February 25, 2007

The perils of comic-strip lead time

According to the "Doonesbury" FAQ, Garry Trudeau has to deliver his weekday strips ten days ahead of time, while the Sunday strip must be submitted a whopping six weeks ahead of time. The schedule evidently remains unchanged even in the face of rapidly developing news. As Trudeau (or his FAQ-writer) puts it:

This is a narrow lead-time for a strip cartoonist, but a vast delay by the standards of an editorial cartoonist, who can address events on a next-day basis. Doonesbury's lag time is long enough to make it perilous for GBT to address fast-breaking and unpredictable stories.

Today's strip is an interesting example of what can happen during the six-week lead time for the Sunday installment. When Trudeau delivered the strip on or around January 14th, he probably didn't think there would be too many developments in his chosen topic: President Bush's penchant for using Democrat as an adjectival or attributive modifier instead of Democratic. Now with the benefit of hindsight, Trudeau can be seen as either remarkably prescient or scooped by the President himself.

Here's the strip:

Given that the strip had to have been created by mid-January at the latest, Trudeau's likely inspiration was a Nov. 22 Washington Post column by Ruth Marcus (which in turn may have been inspired by Hendrik Hertzberg's piece in the Aug. 7, 2006 New Yorker). If Trudeau were really on the ball, he might have caught one of Geoff Nunberg's earlier examinations of Democrat vs. Democratic, either on Language Log or NPR's "Fresh Air." But both the tone and content of the strip are quite similar to what Marcus wrote (right down to the Joe McCarthy reference), so it's a fair bet that her column is the proximate source.

Bush's usage of Democrat would become big news after his State of the Union address on January 23rd, more than a week after Trudeau's due date for the strip. You can find a recap of these developments in this post, including the self-deprecating joke Bush told in a Feb. 3 speech before the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference:

The last time I looked at some of your faces, I was at the State of the Union, and I saw kind of a strange expression when I referred to something as the Democrat Party. Now, look, my diction isn't all that good. I have been accused of occasionally mangling the English language. And so I appreciate you inviting the head of the Republic Party.

Since I think we can rule out the possibility of Trudeau supplying the joke to Bush's team of speechwriters, this looks like a case of independently invented punch-lines. And here's some more synchronicity for you... The "Doonesbury" version of Dubya is faced with a tradeoff between sounding "stupid" or "insulting." After Bush's Feb. 14 press conference, in which he used Democrat as a modifier three times and Democratic only once, Mark Liberman's comment was: "So you could say that he was either 75% insulting, or 25% competent." Spooky!

Thanks to Mr. Verb for the heads-up. I agree with Mr. V that this isn't really a matter of (mis)pronunciation, as claimed by both the real President Bush and his comic-strip advisor, but rather a matter of morphology. Or perhaps "morpho-ideology" would be the better term.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at February 25, 2007 01:28 AM