We might be running out of things to be offended by. Feminists, gays and blacks have got so much of what they want that foolish people thought they might pipe down any day now, to let the rest of us rest while they reload.
But some of Hillary Clinton’s friends — so far not Her Grubbiness herself — are offended because the newspapers and everyone else call her Hillary. (Some over-caffeinated people even call her Hillary!) They argue that such familiarity “diminishes her personhood,” and the inevitable professors are called in to say why the culture demands that Hillary must absorb such slings and linguistic arrows.
No matter why people use first names, says Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, even if they’re just being friendly, the inevitable result is that the person addressed by her first name, like Rodney Dangerfield, “don’t get no respect.”
Hillary, who knows that a distinctive first name like hers is snappy, easily remembered, and worth millions for marketing a candidate, has not objected. What’s to object to? Besides, it’s already posted on the bumpers of the cars of her friends, proclaiming they’re ready for her.
However, Hillary has suffered from nomenclature disease in the past. When she arrived in Arkansas as Bubba’s bride, a Yankee fresh from Yale Law School and eager to get the hicks straightened out, she insisted that she was not content to be Hillary Clinton, having taken her husband’s name like every other wife in the hills, hollows and bottomland farms, but Hillary Rodham. Even when she got to Washington, determined not to be a dreaded “wife of,” she was still a Rodham, not a Clinton. No baking cookies or standing by a man for her.
She’s smarter now and maybe wiser, probably understanding that since “Hillary Rodham Clinton” won’t fit easily in a headline, she might as well exploit good fortune. Politicians, movie stars and soap salesmen sometimes pay a lot of money for a name like Hillary. A study by researchers at the University of Utah, with nothing better to do than watch television, discovered that in their race in 2008 reporters and television news readers were four times more likely to call Hillary by her first name than to call Barack Obama by his. Hillary, with its three musical syllables, rolls off the tongue. “Barack” falls off the tongue, as if into a cough.
Men get the first-name treatment, too, and none object. Rand Paul invites one and all to “Stand With Rand” (who would want to “Fall With Paul”?). In years past we’ve had “Silent Cal” (Coolidge) and “Teddy” (Roosevelt), which he hated but it got a toy bear named for him. Only short, three or four or five-letter names make it in a headline. Newspaper copy desks couldn’t easily fit “Eisenhower” into a one-column headline, so reluctant editors agreed to “Ike,” and it became the most popular button (“I like Ike”) of the 1952 presidential campaign. “Madly for Adlai” (Stevenson) never caught on. It was a letter too long.
Copy editors, who write newspaper headlines, are generally nonpartisan, and reserve their political passion for candidates with short names like Haig, Taft, Bush and Gore. The copy desk hit the jackpot in 1996 with Dole-Kemp. Mitt and Jeb! (better without the exclamation point) were winners, too. Perot was not bad, but the bulbous capital “P” and the “o” soaked up room on the line.
Staying politically correct about language is not easy because the shrill complaints are usually lodged by those who don’t know much about words, their meanings and their nuances (a favorite word of the terminally precious). Amy Chozick of The New York Times, who you might think would be safe from accusations of committing calumny since she’s safely female and a reporter for the newspaper for the politically correct, was Twitter-bombed by a Hillary super PAC for describing Mrs. Clinton with words such as “polarizing,” “ambitious” and “secretive,” all words that hardly describe crimes and are deadly accurate as descriptions of the prospective candidate. Nevertheless, the PAC told Miss Chozick that “you are on notice that we will be watching, reading, listening and protesting coded sexism.”
Laura Edwards, a history professor at Duke University who studies “gender,” by which she means “sex,” argues that calling a woman by her first name is a “problem” of how to acknowledge women. Because women use their fathers’ or husbands’ names, they have no public identity.
There’s a simple good reason why Hillary is called Hillary, and you might think feminists would applaud. Bubba still has his “public identity,” too, and two Clintons in a headline is confusing. Scary, even.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.