Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Superdelegates? (2nd edition)

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. Political leaders who attend the Democratic Convention with a single, uncommitted vote are now called superdelegates in the broadcast media. 

The implication of this term, raised first in the early 80s but seldom used since, is that these leaders have more power at a political convention than rank-and-file members of the party. Actually, a superdelegate is simply an elected official with one vote that is uncommitted prior to the convention—unless he or she has endorsed a candidate.

So why do we need this term this year (2008) and with a new, misleading sense?

The press has decided that it prefers Senator Obama for the Democratic Party nomination and, according to CMPA’s 2008 ElectionNewsWatch Project, has been giving him consistently more positive coverage than Senator Clinton. Recently, all the networks began announcing that Senator Obama had, in fact, won the primary race and have been openly appealing to Senator Clinton to resign from the race, making the job of the press easier.

The last hurdle the press must overcome is the Democratic Convention in Denver this summer. How can the press be sure that party leaders do exercise their prerogative to choose Ms. Clinton as the party candidate? After all, neither candidate has enough delegates to win the nomination; the primary is a virtual tie.

Well, one tack would be to attach a new epithet which might intimidate party leaders in case they decide to make such a move. That word is superdelegate, now used in the media in ways suggesting it refers to someone who has more votes than he or she deserves. Look out for an increase in the usage of this aspersive term as the Convention convenes this summer.

Why does the press prefer Mr. Obama so passionately as to flagrantly attempt to undermine Senator Clinton? Former President Clinton visited Lewisburg recently and suggested that it was because his wife is old news and the Press wants someone new to write about. My guess would be that the press is tired of looking for skeletons in Ms. Clinton’s closet and have greater hopes of digging up something that would embarrass Mr. Obama. He is the greater unknown.

Mr. Clinton also thinks that his wife represents a demographic that the press doesn’t understand: people who struggle to pay for their mortgage, send their kids to college, and pay their medical bills. “People at the networks don’t have to worry about these things,” he opined, “They are of no concern to network producers.”

Whatever the reason, we have another lexical toxin with which to tarnish those brave enough to enter the US political process.

Edited, updated May 26, 2008

5 Responses to “Superdelegates? (2nd edition)”

  1. Mark Mandel Says:

    A new word it is indeed… as of 1981, when the Washington Post wrote on 11/8:
    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.”

    Or the next year, when George McGovern wrote (The Nation, 5/15/82, p. 581, bottom of c.1 – top of c.2):
    Two thirds of them — approximately 550 — will be “super delegates” uncommitted to any candidate.

    Next you will complain about this coiner of trash, Samuel Johnson.

  2. rbeard Says:

    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. Also, it is a derogatory term used only by Republicans and the Republican media in referring to the Democratic Party, as the Wikipedia points out: (I didn’t write the article and do not know who did.)

  3. Bloix Says:

    ‘as I said”

    You know, a lie doesn’t become true just because you say it twice.
    Read which was written by someone who actually does some work, as opposed to people like you who think that any random thought you have is true because you thought of it.

  4. Sickday Says:

    No offense, but.. you ask a question (“So why do we need this term this year (2008) and with a new, misleading sense?”) and then totally fail to answer it with anything other than ‘to screw Clinton and anoint Obama’.

    Not very persuasive. And it’s more of a political analysis (kinda shallow one at that) than a linguistic one.

    The real answer is because it’s a cool sounding word and the difference between pledged and unpledged delegates is confusing to the average reader/viewer/listener — or was confusing, as of a few months ago. So the media found the shortest, sexiest sound bite that describes the inner workings of the delegate system and ran with it.

  5. rbeard Says:

    LanguageLog doesn’t see fit to publish my responses to Benjamin Zimmer’s research on the word ‘superdelegate’, so I will try to recall the my last one here.

    The point I’ve been making doesn’t really rest on how long the word ‘superdelegate’ has been in the language. I should have looked it up just for historical curiosity and spent the time Mr. Zimmer did to protect my argument against understandable comments like these and his. However, I remain convinced that my point is stands firm.

    Mr. Zimmer now has published a time-line of the word ‘superdelegate’ showing a quantum leap in usage this year–very close to my claim that it only appeared this year. However, he interprets this as simply a reflection of the tightness of the race this year. But that does not explain the choice of the word ‘superdelegate’ over neutral terms like ‘unpledged delegate’. My point, remember, is that this choice of words is not coincidental.

    This year the word has been used in the media in one connection only: the fear that ‘superdelegates’ would override the ‘will of the people’ as expressed in the primaries and caucuses. (Google ‘superdelegates will of the people’ to see what I mean.) This leaves the impression that ‘superdelegates’ are somehow more powerful, that their votes count more than those of pledged delegates. Moreover, it is a threat to the ‘will of the people’, something we seem still to hold sacred despite the aftermath of the 2004 election.

    My question is this: why does the current US media use this extraordinarily misleading term ‘superdelegate’ rather than the neutral and perfectly accurate term ‘unpledged delegate’? Do they do this totally innocent of the analogies with ‘superman’ and ‘man’ and ‘superhuman’ and ‘human’? Is it simply because the word is sexy and ‘cool sounding’, as some of my critics have claimed? ‘Sexy’ in what sense? Why does it sound so exceptionally cool in 2008 when it hasn’t since 1983?

    This word is obviously pejorative and subtlely condemnatory in comparison to ‘unpledge delegates’, making it more important this year because it is weighted in precisely the same way as reflected in the CMPA media project: pro-Obama, the media’s choice, anti-Clinton, the threat to the will of the people. The people, as best I can tell, seem evenly divided on the issue.

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