Back in January 2004 Mark Liberman engaged with Dr. Robert Beard, then doing business as "Dr. Language" on yourDictionary.com, on the politics of pronunciation. Dr. Beard now goes by a new nom de blog, "Dr. Goodword," on yourDictionary's successor, alphaDictionary.com. It turns out he's interested in presidential politics as well, as demonstrated by the most recent Dr. Goodword post on "superdelegates." He takes grave offense at the term and its popularization in the 2008 Democratic primary season:
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. Political leaders are now called superdelegates because they have more power at a political convention than rank-and-file members of the party.
Of course, this has always been the case. In fact, it should be the case since it is the leaders of the party who must ultimately decide what is best for the party and who are responsible for its health and success. So why do we need this new pejorative term this year (2008)?
Nowhere in Dr. Goodword's post do we learn the age of this "new pejorative term." It actually goes back to 1981, when Democratic leaders were first considering changes to the party's presidential nominating procedures. One naysayer was quoted by the Washington Post on Nov. 8, 1981:
Barbara Fife, a reform Democrat from New York, said, "I'm opposed to having these super-status, super-delegates come in and pick our nominee."
George McGovern was also opposed to the plan and wrote a column in The Nation on the subject in the May 15, 1982 issue:
Two thirds of them — approximately 550 — will be "super delegates" uncommitted to any candidate.
In these early uses, the term does appear to be rather pejorative, since it was taken up by opponents to the introduction of superdelegates to the Democratic nomination process. But by the following year it was being use more generally (and in unhyphenated form), as in this Dec. 22, 1983 New York Times article:
Even so, the party's only black Presidential candidate, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, is expected to include this class of "superdelegates" in a challenge to delegate selection rules.
By the 1984 Democratic Convention, with the superdelegate system in place, the term was common enough to appear in at least six articles in New York Times convention coverage. And now it's in major American dictionaries, such as those published by American Heritage and Random House.
Dr. Goodword, however, believes that "superdelegate" is a "new epithet" that has been "concocted" by the press in 2008, because they "prefer Mr. Obama so passionately as to flagrantly attempt to undermine Senator Clinton." The irony here is that there's another term that's actually new to the 2008 primary season: "automatic delegates," which Clinton adviser Harold Ickes has tried to popularize as an alternative to "superdelegates." In February, Ickes told reporters that "superdelegates" is misleading, because it makes them sound like they have "superpowers." So far the effort by Ickes and the Clinton campaign staff to make "automatic delegates" the preferred term has fallen flat. (Another irony, as noted by James S. Robbins on "The Corner," is that the first known user of "superdelegates" in a pejorative fashion, Barbara Fife, is now a Clinton supporter.)
Dr. Goodword concludes that "whatever the reason, we have a new useless word, another lexical toxin to tarnish those brave enough to enter the US political process." If "superdelegates" is indeed a "lexical toxin," it's been in the political bloodstream for seven presidential campaign cycles. I'm thinking the Democrats have developed lexical antibodies by now.