but I always opted not to because I'd already read two other popular books about the framing of the Constitution: Miracle at Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen (1966) and A Brilliant Solution by Carol Berkin (2002).

Well I'm certainly glad I finally picked up the Collier Brothers volume, because it's a whole lot better than either of those other books. Sure, all three works discuss the debating and compromises that led to the adoption of this clause or that clause, but the Collier's book stands out because of the breadth of the biographical information. On page 212, they call William Blount, a North Carolina delegate, "a liar, a cheater, and a thief, and... the subject of the first impeachment trial ever held by the United States government." There follow a couple of fascinating pages on what a tool this guy really was. Bowen and Berkin, on the other hand, hardly mention Blount.

But there is an even better example of the Collier Brothers superiority in this regard. Discussing delegate Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, they report that his last name "is pronounced with a hard G, as in Gary" (p. 318). That sent me scurrying to the indices of the Bowen and Berkin volumes to locate their background details on the man. And guess what? The proper pronounciation of his surname isn't mentioned, which is partly why all these years I thought his name was pronounced "Jerry."

And that led to another revelation. I already knew that Gerry was the source of the term "gerrymander;" this the Collier's mention just a few lines before enlightening me on how to say his name. So why, I wondered, do we say "a jerry-mandered district" instead of "a gary-mandered district"? Off hand, can you think of any examples where mispronounciation of someone's name has stuck in a new word? I can't.

But then I thought I'd better double check and make certain I hadn't been mispronouncing "gerrymander" all these years. And lo and behold, I discovered that BOTH pronounciations of gerrymander are acceptable! You will note at the cited link that the term comes from a combination of Gerry's surname and salamander "from the shape of an election district formed during Gerry's governorship of Massachusetts." Well a lot of politicians have been compared to reptiles; it seems only fair that their misshapen districts be compared to amphibians.

Personally, now that I know it's "Elbridge Gary" and not "Elbridge Jerry" I'll endeavor to never again say "jerry-mander" instead of "gary-mander." Thanks, Collier Brothers!

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