Republicans, Democrats, and the Afghan on the couch

A reader writes, "One of my pet peeves is that the media call the Democrat party 'democratic.' But they don't call the Republican party 'republicanistic.' Nor do I want them to do so!

"This seemed especially noticeable during the recent election. Calling the Democrat party 'democratic' makes it sound as if the other parties are not democratic. What I want is for the media to call the Democrat party 'Democrat' and the Republican party to continue being called 'Republican.' "

Hmm. In fact, I did notice this phenomenon during the past election. But my peeve is not that so many in the media speak of the "Democratic Party" but rather that not enough do. I hate to disappoint a reader, but with a few exceptions "Democratic Party" is the right phrase.

Here's what "The Columbia Guide to Standard American English" (1993) has to say:

"Democrat as an adjective is still sometimes used by some 20th-century Republicans as a campaign tool but was used with particular virulence by the late Sen. 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 Senator McCarthy used this locution is a good reason to avoid it. But after researching this question, I have to acknowledge that not everyone speaking of "the Democrat party" could be assumed to be a Republican. Several local organizations style themselves the "Democrat Party" of wherever: the Nassau County Democrat Party on New York's Long Island, for example.

What's going on here? I think we're losing our inflections - the special endings we use to distinguish between adjectives and nouns, for instance. There's a tendency to modify a noun with another noun rather than an adjective. Some speak of "the Ukraine election" rather than "the Ukrainian election" or "the election in Ukraine." It's "the Iraq war" rather than the Iraqi war. (Compare the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. If it were being fought today, we might be calling it the France-Prussia War.) Against this backdrop, "the Democrat Party" arguably sounds less like a McCarthyesque slur, although it still doesn't pass muster at professionally edited publications.

As inflections disappear, people seem not to be recognizing adjectival forms as connected to the nouns whence they are derived. Thus I've seen references to "the Afghanistan election" instead of the simpler "Afghan election," perhaps because someone knew Afghanistan is a country but thought an Afghan was a dog, or something to wrap up in on the couch. I suspect that some people may make a similar split between "Democrats" (the name-brand political group) and "democratic." They simply have the two concepts filed in separate shoe boxes.

Another part of this story is a certain asymmetry in terminology. To describe the party on one side of the aisle, we have a proper noun for the people (Democrats) and a proper adjective (Democratic) to describe their party, their primary, their convention, etc. On the other side, we have the Republican Party, whose members are known as Republicans - a noun adapted from the adjective. One party's name takes two forms; the other's, only one. "Republicanistic," my reader will note, isn't in the picture. The Republicans do, however, have "GOP," an abbreviation for "grand old party." It's a bit of headlinese that's waved into respectable clubs from which the maitre d' would shoo away "Dems," until it came back in a jacket and tie.

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