Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Year of the "Superdelegate"

This past week saw Barack Obama clinch the Democratic presidential nomination, with the commitments of undecided "superdelegates" putting him over the top. Even though the term superdelegate has been kicking around Democratic circles since 1981, the word has achieved new prominence this year, when all eyes were on these unpledged party leaders to break the primary deadlock between Obama and Hillary Clinton. We're less than halfway through 2008, but superdelegate has already emerged as a formidable candidate for Word of the Year.

First, a little history. In the early 1980s, the Democratic Party changed the rules for selecting delegates to the nominating convention in order to increase the power of party leaders and elected officials, or "PLEOs" in political jargon. The plan to have PLEOs serve as unpledged convention delegates was floated as early as 1981, and some Democrats immediately voiced their opposition. Barbara Fife of New York was quoted in the Nov. 8, 1981 Washington Post as saying, "I'm opposed to having these super-status, super-delegates come in and pick our nominee." This sentiment was echoed by former Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern in the May 15, 1982 issue of The Nation, in a column referring negatively to the idea of uncommitted "super delegates." As the plan took shape in late 1983, news articles began using superdelegate as a convenient shorthand term, since the official designation of "unpledged PLEO delegates" is quite a mouthful. And by the time the superdelegate system was finalized at the 1984 Democratic Convention, the term had entered mainstream political usage, eventually working its way into dictionaries like those from American Heritage and Random House.

Still, you'd have to be paying pretty close attention to Democratic politics to have much familiarity with the word superdelegate before the 2008 primary season. Suddenly everyone wanted to know who the superdelegates would be supporting, since that turned out to be the key to the entire nominating process as never before. Hillary Clinton's camp, however, objected to the term superdelegate, preferring instead "automatic delegate." Last February, Clinton advisor Harold Ickes said it was misleading to refer to "superdelegates," since it made it sound like they had "superpowers."

The super- prefix might have sounded a bit too superpowerful to Ickes, but it goes back to the Latin adverb and preposition that simply means "above, on top of, beyond." The prefix super- became especially productive in the twentieth century — with the rise of everything from supermarkets to supermodels — in large part due to the popularity of the comic-strip character Superman. (Superman, in turn, originally began as a translation of the German word ├╝bermensch, as famously used by Friedrich Nietzsche.) The enduring image of Superman, not to mention other supercharged superheroes, may help explain why Ickes thought of superdelegate as a deceptively superlative term.

Notwithstanding these objections, there's no question that superdelegate has become a household word this election season. It will be interesting to see whether the American Dialect Society anoints superdelegate as its Word of the Year. (Full disclosure: I serve on the ADS Executive Council and I'm active in the Word of the Year voting.) In past presidential election years, the ADS has selected such politically charged terms as soccer mom in 1996, chad in 2000, and red/blue/purple state in 2004. Will superdelegate prevail in 2008? Or will the next five months of campaigning between Obama and McCain spawn an even more prominent addition to our lexicon?

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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