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Prime Minister Paul Martin is increasingly being saddled with the nickname Mr. Dithers because of his perceived dithering. The insult became its own news story after the Feb. 19-25 issue of the British magazine The Economist carried an article by its Ottawa correspondent, Clyde Sanger, headlined " 'Mr. Dithers' and his distracting 'fiscal cafeteria.' " Mr. Martin's "faltering leadership," it said, "has earned him the sobriquet of 'Mr. Dithers.' " The Official Opposition gleefully took the name-calling to the House of Commons. "Mr. Speaker," Conservative MP Peter MacKay said, "The Economist magazine has joined the parade of people who refer to our prime minister as Mr. Dithers. It says that the federal government has been slow and hesitant."

The odd part about all this is that while the word dithers superficially points to Mr. Dithers, the character of Mr. Dithers does not. Julius C. Dithers, the irascible boss who kicks dozy employee Dagwood Bumstead around the office in the comic strip Blondie, has a hair-trigger temper, a tendency to invite himself to dinner, a running battle with his wife and a love-hate relationship with his chief employee. (Dithers began life as head of the J. C. Dithers Construction Company, but it has never been entirely clear what the company does.) Reader George Patrick picked up on this oddity in a letter on Feb. 5. "Mr. Dithers was anything but a ditherer, and the use of his name to mock our dithering, blithering PM seems like a terribly muddled comparison."

Perhaps the cartoonist who dreamed up Blondie in 1930, Chic Young, named Mr. Dithers as an ironic commentary on the character's true nature. Canadian politics saw something similar with the Waffle, a radical NDP faction 35 years ago that was not known for waffling. It got its name from a wry line in the manifesto that if it waffled on any issue, it would waffle to the left.

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Or perhaps, as Indiana business consultant Stanley R. Trout has written, the suitability of Mr. Dithers's name depends on how you define dither. "As a noun, it refers to a trembling or vibration. . . . In electronics, a relay is said to dither when it bounces rapidly from one position to another, without settling in a stable position. It is a very undesirable condition, usually caused by inadequate voltage to the coil. In other words, chaos caused by poor input. . . . It is no coincidence that Mr. Dithers was Dagwood Bumstead's boss in the Blondie comic strip." Poor input, chaos, rapid change of positions -- yes, that's the Julius Dithers the world knows.

Sanger, interviewed on CBC Radio, said he first encountered the reference to Mr. Martin as Mr. Dithers in a book written 18 months ago by Ottawa writer Susan Delacourt. My quick reading of Juggernaut: Paul Martin's Campaign for Chrétien's Crown turned up only a statement that a 1989 Globe column by Hugh Winsor had called Mr. Martin "dithering." (The column itself used the form "dithered": "Paul Martin, whose ambition is engraved in every gesture but who dithered when he made it to the microphone . . .") But the actual name Mr. Dithers appeared in a column last March by The Globe's Margaret Wente. "And so, instead of Mr. Statesman," she wrote, "we've got Mr. Dithers -- the guy who can't seem to recall why he wanted this job."

Still, little is new in politics. On May 6, 1986, Barbara Brookman Wallace stood up in British Columbia's legislature to take issue with environment minister Austin Pelton. "I hate to use the term 'a Mr. Dithers,' " she said, "but it almost seems that that's what we have: someone who dithers from one position to the other and doesn't come down with decisions."

For the record, dither originated in English in the 14th century as didder, and meant to tremble, shake and shiver, much like dodder, which has survived in that form and has the added connotation of frailty. Since minority governments may be said to be frail, Mr. Martin should thank his stars that at least he hasn't been called Mr. Dodder.

Perhaps, since he achieved a great deal as finance minister in the 1990s, he can have his nickname altered from Mr. Dithers to Mr. Didder -- past tense of Doer, a name already taken by Manitoba Premier Gary Doer. This column is now done.

wclements@globeandmail.ca

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