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US Supreme Court weighs in: We’ve all been pronouncing ‘gerrymander’ wrong

Former Massachusetts governor and US vice president Elbridge Gerry. That’s Gerry, with a hard “g.”

Take a spin through any of the available online dictionaries or various Youtube video-tutorials that break down how to say “gerrymandering,” and you’ll quickly find that the word is pronounced with a soft “g,” as in “Jerry-mandering.”

But according to officials in the town of Marblehead, if you say it that way, you’re wrong. And now, they have a letter from the US Supreme Court that technically backs them up.

In June, the board of selectmen in the coastal community fired off a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts asking that when the justices discuss gerrymandering — the act of manipulating electoral boundaries for political gain — during high-profile court cases, they say the word correctly.

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The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on two such cases, in October and March.

“Dear Chief Justice,” the letter, which was forwarded to the Globe, read. “The Marblehead Board of Selectmen respectfully requests the Supreme Court, when discussing political redistricting known as ‘Gerrymandering,’ use a hard ‘G’ pronouncing the word as ‘Garymandering.’”

The letter was sent at the request of Carolyn Stanton, a former Marblehead school teacher, who pointed out to selectmen that some of the justices were mispronouncing the word.

“I was very aware they were taking up questions on gerrymandering, and if you live in the area you get very tired of people saying ‘jerrymandering’ and taking time to correct them,” she said in a telephone interview.

She first tried to correct the masses by asking her grandson, comedian John Mulaney, to bring up the problem during an appearance in February on “Late Night With Seth Meyers.”

Even though her grandson followed through with her request, Stanton felt it didn’t go far enough.

“I thought, ‘I’ve got to do it in a governmental way,’” she said.

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Marblehead officials and Stanton wanted to send the letter defending the pronunciation — and felt sure about their position —because the word’s namesake, Elbridge Gerry, was a native of the town with deep roots in New England. He pronounced his last name with a hard “g.”

Gerry was the governor of Massachusetts; the fifth vice president of the United States, under James Madison; and signed the Declaration of Independence.

But his name is most commonly remembered for his involvement in redistricting efforts in 1812.

As the story goes, Gerry signed a bill allowing his Democratic-Republican party to redraw state Senate districts to its advantage.

A cartoonist at the Boston Gazette took aim at Gerry, who was governor at the time, by turning the map’s Essex County district into a salamander-like creature with a head, claws, and tail. The drawing of the ferocious beast was dubbed the “Gerry-mander.”

Despite Gerry’s name being synonymous with a contested political maneuver, the selectmen said in their letter that they were “very proud of Marblehead’s place in the early history of our country.”

“Your attention to this matter is greatly appreciated,” they wrote in regards to the word’s pronunciation.

On July 9, they finally heard back.

Jeffrey P. Minear, counselor to the chief justice, wrote in a response that Roberts appreciated their correspondence, and agreed with them about how to say Gerry.

“Vice President Gerry’s grandson, Elbridge Thomas ‘Commodore’ Gerry, was a bibliophile, and the gift of his 30,000 volume collection to the Supreme Court of the United States became the foundation of our Library,” Minear wrote. “In the words of the Court’s former Librarian, ‘Elbridge T. Gerry is to the Supreme Court Library what Thomas Jefferson is to the Library of Congress.’

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He added, “I trust you will be pleased to know that not only do we tend carefully to our Gerry collection, but we pronounce it with a hard ‘G.’”

In a follow-up statement to the Globe, a public information officer from the court said “that there is a solid consensus at the Court on the pronunciation of ‘Gerry,’ but the pronunciation of ‘gerrymandering’ (jer-ee-man-der-ing or ger-ee-man-der-ing) remains ‘sub judice.’ ”

(Roberts and some of the justices can be heard saying “Jerry-Mandering” during recorded oral arguments in October.)

Marblehead’s campaign was first reported in the Marblehead Reporter.

This isn’t the first time that a battle to educate the public about the word’s origins and proper pronunciation has surfaced.

Last year, “A Way With Words,” a public radio broadcast about language and its place in history, tackled the subject.

The show’s hosts explained to a caller from New York that when gerrymandering first came to be hundreds of years ago, it was in fact said as was intended, with a hard “g.” But over time, that changed as the governor/vice president became less known. It was also likely due to the word being transmitted through print, not audio.

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“You were more likely to learn it from a newspaper, or some learned journal, than you were from somebody talking to you at the bar or at church, or something like that,” said host Grant Barrett on the episode. “One of the ways we know it’s pronounced as ‘Gary-mander,’ is because a few places in the printed record, people talk specifically about this pronunciation of the word.”

And then there’s Gerry’s descendants, of course.

“I correct people, every time,” Elbridge T. Gerry Jr., the great-great-great-grandson of Gerry, told the Wall Street Journal in May. “Then I give them a little history lesson.”

But for Stanton, the 92-year-old who inspired the Marblehead letter, the latest development is perhaps the most promising.

“I think it’s finally taking off a little bit,” she said. “We may solve this awful problem.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the age of Carolyn Stanton.


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear. Globe correspondent Catie Edmondson contributed to this report.