Sunday, February 25, 2007

"When will William Safire retire?"

That's a quote from the subject line of a post last night on the American Dialect Society's electronic list. In fact, I hereby forgo any direct comments on Safire's On Language this week and instead urge readers to consult the latest ads-l posts on it. Just go to this URL and search for doughnut hole (that also seems to return results for donut hole). Unless you subscribe and get the mailings, there's some lag time on when new posts come up in the archive, but it's worth checking again later too.

What you'll see is how people who actually study words and word histories have approached this little issue, pieced together relevant evidence, and worked out a story about the term and its evolution. Even when Safire's assistant checks the archives (i.e., when he has his helper bring him the work of trained professionals, though he virtually never credits them for their work), he generally botches things massively. But even if he doesn't misunderstand, misinterpret or misrepresent what his assistant has found, he has never once, in my experience, given readers a sense of how these specialists think about their field. Speaking as a linguist who does not work in this area, it is worth seeing how they do it — and it's far more engaging than a smudged twelfth-generation xerox of the process.

Now, I'm going to kick back with a steaming cup of coffee and enjoy the post-blizzard calm here in Madison, before I have to go out and shovel the stuff.

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