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Safire on Sunday

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" Commentary, October 6, 2009

     The headline on William Safire's New York Times obituary described him as "an oracle of language" and the Times' chairman Arthur Sulzberger praised his "wonderful sermons on the use and abuse of language." His longtime agent Morton Jankelow called him "the high priest of language usage."
     That was all meant as tribute, of course, but it chiefly reflected what people expected a language columnist to be. It didn’t have anything to do with why so many readers turned straight to Safire's language column when they opened the Times Magazine on Sunday morning. They were drawn by his unremittingly jaunty prose, as he laced his observations with etymological tidbits, puns, alliterations, and allusions. The last thing they were looking for was sermons or ex cathedra pronouncements about grammar and diction. (If Safire had written that sentence he'd probably have added a parenthetical about how ex cathedra came from the Latin for "from the professor's chair" and then noted that speaking ex cathedra wasn't the same as telling tales out of shul.)
     Safire had his views, of course. He defended the traditional distinctions between disinterested and uninterested, enormity and enormousness, and precipitate and precipitous.
     But while he may have enjoyed his decades as the lone conservative voice on the Times' op-ed page, when it came to language he didn't see any point in standing athwart history yelling "Stop!"  As he put it, "After a while, words come to mean what most people think they mean, not what we say they ought to mean." That's why he abandoned his objections to the use of verbal in place of oral, and alarmed traditionalists by accepting the use of hopefully as a sentence adverb, as in "Hopefully the war will end soon." He didn't take any satisfaction in seeing himself as part of the lonely and embattled minority of We Who Know Better. For Safire, usage standards had to ultimately rest on a broad educated consensus, part of the common understanding that makes public discourse possible.  
    That's not what people originally expected of him. When Safire began doing his language column in 1979, the field had been taken over by the pop grammarians, as they were called -- critics like Edwin Newman and John Simon, who had turned grammar into a new front in the culture wars. The decline of English came to stand in for a general collapse of societal standards, under assault from unruly minorities, disrespectful youth, officious bureaucrats, pretentious intellectuals, and educators infected with the loosey-goosey attitudes that went by the new name of permissivism. Before then, usage had been a largely nonpartisan concern. Now Newsweek could write of "an outbreak of right-wing linguistic commentary," as all at once your position on who and whom became a sign of your political affiliation. And who better to exemplify the new right-wing grammarians than a former Nixon and Agnew speechwriter who had actually scripted the opening act of the culture wars a decade earlier?
    But Safire defied expectations and outlived several generations of pop grammarians, precisely because he didn't try to use language to advance any broader cultural or political agenda. There was no apocalyptic bombast about the corruption of English or the indignities that ignorant and lazy speakers were visiting on the tongue of Shakespeare. (I'm always puzzled by those evocations of the Bard -- it's like pointing at a can of paint and saying, "This is the medium of Rembrandt, and people are slathering it all over their garage doors.") And he had no patience for the keening hyperbole of people who described grammatical missteps with terms like "ghastly," and "abomination" -- words that he reserved for talking about Nazi collaborators or the more intrusive clauses of the Patriot Act.[1]
     He wasn't a snob, either. He would never have implied that correct grammar was a badge of social distinction or that incorrect grammar was a personal or social failing. You can't imagine him comparing a poet who confused between and among with someone picking his nose at a party, the way John Simon once did. And he wasn't susceptible to the grammatical vapors that affect writers like Lynne Truss -- the people who like to describe lapses of grammar as setting their teeth on edge, making their skin crawl, or leaving them gasping for breath, as if they'd spent all their lives up till now closeted with Elizabeth and Darcy in the morning room at Pemberley.
     What was most notable about the column was its almost ostentatious civility. Safire gave due consideration to opposing points of view and was gracious to his critics, to the point of printing their letters and occasionally giving them guest columns to write. And he almost relished acknowledging his errors and changes of heart. After you'd read a language column on Sunday, it could be disconcerting to pick up the weekday paper and see how relentless and sometimes intemperate he could be toward political targets like Hillary Clinton and Anita Hill.
     Safire's political dictionary is a true work of scholarship, the one book of his that people will still be consulting twenty-five years from now. But aside from his expertise in political terminology, he wasn't really a language maven. His speculations about word origins could be dubious and even a little dotty, and he'd get tangled in grammatical thickets when he tried to sort out the difference between which and that. Linguists gave him a hard time over some of those matters, and he responded by adding a lot of us to his rolodex. (I say "us" because he asked me for help with some items, too.)
     But his special gift was in conveying his pleasure in ruminating about language. It wasn't just that he loved words -- who doesn't? But he really, really liked them.

[1] As best I can tell, Safire used abomination twice in his "On Language" columns, both times in joking reference to his own usage.

Copyright © 2009 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.