On the first count, he tackles leet speak:
A youthy movement is now afoot to secede from the Orthographical Union by changing the spelling of the most common word in the English language from the to teh. It is a signal to pronounce it tay or else teh to rhyme with feh!
This rebellion is not innocent initialese like LOL, “laugh out loud”; it is a form of Internet slang based on mistake-worship. Most of us have had the experience of typing (or keying*) t-h-e and seeing t-e-h appear on the screen. We fix our digital slip; we don’t see it as a message from the soul of the machine, or even as a great new way to intensify that common word by pronouncing it thee rather than thuh.
If you don’t want to save the Union, just spell your reaction “Waht teh lleh.”
Well, not exactly.
On a much more positive and interesting note, he talks about cool, which does retain its "slang-froid on campus" (good one). He gives this quote from Lincoln (February 27, 1860), where he says cool means 'really something':
In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear and mutters through his teeth, ‘Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!’
An interesting quote, but is that actually what (I actually first typed waht am not that into 'mistake worship') Lincoln meant?
I'm not entirely sure, but before looking up the history of the word, I could have read it as basically present-day colloquial English cold (that is, going beyond OED Online's entry for cool that includes "controlled, dispassionate", which goes back to Beowulf!) The fuller context is available here — go to p. 172 — and you'll even see mention of passion and ill temper.
In fact, a whole set of entries in OED sound plausible to me, like these:
- Of a person, an action, or a person's behaviour: assured and unabashed where diffidence and hesitation would be expected; composedly and deliberately audacious or impudent in making a proposal, demand, or assumption.
- Exhibiting or demonstrating a lack of warmth of affection; not cordial, unfriendly.
- Providing no comfort or encouragement; chilling.
The last is listed "obs.", by the way. Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English has an even better fit:
Impertinent, impudent, audacious, esp. if in a calm way; from ca. 1820; coll. till ca. 1880, then S.E. [= Standard English, mr. v]
My sense is that Safire's reading maybe isn't entirely impossible, but it sure doesn't feel obvious or natural.
UPDATE, 11:00 a.m.: Well, leave it to Jan Freeman to beat me to the punch here. She gives the fuller story on Lincoln's use of cool, here. Maybe I need to cancel my sub to the NYT and just starting reading the Boston Globe.
*Anybody out there have an actual difference between to type and to key?