Sunday, September 03, 2006

Safire on moonbats and e-maelstorms

One of the real reasons every working linguist needs a blog is because it offers a chance to heap scorn on William Safire ... I figure that people just can't pound on his wretched, prescriptivist, Nixonian butt enough. So imagine my shock this morning when I read his ill-titled "On Language" in the NYT Magazine and actually read a novel (well, to me at least) observation about language that could not be easily found in five minutes in any smalltown library reference room: He connects the use of moonbat ('term of abuse for dogmatists' according to a rightwing blogger identified with early use of the term) to earlier taunts about the loony left and even earlier lunatic fringe, not to mention Mike Royko's name for Jerry Brown, Governor Moonbeam. Who knew that there's a whole string of associations between the moon and the left! I almost choked on my coffee or spit out my delicious organic sour cherry juice (don't recall which I happened to be drinking at that moment).

But our story has a happier ending: Safire uses the term e-maelstrom and, before closing with a classic little bit about how maelstrom really ought to be capitalized -- give me a freakin' break -- it is simpy not a proper noun in contemporary English in any real sense unless you're actually talking about that particular tidal current off of Norway, which happens only in discussions of the history of the word and maybe among those who sail the region --, Safire pompously claims:
Don't knock yourself out looking for the origin of e-maelstrom, "a storm of electronic communications." It was minted today, right here ... .
Actually, that can only be true in a trivial sense and presumably not the one Safire intends: He may have made it up -- rather than learning it from a dictionary or something -- but the term gets about 1,450 g-hits (that is, hits in a google search), going back a couple of years and including stories on CNN, in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Seattle Weekly, and it's in both Urban Dictionary and That the word has been constantly coined by different people is utterly unsurprisingly given the wild productivity of e- prefixing and the use of maelstrom for 'flurries of communication' (to paraphrase from the entry in E-maelstrom). Also unsurprising is that the meaning varies considerably -- from being more or less a synonym for spam to perhaps the most useful: "A long and complicated email trail with dozens of CC's discussing a situation almost none of the recipients cares about" at Urban Dictionary.

Safire of course has a research assistant and may even access to the internet himself. How does he get away with such stuff? Does nobody at the NYT bother to check his facts?

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