The Pronunciation of "gerrymandering"

Political cartoon of 1812 depicting a “Gerry-mander.”

A word much in the news of late is gerrymandering. The term refers to the manipulation of voting district maps to favor one political party over another.

The word is a portmanteau as well as an eponym. It combines the name of Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814), who was governor of Massachusetts from 1810 to 1812, and salamander, an amphibian shaped like a lizard.

The coinage dates to an 1812 political cartoon of a voting districts map. The term originated as Gerry-mander and was pronounced with the “hard g” to match the governor’s name.

By 1848, gerrymandering was in a dictionary and by 1868, in an encyclopedia. The governor was forgotten, but the manipulative practice continued and the word lived on to describe it.

A recent NPR segment ran an audio clip of Ronald Reagan pronouncing the word gerrymander with a “hard g.”

The announcer laughed a little at the apparent mispronunciation, but Cokie Roberts, before going on to explain what gerrymandering is, said,

“It really should be ‘Garymandering.’ Reagan had it right. Governor Gerry pronounced his name with a hard g.”

Yes and No, Ms Roberts.

Governor Gerry pronounced his surname with a “hard g,” but it doesn’t follow that the English word gerrymandering “should” be pronounced with anything but a “soft g.”

In the course of 205 years, Elbridge Gerry has fallen into obscurity and the word formed from his name has lost both its capital G and hyphen.

Now completely anglicized, the pronunciation of gerrymandering conforms to English spelling conventions that apply to the pronunciation of g.

The general rule for the pronunciation of g is this:

If followed by the letters e, i, or y, the letter g is pronounced with the soft sound.

If followed by any other letter, the letter g is pronounced with the hard sound.

Here are examples that illustrate the rule:

Soft g
fringe, general, giant, gymnastics, large, energy and change.

Hard g
progress, golf, pig, great, grasp and gum.

Generally speaking, if a word derives from German, it’s usually pronounced with a “hard g.” If a word is of Latin or French origin, it’s pronounced with a “soft g.”

Gerry is a German surname. It’s only natural that it would be pronounced with a “hard g”,” but after 205 years, the word gerrymandering follows the English rule.

All English spelling rules have exceptions, but there’s no reason to make an exception of gerrymandering.

Historical note
Elbridge Gerry is a figure in US history who deserves to be better known. One of the Founders, he

Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814)

signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, but refused to sign the version of the Constitution proposed in 1787 because it did not include a Bill of Rights. Drafted later at the insistence of anti-Federalists, our existing Bill of Rights was officially ratified in 1791.

An irony of history is that Gerry’s name should be associated with a despicable practice employed by political parties to retain power. Gerry was opposed to political parties. He’s said to have signed the redistricting bill “with reluctance.” Presumably he’d fallen prey to the politician’s disease—the desire to remain in power by any means possible.