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The Word

Dem 'crats

Behind the party's changing labels

By Jan Freeman
November 2, 2008
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"DEMOCRATICAL PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE Joe Biden blasted John McCain over the weekend for voting against raising the minimum wage," said an item last month at the Dallas Morning News website.

Since the posting was time-stamped 5 a.m., that "Democratical" may well have been a slip of the sleep-deprived brain, the writer's fingers stretching for the next word - "presidential" - before he had finished the first.

It's not the first time in recent history the typo has seen the light of day. There's an example in a 2004 commentary at the Chattanoogan's website: "Like Barack Obama said in his Democratical National Convention address 'we are one people.' " And in 1992, the Atlanta Constitution seems to have endorsed "Democratical Presidential Nominee Bill Clinton."

A few decades earlier, though, that Democratical wouldn't have raised an eyebrow. David K. Barnhart, who

posted the Dallas Morning News citation at linguistlist.org, the American Dialect Society's discussion list, noted that the Oxford English Dictionary has examples of the adjective from the mid-16th to the mid-18th century, as an everyday variant of democratic. A 1589 religious tract, for example, says the English church "is Monarchical in regard of our head, Christ; Aristocratical in the Eldership; and Democratical in the people."

And America proved just as hospitable to the long form of the adjective. "Aristotle, and other Grecian political writers, recognized but three species of government: the Monarchical, the Aristocratical and the Democratical," wrote a contributor to the American Whig Review in 1847.

With the adjective already in circulation, it's only natural that the Democratic Party's members and sympathizers would now and then be called democratical, as in an 1856 essay on political loyalty in The National Era: "We leave to democratical newspaper-writers 'to go through thick and thin for The Party.' "

Unlike today's "Democrat Party," Democratical doesn't seem to have been a term of abuse. In 1873, The Nation mentioned "the extreme democratical party." In 1908, the Newark (Ohio) Advocate reported that "the Democratical Congressional convention of the seventeenth district opened auspiciously." (That could, of course, be the same sort of slip as "Democratical presidential.") In 1924, the Mexia Daily News, in Texas, complained that "fundamentalists call the liberal anti-Christ and old fogey Republican calls the Democratical and the Progressive red."

But democratical gradually faded away. When, exactly, it began to sound odd is hard to say: Reporting that a local worthy had "resigned from the Democratical committee" might have been standard usage at the Statesville, N.C., Standard in 1947. But when, in 1960, the Chicago Tribune called Kennedy "the Democratical presidential nominee," the adjective was more likely a typist's anticipatory slip, as it is today.

Democratical wasn't the only alternative name for the party during its early years. As the 19th century wore on, it was often called simply, and warmly, "the Democracy" (with or without a capital letter). The OED quotes the New York Herald in 1848: "The election of 1840 was carried by false charges against the American democracy." At the Democratic National Convention of 1852, several state delegations used the name for their party: "The Democracy of Pennsylvania hold principles higher than all other considerations."

Even in the 20th century, "the Democracy" persisted for a while. Linguist Geoff Nunberg, in an essay broadcast on "Fresh Air," quoted William Jennings Bryan addressing a party gathering in Boston in 1902: "I recognize . . . how much fidelity it requires to plead for Democracy in New England."

But by then, the nickname was nearing the end of its run. Ambrose Bierce sneered at it in his 1909 usage handbook - "One could as properly call the Christian Church 'the Christianity' " - but he was beating a nearly dead horse. The opposition was about to launch its own nickname, the one we still hear today in President Bush's references to "the Democrat Party."

Nunberg traced the usage to 1923, when the Republican speaker of the New York assembly called the opposition "the Democrat party": Hoover used it as well, in 1932, in his campaign against Franklin Roosevelt. There are earlier instances of the phrase, noted Nunberg, but "it seems to have been regarded more as a rusticism than as a partisan dig. In 1908, a wag used it in a poem accusing William Jennings Bryan of being a flip-flopper":

"Nothin' at all to say, William; nothin' at all to say;

There ain't no Democrat Party, so go on and have your way."

Democrats today are still annoyed by "Democrat Party," especially those who remember it as a favorite epithet of Senator Joseph McCarthy. But slurs don't always work as intended, and the Republican overuse of "Democrat Party" may actually be neutralizing its sting. Pronounced with a Texas twang, especially, it's beginning to sound lke a rusticism all over again - just as countrified and toothless as it was 100 years ago.

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