Philologist Dr. Joseph B. Shipley explains the meanings of the words "democrat" and "democratic" as they relate to the U.S. political system, as well as the origins of the Republican and Democratic party names and their related symbols, the elephant and the donkey.
History of U.S. Political Party Names and Mascots
DAVE GARROWAY, anchor:
In an election campaign, it’s reasonable to expect a certain amount of name-calling. “Political name-calling,” I guess you could call it. This year, however, it looks as though we’re going to get something new, what you might call “political name-cutting.” Today, it centers around the word “democratic.” The Republican National Committee says it’s not in favor of using the word when referring to the opposition as the Democratic Party. So, what they want to do is to change it from this to this. In their speeches and in their references, Republicans are dropping the “i-c,” making it the Democrat Party. The reason is, a spokesman for the Republican Committee says, the word “democratic” is an adjective and not descriptive of the party as it exists today. He adds that he can’t consider the party of the Pendergasts and Tammany Hall a democratic party. Well, I went over to the dictionary, Webster’s International Unabridged Dictionary, the master dictionary for pronunciations and meanings, and it says in here, um, well let me read you what it says in here. One thing – the meaning is the Democratic-Republican Party, often popularly so called. Uh, one of the two great political parties in the United States, it says. So, that’s one of the recent meanings of it and current meanings of it too. I understand that some Democrats have taken this quite seriously. Others think this is more or less of a joke. But, of course, it isn’t, in a way. The meanings of words are very subtle things, and what words can do are exceedingly subtle things too. Um, Mr. Butler, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, had a statement to make about that. Do we have Mr. Butler? Here he comes now. Let’s see what he says.
Mr. PAUL BUTLER (Chairman of the Democratic National Committee): We’re going to retaliate by calling the Republican Party the Republican Party. That is the name by which it is known and mistrusted by the majority of American voters. Republican Party is the name under which our opponents have lost every major election since General Eisenhower became President Eisenhower and since Chairman Leonard Hall became the chairman of the Republican National Committee, the same committee which is trying to change the name of the Democratic Party today.
GARROWAY: Mm-hmm. I understand that some Democrats are suggesting they leave the “r-e” off Republican, leaving it publican, which Webster’s describes as an oppressive collection of-- oppressive collector of tolls or tribute in Ancient Rome. Well now, without taking any sides in this, I’ve been checking Webster’s, as you know. I find that “democratic” is described as pertaining to democracy, uh, in so many words, favoring or based on the principles of democracy, and also, it’s one of the two great political parties since 1828 in the United States, by definition. Now, “democrat” is described as a member of the Democratic Party, but also as an adherent or advocate of such democracy. So, if you want to go by Webster, we’re really right back where we started. Kind of confusing. So, this morning, we asked a famous philologist to stop by. He is Dr. Joseph B. Shipley, known in many circles as America’s word detective. How about the symbols of the parties, the donkey and the elephant? Were they taken by the parties as fresh things, or were they forced on them, Doctor?
Dr. JOSEPH B. SHIPLEY: Well, they were brought in in various ways. The, uh, donkey was brought in by the enemies of the Democrats, and then they picked it up as something to be proud of.
GARROWAY: I see.
SHIPLEY: It was introduced first mainly by Thomas Nast, the cartoonist.
GARROWAY: Uh-huh. Well, would you straighten us out on these definitions, uh, now? What does democrat mean and what does democratic mean?
SHIPLEY: Well, the difficulty with Webster is that you can’t have him with you when you’re talking because the democrat idea, with a small “d,” represents your feeling about popular government…
SHIPLEY: …whereas with a big “D,” it represents the name of a party. If you could say “those ‘big D’ Democrats” every time that you were speaking, it wouldn’t matter what the ending was.
GARROWAY: All those “big D” Democrats. There’s a tune out now going around like that, by the way.
SHIPLEY: I shouldn’t be surprised.
GARROWAY: Have the political parties changed their name very much in times past?
SHIPLEY: Well, they’ve been given quite a number of odd names. They’ve been given such a name, for example, as the Locofoco Party.
GARROWAY: The who?
SHIPLEY: The Locofoco Party was a name of the Democratic Party for quite a number of years, beginning 120 years ago.
GARROWAY: No kidding.
SHIPLEY: Uh, a locofoco was a special type of match. Matches were just being invented then, and this was one, you pulled it out, and it lit right away. And uh, the Tammany club was holding a meeting at which the more liberal people, they called themselves the Equal Rights, would have been a sort of New Deal party in those days, were gathered together, and the old standbys turned out all the lights. But, uh, the others had been warned that that was going to happen, and they came there with these locofoco matches…
GARROWAY: I gotcha.
SHIPLEY: and they pulled them out, lit candles, and held their meeting and put it over.
GARROWAY: Is there usually a reason behind such names or symbols? Now, there’s a good reason for calling them Locofocos. How about the Mugwumps?
SHIPLEY: Well, there always is a reason. Yeah, Mugwump was an old Indian, Algonquian Indian name, meaning chief. And, uh, it was given to the Republicans who refused to vote for Blaine as the Republican candidate for president. They were big chiefs. They weren’t going to have him.
SHIPLEY: And, uh-- and it came to mean people that were in the party but not entirely of the party. You know the old saying, “A Mugwump is a person with his mug on one side of the fence and his wump on the other.”
GARROWAY: That’s right. Is the trend toward more meaningful names now? More sensible names?
SHIPLEY: Well, there’s less likelihood now of any these old divisions coming in. As a matter of fact, the Democratic Party was originally the Republican Party. You know more that you know that.
GARROWAY: Is that right?
SHIPLEY: At the beginning of our country’s history, there were no parties, just simply the Electoral College, and then, about 1810, the Republican Party came along, and the other group said, well they can’t take that name all to themselves. They’re not the only ones that don’t want a king. We’re Republicans too. So the first group said, “Well, we’re Democratic Republicans.” The second group said, “Well, we’re the Federal Republicans. We believe in the close union of states.” Well, Federal Republican, Democratic Republican, they dropped the “Republican” and became the Federalists and the Democrats.
SHIPLEY: And that’s how the Democrats got their name that they use today.
GARROWAY: How did they get the elephant and the donkey in the act?
SHIPLEY: Well, the elephant came in after Grant’s election. Grant was on his second term, was elected with virtually the complete electoral vote, and Barnum’s Jumbo, the great elephant at that time, was taken as a symbol by Thomas Nast of enormous size. And he had this picture of the elephant representing the vote that they got, virtually a complete vote, the biggest vote in the Electoral College anyone had ever had.
GARROWAY: Thank you Doctor. Very interesting talk this morning. Dr. Joseph B. Shipley, well-known philologist and a little discussion of democrat versus democratic, and it didn’t wind up as being definitely in favor of either one. So, you can continue to do just as you like. Call the party Democratic or call it Democrat. Legally, they’re both correct, I believe.
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