WASHINGTON - In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, the president left out a tiny little suffix that means a whole lot to some people. He did it so subtly, you could have missed it. Just a little

-ic

. What's in an

-ic

?

Bush started the speech on a bipartisan note, honoring the first Madam Speaker, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, and calling on the country to come together.

Then: "I congratulate the Democrat majority," he said, dropping the last two letters from Democratic.

Bush does this a lot, and while it's hard to say if the omission was intentional in this instance, it is a semantic tactic that has been part of Republican warfare for decades.

It's a little thing, a means of needling the opposition by purposefully mispronouncing its name, and of suggesting that the party on the left is not truly small-d democratic.

The president's pronunciation was all the more striking because it was apparently not what Bush was supposed to say. The prepared speech that the White House distributed beforehand retained that precious -ic.

The case of the missing suffix provoked an oh-no-he-di'int reaction from some Democrats. The bloggers caught it, of course. (Bloggers catch that sort of thing.) "Code word," wrote one. "Calculated insult," wrote another.

"We all noticed," said Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, founder of the liberal blogging site DailyKos.com, who replayed the president's opening words on his TiVo to make sure he had heard what he thought he heard. "He just clearly couldn't help himself."

"Like nails on a chalkboard," says John Podesta, chief of staff in the Clinton White House, and president of the Center for American Progress.

Tuesday on CNN, Democratic strategist Paul Begala noted the omission right after it happened, adding that the president was being "insulting" and "self-defeating."

Republican strategist Mike Murphy chided Begala, saying that if this was his "biggest complaint, I think the president had a pretty good night."

But for those who see a big symbol in two little letters, the question becomes: Is a man who can't say -ic capable of being bipartisan?

"He offers this olive branch," Begala says. "Boom, 10 seconds later, he drops the hammer, insults the party and he winks at his base. . . . It tells you what's in his heart."

The missing -ic has a long legacy. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey was fond of saying "Democrat Party." Commie-hunting Sen. Joseph McCarthy even used the phrase half a century ago.

Bush used it Tuesday even as he was calling for politicians to "cross that aisle," even in the context of a formal address, and even as he addressed a Congress dominated by those he was insulting.

Or not. Could the word have been unintentional?

"It's hard to disentangle whether that's an intentional slight at the opposition, or traditional problems with the president's vocabulary," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Boston University.

"I doubt if it was a conscious slight," nonpartisan political analyst Charlie Cook says. "I think it was just a force of habit."

When it comes to omitting the -ic, Cook says, Republicans "have been doing it so long that they probably don't even realize they're doing it."