Back on April 15, Robert Beard posted an entry on "Dr. Goodword's Language Blog" about the word superdelegate, writing that "the US press is pushing a new word into our collective vocabulary in an apparent attempt to tilt the US elections in the direction it prefers" (i.e., in the direction of Barack Obama to the detriment of Hillary Clinton). He hammered the point home, calling superdelegate a "new pejorative term," a "new epithet," and so forth. A few days later I pointed out here that the word is in no way new: it can be documented from 1981 and was becoming firmly entrenched in non-pejorative political usage by the time of the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Dr. Beard/Goodword has now responded in the comments section and has revised his original post, so I'd like to follow up on his latest points.
First, I appreciate the compliment left in the comments that "Mr. Benjamin did a better job of research than did I" (even if Benjamin is actually my first name!). He goes on to say:
However, all the citations here are from the early 80s and all are in print. My point was the use of the term in the current broadcast media to discredit the Convention system and build a tool for discrediting Senator Clinton should she be elected by the same procedures we have used since the founding of the nation.
The examples I gave were from the early '80s because I was most interested in establishing the incipient usage of the term, showing that it was circulating in mainstream journalism by 1984. Had I cared to, I could have detailed hundreds of more recent media mentions (for more on that, see below). Obviously the term has gained more prominence in this election cycle because it's the first time that the choice made by superdelegates has mattered so much. It's a unique situation in the time since the system's formal institution at the '84 Convention, and it's obviously worth a great deal of media attention.
While I certainly have to reword my comment that the broadcast media "concocted" the word, the remainder of my article, I think, stands. The issue I raised was, why is the broadcast media suddenly focussing on a word that few if any of their viewers know (or remember)? Whether the word was concocted or dredged up does not bear directly on that issue.
The Dr. Goodword post has already been reworded, with the original version expunged from the site. (That strikes me as a violation of basic blogging etiquette: when wording is significantly changed, the original ought to be maintained somehow, at least using the strikethrough feature like so in HTML.) The first sentence now reads:
The US press is dredging up a word from the early 80s and using it in a new, suggestive sense in an apparent attempt to tilt the US elections in the direction it prefers.
And in a comment to his post (responding to Mark Mandel, who pointed to the same early citations that I did), Beard wrote:
The word may have been used once or twice in the 80s but it never threatened to become a part of the language until recently, as I said.
Just as it doesn't take a huge amount of research savvy to determine that superdelegate isn't a brand-new term, it is likewise a simple task in the age of Google to determine that it isn't newly "dredged up." For starters, you could check out free online dictionaries like those from Random House (1997) and American Heritage (2000) to see that the word had achieved lexicographical recognition well before this year. Furthermore, you don't need access to a subscription-only news archive like LexisNexis, Factiva, NewsBank, ProQuest, or NewspaperArchive to do your own quick-and-dirty research on usage trends. I recommend Google News Archive to Beard and anyone else tempted to make claims about seemingly recent developments in the American political lexicon. Even though it links to subscription services, it usually gives you enough in "snippet view" to make judgments about, say, the 8,000 appearances of superdelegate that it has catalogued over the past three decades. (Google News Archive has some of the same misdating problems that plague Google Book Search, but on the whole it's a reliable tool.)
One nice feature of Google News Archive is the "timeline" function, which gives you a snapshot of the historical ebbs and flows of a particular search term. Here's the timeline for superdelegate (hyphenated or unhyphenated, singular or plural) since 1981:
There's a big spike in 2008 as we'd expect (with the great increase in online news sources also no doubt playing a part), but we can see smaller spikes in almost every previous presidential election cycle. A word of warning: Google's timeline doesn't simply count the frequency of a search term in sources from a given year, but also includes "web pages that describe events from the past" (according to this announcement). So in order to avoid those after-the-fact additions, here are the raw numbers of Google News Archive hits for superdelegate in election years:
The only real outlier is 1996, with a paltry 18 mentions, but that can be explained by the fact that it's the only election year of the past seven cycles in which there was an incumbent Democratic president running unopposed for reelection. In other words, superdelegates really didn't matter that year. In years with contested Democratic primaries, however, the word superdelegate was widely used, albeit not nearly as widely as it has been this year, when the fate of the nomination rests in the hands of the supers.
I hope this puts to bed any notion that superdelegate is either new or newly revived in 2008. It's a quadrennial favorite, easy shorthand for journalists and others who prefer not to use the clunky official term "unpledged PLEO delegate" (or the Clinton campaign's favored designation, "automatic delegate"). If you're inclined to ferret out unfair media bias in favor of Senator Obama's nomination, I agree with Arnold Zwicky that usage of this very well-established political term is not the place to look for it.