"Superdelegates": a not-so-novel concoction

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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)?

This would be an intriguing argument — if, you know, the word "superdelegate" was actually new. The Recency Illusion strikes again.

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.


  1. Robert Beard (Dr. Goodword) said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 9:01 am

    Obviously, Mr. Benjamin did a better job of research than did I. I did rely on memory and didn't use my own dictionary resources as I should have.

    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.

    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.

  2. Arnold Zwicky said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 11:17 am

    To Bob Beard:

    Mr. Zimmer, not Mr. Benjamin.

    More important point: I'm puzzled by the claim that there is some agenda behind the use of the term "superdelegate" in the media. The delegates in question have a special status and will figure prominently in the convention process, so people need *some* term to refer to them. True, the official rules of the Democratic Party don't use the term "superdelegates"; the official term is "unpledged party leader and elected official delegates", "unpledged PLEOs" for short. (The pledged delegates are the ones selected on the basis of primaries and caucuses.) "Unpledged PLEOs" is used in some Democratic Party materials, but this awkward expression is certainly not generally known to the public, and in my experience most people active in the Party (including the superdelegates themselves) use "superdelegates". So of course the media do too.

    You might be able to make an argument that the media are biased against Clinton (especially if you read Maureen Dowd), but I can't see that their choice of the term "superdelegates" is evidence of this bias.

  3. LynneCW said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 6:44 pm

    Because you seem to be writing from Montana, I would suggest writing "nom de blogue" instead of "nom de blog", on the weak basis that you write from North America. In Quebec (a francophone province of Canada), it is the orthograph prescribed by our Office de la langue française http://www.olf.gouv.qc.ca/. Of course, it doesn't change anything from a spoken point of view, but it does for the written pride of the few Quebec blogreaders that know the difference. P.S. Don't pick on my written English or the non-success of my own blog! Take this comment as a suggestion of a friendly amendment.

  4. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 1:08 am

    I respond to Dr. Beard/Goodword here.

    LynneCW: Thanks for the suggestion, but I blog(ue) from New Jersey, not Montana! Perhaps you're thinking of the illustrious Dr. Shuy.

  5. Robert Beard (Dr. Goodword) said,

    May 31, 2008 @ 9:02 am

    We are still left with the issue of the meaning of "superdelegate". I have never heard that made clear in the recent US media. It is a misleading term since the only extraordinary power a 'superdelegate' has the power to vote for the candidate of their choice on the first ballot. (My impression is that all delegates have that power on the second and subsequent ballots–that used to be the case.)

    The term lends itself to being misinterpreted as someone with more voting power than others, whose vote counts more than others. It has repeatedly, if not exclusively, been used in connection with a fear that superdelegates would override the 'will of the people' and select Senator Clinton over Senator Obama, despite the latter's slight edge in the primaries and caucuses. My distinct sense of this usage is that it is pejorative and used as a defense of the press's favorite, Mr. Obama.

    Unless it is clear to at least a majority of English speaker world that 'superdelegate' is a poor choice of words (when compared to neutral terms like 'unpledged' versus 'pledged' delegates), I remained convinced that it reflects the same press bias CMPA’s 2008 ElectionNewsWatch Project reveals.

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