Sunday, February 18, 2007

Safire dodges the third rail, kind of

If I had to grade Safire's columns — and, man, I'm glad I don't —I would give him a less dismal grade than usual today, I suppose, but with pretty harsh comments in the margins. He reports on the origins of third rail in American political discourse, basically giving a description of the phrase and its early use. (The image on the right comes an article here on BART, an article worth reading ... or maybe the pictures of the Bay Area just look appealling this morning.) So, he does no harm. He had raised this question a while back ("put a fishhook in this column ... and awaited a nibble"), trusting his Phrasedick Brigade to tell him the origins. He then runs through a list of his phone calls and contacts with Washington journalists leading to Kirk O'Donnell, an aid to former House speaker Tip O'Neill.

The web of evidence he's assembled makes it very plausible that O'Donnell was the person who led to the phrase becoming popular. It's not so clear, though Safire seems to assume it, that O'Donnell actually coined the phrase. That strikes me as passable work, even for a beginning grad student maybe, the kind of situation where you'd just be sure explain to the student how cautious one has to be about sifting historical evidence for conclusions, how hard it is to avoid overstepping what's actually clear from the data before us. I'm not really a historical linguist, or a real linguist at all in the minds of many, but I've sure made that mistake enough myself. Of course as I read it, Safire assesses his accomplishment in the column as helping along the emergence of "the historical truth". Whoa.

The incessant name-dropping deal grates, as it always does, and he can't go without calling Tom Oliphant "a liberal", when it adds zip to the piece. His efforts at cute images don't quite work, like this: "my e-mail box bulging (screens don't bulge)". But that's an odd mix of metaphors, isn't it? Emails don't really fill boxes in any sense and can't quite bulge. I'd leave aside the number of phrases, words and rhetorical moves he uses constantly, but each week phrasedick has come to sound worse and worse to me. He's doubtless old enough that dick in the sense of "detective"is more alive for him than for most of us. I wouldn't mind if he used it only for himself, but then of course he doesn't actually do the digging, just cash the checks for writing up the work of those who do. But it sounds demeaning when it refers to very serious researchers and they don't seem to like it very much, as here.

So there. I read him so you don't have to.


Ben Zimmer said...

The "phrasedicks" I'm familiar with have mostly given up on Safire, since even when he (or his research assistant) pays attention, the findings tend to get mangled beyond recognition in his column. In any case, OED put the May 1982 Newsweek cite in its online edition four years ago (under "third"), and the O'Donnell attribution was discussed on ADS-L two years ago... without the name-dropping, of course.

Anonymous said...

Wait, the attribution to O'Donnell is not new? He makes it sound like this is the one thing he actually brings to the table.

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