Wednesday, January 31, 2007

And the Democrat(ic) beat goes on ...

Our local afternoon paper ran the LA Times piece on "Democrat (adj.)" that Ben Zimmer mentioned in his comment yesterday. (The subject also came up long ago on LINGUIST, here.) That means I had the great privilege of reading twice yesterday in the 'mainstream media' about "American Speech, the quarterly journal of the American Dialect Society".

But last night, Joshua Micah Marshall at Talking Points Memo reported that …
a few months back I got an email from a TPM Reader who I think was a linguist. And he explained that there is something about the concatenation of syllables, the sound or structure of the phrase 'Democrat party' that actually sounds somehow inherently grating or awkward on the ears.
It had occurred to me that this might be a kind of 'stress clash', where a phrase sounds more mellifluous with a regular alternation between stressed and unstressed syllables: crat has secondary stress, while ic is unstressed, so Democratic Party flows better than Democrat Party, thanks to the intervening unstressed syllable. That may well be but I suspect that it's only a relatively small piece of the puzzle.

The simple history of the word makes it a real dig. I mean, my god, JOE McCARTHY, R-Wisc, used it to insult Democrats. Do I have to say more? Ruth Marcus notes as a parallel of sorts the – openly offensive – adjective Jew for Jewish. (On this, see Language Log, where Mark Liberman tackles the assertion that structures like Democrat Party are 'ungrammatical' or 'illiterate'.) There too, I strongly suspect, it's social history, not linguistic structure that makes the term sting. In particular, there's nothing inherently negative about croppings of proper names or nouns generally: As Marshall notes, he's fine with Josh or Joshua. Some short forms have taken on negative connotations, due to the attitude of the person involved (see Marshall's James/Jim example, where he was presumably dealing with a pedantic jerk, who doubtless pronounces a full 't' in butter) or whatever, like the desire to put a childhood nickname behind you. But that's not about the cropping per se.

In the end, Marshall's point is precisely the right one (as his points often are):
You assert dominance over someone by mangling their name and continuing to do so even after the correct pronunciation or style is pointed out. It's right off the schoolyard and it's no surprise that it's a stock and trade of this president.
While Ruth Marcus in her Washington Post piece says that "simple politeness" is "something the Bush family is famously good at", we should recall that the first Bush regularly pronounced Saddam Hussein's name [sædəm] or something like that instead of [sədám]. I don't have time right now to track down citations, but people certainly talked at the time about this as precisely that kind of schoolyard insult/provocation.

Update, 7:33: I've been figuring that this is a case of cropping — shortening by dropping the -ic — rather than one of using the noun for the adjective. (See again Language Log.) That's an assumption, and it's easy to see it as using the noun rather than the adjective here. Not sure offhand how you'd test that, since both are possible in English.

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