SPREAD THE WORD by William Safire


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The 11th volume of the cunning linguist’s New York Times Magazine “On Language” columns. Safire is more than a witty journalist covering grammar and usage, as his fiction (Sleeper Spy, 1995) and nonfiction (The First Dissident, 1992) attest. The Pulitzer-winning political pundit fuses politics and linguistics when discussing “the need to reject the no-longer-pertinent language of the cold war.” In high-ranking Washington company, Safire hears America’s newly global policies described as “enlargement,” but he prefers the less pathological “engagement.” He wonders whether pundits should call pro-Communist Russians left- or right-wingers. Elsewhere, his research outflanks a writer who deems the term “philistine” insensitive to Palestinians. Most of the book celebrates language for its own sake. Only Safire could contemplate the hole of a doughnut thus: “Where was I? Yes. Where is the toroidal quality in a nut? (Only a few moments ago, you would not have understood that question).” The reader soon confronts holey bagels and Life Savers, as well as a dunk into the etymology of the donut (a legitimate variant, we’re told). Much of the fun of reading Safire’s mail is the many “incorrections,” or inaccurate corrections. With an ear to pronunciation, we learn that some say “PRAH-sess,” while the more logical Brits say “PROH-sess.” Quoting from TV Guide, Roseanne, or Hillary Clinton, Safire champions spoken language and attacks politically correct atrocities, like one that would turn zoos into Wildlife Conservation Parks. Not that Safire is opposed to new coinages. These articles are mad with serious and invented neologisms like “Pun jab” and new definitions, such as “news junkies” as “consumers of junk food for thought.” In 20 years on the language beat, Safire has waged a delightful battle for correct but common English, taking on its petrifaction with such defiant phrases as: “You’d think the Brits invented it.”

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-8129-3253-6
Page count: 276pp
Publisher: Crown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2000


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