February 11, 2007

-ic-y matters

Last Tuesday (2/6/07) I noticed, in the NYT Science Times, the following (in William K. Stevens, "On the Climate Change Beat, Doubt Gives Way to Certainty", p. 3):

Politicians are weighing in on the subject as never before, especially with the advent of a Democratic-led Congress.

My first reaction was that with "Democratic-led" the paper was bending over backward in its attempt to avoid things like "the Democrat Party" for "the Democratic Party" (a Republican practice we've commented on a number of times on Language Log, most recently here).  And maybe it is.  But "Democratic-led" actually beats out "Democrat-led" by a fair margin, despite the fact that "X-led" 'led by X(s)' normally requires a noun in the X slot (as do "X-V-ed" 'V-ed by X' compounds in general).  So if this is a formation motivated by political politeness, there's a lot of politeness going around.

The margin of "Democratic-led" over the expected "Democrat-led" is 185,000 to 104,000, in raw Google webhits, a disparity that will become more substantial when we remove occurrences of "Democrat-led" from sources, like Fox News, that avoid "Democratic" systematically.  There are still plenty of hits for "Democrat-led" from sources that are not generally -ic-less, but considerably fewer than for "Democratic-led".

A little review of the system here:  there are three lexical items of interest in connection with political parties: the party name Y, in "Y Party"; the noun denoting an adherent or member of the Y Party; and the related adjective Z, used in expressions like "Z policies".  To keep things simple, I'll restrict myself to party names that are either nouns or adjectives (or ambiguous between the two).  There are three main systems:

Party name Noun Y, e.g. "Labour Party":
  Adherent noun derived from Y as base: "(a) Labourite"
  Adjective identical to the adherent noun: "Labourite (policies)"

Party name Adjective Y, e.g. "Democratic Party":
  Adherent noun serving as base for Y: "(a) Democrat"
  Adjective Y: "Democratic (policies)"

Party name Adjective/Noun Y, e.g. "Republican Party":
  Adherent noun Y: "(a) Republican"
  Adjective Y: "Republican (policies)"

Now, "X-led" wants a noun X (as in "Pelosi-led", "Gingrich-led", "Bush-led", and many others), which it gets from the party name if that's a noun, otherwise from the adherent noun (that is, it uses the more basic noun of the two that are available): "Labour-led", "Democrat-led", "Republican-led".  "Labourite-led" would be possible in the sense 'led by Labourites', but in fact I get no hits at all for it (or for "Labourite-dominated" or "Labourite-ruled").

The use of polite -ic (if that's what it is) extends to other compounds: "Democratic-dominated" alongside "Democrat-dominated"; "Democratic-ruled" alongside "Democrat-ruled", etc.  There are probably interesting patterns to be discovered here, but for now it's enough for me to point out that political concerns seem to have led to an exception to an otherwise firm generalization about English morphology.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at February 11, 2007 03:18 PM