Sunday, April 01, 2007

Post #202, in which Mr. V grows weary of Safire

In doing some spring cleaning, I happened to remove the "I read Safire so you don't have to" quip from the template yesterday. It may stay that way. Today, Safire's "On Language" plows through a bunch of citations of sweet spot.

The Chicago Tribune's column by Nathan Bierma is called "On Language" too, and he explains:
Although the Tribune uses the title "On Language" for my column, I want to clarify that I have no delusions about competing as a "maven" of words and grammar with William Safire … . However, it's worth noting that his column should be called "On Words" or maybe "On Words and Grammar," since he really only covers words in the news and points of grammatical propriety, and mostly ignores linguistics. ... Language is such a rich and intricate aspect of life; a column called "On Language" should try to show that.
All true, most emphatically the last part. (Ironically, Jan Freeman's "The Word" covers much more of language than Safire does.) But unlike Bierma and others, Safire regularly fails to do research, often fails to cite sources and constantly gets the facts wrong. Maybe his column should be called "Borrowed garbled ramblings about words and random rants about grammatical propriety". What, you need a fresh example? Today's column ends with this:
A fishhook in this space recently landed the origin and coiner of "the third rail of politics (touch Social Security and you're dead)."
When the basic story has been in the Oxford English Dictionary on-line for four years and the last detail was discussed on the American Dialect Society's ads-l two years ago, you didn't "land" anything. (See Ben Zimmer's comment here.)

By the way, the growing body of regular visitors to this humble URL will recall the alert reader who recently suggested that Safire was trying to make himself legit by citing an actual specialist in language (lexicographer, linguist, whatever) every week. Since "Safire Watch" was declared at that moment, he's followed the pattern except for last week. This week, he's back on track, relying heavily on Joe Pickett, executive editor at American Heritage, plus a citation from and some praise for Jonathan Lighter's Historical Dictionary of American Slang. Alert reader, that's quite a record. If you'd like to pass along tips on this year's World Series, I'm all ears. (Go Brewers.)

Happy April Fool's Day and get ready for Opening Day …

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