After a quarter-century, wordmeister Safire (Spread the Word, 1999, etc.) continues to pick happily at the knots of grammar and usage.
Looking to “satisfy the slavering etymological urge in roots-deprived readers,” Safire takes us on an extended—there are hours of word-pleasure here—and clever tour. These selections from his New York Times Magazine “On Language” column are as gratifying here as in their periodical form in hacking away at crappy grammar and word use. Barbs, often personal, are thick and heavy: “What’s a myrmidon?” Safire ingenuously asks in relation to a fellow scribe’s column—when what he really wants to do is poke a sharp stick in the eye of the magniloquent columnist. He lays siege on the “evanescent village of teen slang,” bestows Bloopies for copyediting gaffes, and introduces such gems as “eyeball hang time.” He gives euphemisms the thrashing they deserve, as in the case of “faith-based” when what the writer means is “religion-based”: “After all, virtually all of us have faith in something or other.” Safire admits it when a rule, even a New York Times style-manual rule, is fallible: “O.K., so our rule doesn’t always work. But it usually does, and if we did away with rules, how could language mavens ever correct anybody?” And we applaud his courage for running his own grammar out on the laundry line for all to see and critique, and then for printing the zippy responses from his readership, be they correcting his usage—he made a hash of “cement” and “concrete”—or his ill-veiled agendas (from Stephen Sondheim: “Like his fellow reactionaries, he’s an unregenerate pork-barreler: He attaches his views, no matter how irrelevant, to anything that moves”). Now that’s an effective piece of rhetoric, yet Safire manages to lure Sondheim back to his own language camp.
He coulda been a crank, but as he strains “to show how language illuminates The Meaning of Life,” he pulls at mischief rather than beards, and laughs all the way to the OED.