Sunday, April 08, 2007

Safire watch: "When the going gets weird ...

the weird turn to the pros." (OK, yeah, that's an awkward paraphrase of Hunter S. Thompson.) I got up in a fine mood this morning: Watched a great hockey game on TV last night, where Michigan State played stout hockey and came back from 0-1 in the third period to beat heavily favored Boston College 3-1. (Sorry, BC fans, I'm sure you're stinging after two close losses in the finals in two years, but you gotta admit, it was the kind of game the college season should end with.) Then, I fire up the computer and find this comment from The Ridger on the recent post on wanton to do:
Hey — check Jan Freeman's column today - you're in it! This post! wanton eggcorns!
Now, leaving aside how unnerving it is to see this blog mentioned in the mighty Boston Globe, that column highlights why I think Jan Freeman is a journalist we should be reading: The world needs to understand eggcorns. I don't mean simply that this is an interesting point about language, but it tells us smart about how language changes (in a particularly slippery, indeterministic way) and how what people often think about as 'mistakes' are something much richer and more revealing. Those of us who read Language Log and such things know about this, but there's a vast public out there that doesn't. We need people like Jan Freeman out there bridging that gap.

So, what a coincidence that Safire's "On Language" opens with a paragraph that quotes the very same Jan Freeman. He's treating three very different meanings of existential that are out there today — he starts from phrases like existential threat, touches on existentialist philosophers and closes with a little thing on "existential sentences". (The last one drifts off almost into mavenanity, warning about the overuse of dummy subjects.) And I don't see a lot of actual mistakes — Søren Kierkegaard should have his 'slash o', but that's hardly a felony.

So, on to Safire Watch: In addition to Freeman, Sartre, Nietzsche, he gives a little space to Geoffrey Nunberg, and even mentions Talking Right. Once again, alert reader, you've nailed it: He's cited a linguist, a journalist who write insightfully about language and a set of philosophers.

Ironic closing twist: The print version of On Language today runs on facing a full page ad for Henry Rollins' new show, "WANTED for free expression".

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