I see, but does Jim?

Observations on party spats

Those who accuse the BBC of leaning to the left might be surprised to learn that it's fallen for a linguistic sleight of hand popular with American conservatives.

For years, Republicans have rankled their opponents by referring to them publicly as the Democrat Party - dropping the "ic", which in widely accepted usage makes the word an adjective, "Democratic". Joe McCarthy did it as long ago as the 1950s, and the partisan term took off again in the 1990s, when Newt Gingrich and the consultant Frank Luntz made an art of manipulating language for political advantage.

Right-wing radio hosts and bloggers routinely drop the last syllable in the name of a party whose members they see as lily-livered traitors, but America's mainstream news outlets, and its dictionaries, agree that Democratic is the proper term.

Democrats bristled when George Bush dropped the "ic" in his State of the Union address last month, seeing a subtle slur in the sentence: "I congratulate the Democrat majority."

So what to think when James Naughtie, summing up news on America's hardline attitude towards Iran on the Today programme one recent morning, referred to "senior Democrat politicians"? Was the BBC ever so subtly taking up the Republican cause? Or had it innocently absorbed a word frequently, if incorrectly, used by some of America's leaders?

The BBC said Naughtie's usage had been just a slip of the tongue. "It's a live programme - mistakes do happen," a spokeswoman explained. "We're aware of the proper term and that's what we use." There wasn't a specific rule on the "ic", she said, but "overall, the BBC aims to use the proper terms and names of things".

Congressman Anthony Weiner, a New York Democrat whose recent House of Representatives speech lambasting the "Republic Party" quickly turned up on YouTube, said he'd rarely heard anyone outside of politics and conservative Fox News broadcasts use Democrat as an adjective. "To hear it creeping on to the airwaves of the BBC may indicate we've got a larger problem on our hands," he said.

The Democratic National Committee has offered no comment on the BBC's usage or the "ic" issue more broadly. But the epidemic of "ic"-dropping clearly peeves party stalwarts, and many were openly angry about the word choice for the State of the Union address. The written text on Bush's teleprompter reportedly said "Democratic", and he explained later that he hadn't even realised he'd skipped the last syllable.

"Look, my diction isn't all that good," the president told the Democrats at a retreat they held a week after the speech. "I have been accused of occasionally mangling the English language, so I appreciate you inviting the head of the Republic Party.''

Why do those two little letters matter so much? Democrats say it's a matter of basic manners. It is only right, they argue, to use their party's correct name. They think Republicans may be trying to excise any linguistic hint that they have a monopoly on democracy; some even say their opponents intentionally emphasise the "rat" at the end of the word.

"I have always understood the use of the word 'Democrat' as a modifier to be a kind of petty put-down by Republicans," said Brooks Jackson, a long-time Washington reporter. "It's always seemed to me on the level of playground taunts, kind of childish and silly."

Weiner said it hadn't bothered him until Bush used it in the State of the Union address.

"We're here trying to extract ourselves from war in Iraq, the economy's foundering, we've got real problems," he said. The missing "ic" "isn't something that keeps me up at night".