Monday, January 29, 2007

Democrat, adj.: pejorative for 'Democratic'

Juan Williams of NPR just asked Bush about using the short form of the adjective in the State of the Union (full transcript already up here). He insisted — at unsettling length — that he wasn't trying to 'needle them' but that he misspoke. He can rehearse a speech this important that long (recall those folks who talked about this as a last chance to save his presidency?) and use a form that's so universally regarded as a jab?

Now, you listen or read on and he starts accusing Democrats of being opposed to everything he's for, etc., then this:
So the idea that somehow I was trying to needle the Democrats, it's just – gosh, it's probably Texas. Who knows what it is. But I'm not that good at pronouncing words anyway, Juan.
One of our contributors, Joe, lived in Texas for years and he says that this isn't a dialect thing but a political one. He heard the interview too and tells me he's tempted to suspect that Bush was about justify the short form as 'plain talking' or something.

But let's keep in mind the history of this (with a tip of the hat to So Far, So Left): bartleby.com includes a full entry on this little topic here. Note the key passage:
Democrat as an adjective is still sometimes used by some twentieth-century Republicans as a campaign tool but was used with particular virulence by the late senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin, a Republican who sought by repeatedly calling it the Democrat party to deny it any possible benefit of the suggestion that it might also be democratic.
That's a sad Wisconsin connection, obviously, but it absolves Texas of guilt in this matter, it seems. This isn't a speech error, or dialect form, it's Bush smudging the reputation of his office one more time, in the tiniest of ways, but one more time. Reminds me of what somebody said the day of that address:
Smart-aleck interlocutor: I can tell you a way to tell precisely and accurately when Bush is lying tonight.
Sir Verb: Really, how?
Smart-aleck interlocutor: When his lips are moving.
Update 5:13: Didn't catch before how he stumbled over the answer to a question about the difference between his and Cheney's assessments of how things are going in Iraq. He describes his own view as half-glass-full. And the NPR transcript doesn't clean that up — that's how it sounds and reads.

Update Tues. 2:20: Now a list of examples of Bush using 'Democrat' is available here.

Note: The logo used here should not be interpreted to mean that I vote for this party regularly.

5 comments:

Joe said...

Yeah, after 'Texas' I thought it wasn't a period but rather '...'.

Anybody else notice the big Southern Shift (tensing of lax I) in 'billion'? It didn't sound quite right to my native Southern-Shifting ear.

Ben Zimmer said...

More on the history of adjectival Democrat:

Geoff Nunberg, Language Log (10/16/04)
Geoff Nunberg, Fresh Air (1/19/05)
Ruth Marcus, Washington Post (11/22/06)
Maura Reynolds, LA Times (1/30/07)

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks. I'd heard Nunberg on Fresh Air but didn't recall or know the others. What's most remarkable to me is that Bush would use this in a State of the Union address.

Stumblerette said...

The New Yorker (Feb. 5, p. 25) refers to the incident as "a reflexive slur" - "'Democratic majority' were the words on the teleprompter, but he apparently couldn't help himself.)"

Mr. Verb said...

'Reflexive slur' sounds about right.