Monday, September 28, 2009

The language maven: William Safire, 1929-2009

It may seem odd that I had an affection for a columnist who wrote speeches for Richard Nixon and that consummate boob Spiro T. Agnew, but I liked William Safire in spite of his politics. (In any case, in comparison to the banshee wailing and screeching of present-day Republicans, they were fairly moderate.)

It somehow took me this long to discover from the obituaries that he, and not Agnew, fathered the phrase "nattering nabobs of negativism" to describe the media pundits of his era. But his loyalty to the Nixon team did not give him immunity: as he found out later, he too had been wiretapped by the Nixonians for "national security" reasons. This did not please him. He had not, he said, "worked through a difficult decade, to have [Nixon]--or some lizard-lidded paranoid acting without his approval--eavesdropping on my conversations."

Safire's politics were quirky, to put it mildly: a self-described "libertarian conservative," he voted for Bill Clinton, then became his wife's worst nightmare, and defended George W.'s Iraqi adventure, WMDs and all, subscribing in fact to one of the wilder conspiracy theories on the Right: an alleged al-Qaeda-Saddam Hussein connection. Despite being debunked by the 9/11 Commission, Safire's tale of a Prague meeting between 9/11 conspirator Mohammed Atta and senior Iraqi officials was never retracted: he called the meeting an "undisputed fact."

But for me his politics were secondary. It was his love of language that I treasured, and when I subscribed to the Sunday New York Times I turned to his "On Language" column in the NYT Magazine first thing. It was always a fun read--no dour Henry W. Fowler was he. An incurable lover of puns, he was also one who eschewed an overly-prescriptive view, but held to his standards:

Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. Avoid clichés like the plague. And don't overuse exclamation marks!!

He was always current, and his research was meticulous--but not perfect. His column on "Blegging for blargon in the blogosphere" is well worth a read for those of us in the game. In it, he credits
William Quick of the Daily Pundit for coining the latter term on January 1, 2002. But "blogosphere" made its first appearance on September 10, 1999 in an on-line column by Brad Graham, a piece also worth reading to remind us how recent is our time-devouring addiction.

Safire didn't see eye-to-eye with those of us who push for a gender-free lexical shift: those feminists who want to use "actor" to refer to an actress, he said, would never call Madonna a "sex god." He also responded with good grace when avid readers pointed out his own inevitable linguistic errors.

There's a personal connection here, too. Many years ago, responding to a column of his on abortion-issue terminology, I had the temerity to write to him and put the case for using "pro-choice" instead of "pro-abortion." (Were no-fault divorce law supporters "pro-divorce?" I recall asking.) I never did receive a response, but one day a colleague asked me if I'd seen Safire's new book, darned if I can remember which it was--there were so many--and he had reproduced the letter in its entirety, devoting a page to it, right after a reprint of his column. Without comment. To this day I believe that Safire was interested in the exploration of ideas above all, without the felt necessity of drawing hard and fast conclusions, and that the honour he did me was in that spirit.

Indeed Safire should be remembered, not only as a man passionate about language, but as a civil and urbane conservative who, I would like to believe, was as appalled by the current outbreak of right-wing political ergotism as am I. He died of pancreatic cancer, an illness I know well. What a lousy way to go for a man who, whatever his politics, touched people across the divides.


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