Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

More on Superdelegates

LanguageLog has been slow to publish my responses to Benjamin Zimmer’s research on the word ‘superdelegate’, so I will try to recall the my last one here. I think the issue is both imporant and a (socio)linguistic one, since language is the primary tool of politicians and news broadcasters, a tool used to shape public opinion.  Public opinion, of course, determines the kind of government and future we have.  But language is at the core of this issue.

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 a solid one.

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 in total innocence 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 unpledged delegates, making it more important this year because it is weighted in precisely the same direction as that reflected in the CMPA media project: pro-Obama, the media’s choice, anti-Clinton, the threat to the will of the people. The people seem evenly divided on the issue of which of these two senators should be the Democratic presidential candidate.

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