Sunday, September 24, 2006

William Safire: Can't you get ANYTHING right?

Man, some guys just never learn. I recall that back in the dark days of Ronald Reagan, people (William Safire among them, I'm pretty sure) complained bitterly about the coining of new words, the usual patterns of back formation, N-V derivations like to impact and new verbs in -ize, etc. (Alexander Haig was notable for some of these.) Somebody in the press -- I think in The Nation, though I can't find this in their on-line archives -- ran the obvious piece showing that most of these 'new' words were actually quite old, some used by Shakespeare, others older.

Now, lo and befreakinhold, Safire is still at it twenty years later (assuming my memory is right that he was at the center of it back then): Today's "On Language" in the NYT Magazine (p. 20, if you have a copy at hand, available on-line only with subscription) shows that he's condemned to repeat the history he cannot or will not understand. The column is titled "Pretexting" and is naturally about the recent Hewlett-Packard spying scandal, where people used pretexts to get private information on employees. He declares that to pretext is "a relatively new word". Bill, buy yourself a subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary on-line. They show the first attestation of this verb in 1606, and give examples like this: "He retraced his steps to the Rue de Fer; where, pretexting business, he entered the shop of the armourer" (1849). There's nothing remotely new about this as a verb.

The extension in the meaning -- to this particular new kind of behavior involving pretexts -- is pretty minor, and utterly unsurprising. Surely this would not warrant a new entry (i.e. constitute a 'new word') in a dictionary, even if it continues to be used beyond this scandal. Merriam-Webster gives an example of how it treats 'senses' (p. 20a of the latest print version); consider their example of 'job': 1a is "a piece of work ..." and 2a "something done for private advantage ..." (like a 'put-up job'). I'm no dictionary maker, but the change in to pretext doesn't even seem that big.

Oh wait, Safire does have access to the OED: He sarcastically uses pretexter and adds: "another new word for the O.E.D. to get busy recording", which sounds a little like it's trivializing the work of some of the world's best lexicographers: Now, go record some new words, boys and girls. (And yes sir, they do hire women for this work these days.)

But speaking of to trivialize, the last chunk of his current rant is called "Ization Nation", aimed at verbs in -ize. (Wonder if he checked OED to see that Dickens actually used ization as a word back in 1865: "He was not aware that he was driving at any ization.") He seems to be accepting and rejecting these on an individual basis: Trivialize and characterize are presumably acceptable but operationalize and anonymize are apparently not -- especially not when you can quote Hillary Clinton using the former term.*

Maybe this reveals the real idiocy of people like Safire. He seems to realize (oops) that there's a generalization (oops) here -- noun/adjective + -ize is used to form new verbs, yadda yadda yadda -- but he's trying to fight over individual words. Rather than accepting that izing and ization is part of active English word formation, he wants to be gatekeeper to our lexicon. Surely this stuff is productive enough that even Safire realizes that he can't stomp on so many cockroaches.

I hereby pledge to coin a new -ize verb a day. Will you join me in antisafirizing American English?

*On the latter term, I have to note that he screws up anonymize too: He seems to suggest that privatize should be used, but is avoided because of the use of the term in the Social Security debate. In fact, to privatize has to mean 'to make private' and to anonymize 'to make anonymous' — they simply don't mean the same thing. In the very quote he gives from Eric Schmidt (CEO of Google), you can't possibly make the substitution: "The data as released was obviously not anonymized enough." Releasing data is the opposite of privatizing it.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see someone taking out after that moron Safire. He's pissed me off for decades. Today's column was so filled with stupidity that even Mr. Verb could not comment on all of it. One note I'll add: his "plumber's syndrome" is a typical ignorant anti-language-change guy's way of talking about filling arbitrary gaps in a paradigm or in the lexicon. (Why do we have so many forms for 'you plural', Billy-boy? Duh.)

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, I just don't have the time to do a full analysis of this stuf. (Dissertation topic, anybody?)

Another issue is the status of 'sock puppet', but that's a topic for another day.