“Cast aside any column about two subjects. It means the pundit chickened out on the hard decision about what to write about that day.” – William Safire

On the other hand, please excuse me if things take a while to develop, or as Mr. Safire, the subject of today’s piece, once wrote, ”Took me a while to get to the point today, but that is because I did not know what the point was when I started.”

William Safir (he later added the “e” to his last name to make it easier to pronounce) was born in New York City in 1929. He dropped out of Syracuse University after two years to work as a newspaper, television and radio reporter before starting a public relations company where he worked on Nelson Rockefeller’s 1964 presidential race and John Lindsay’s 1965 campaign for mayor of New York.

In 1968 he sold the business to go to work in the Nixon administration as a speechwriter. One of the speeches he wrote while at the White House was the one in which Vice President Spiro Agnew called members of the media “nattering nabobs of negativism” for being “petty and insignificant.” Today the term is used to refer to people who are excessively negative or critical.

Between 1979 and 2009 Safire penned his weekly “On Language” column for The New York Times Magazine in which he explored written and oral trends and sought out the origins and meanings of words and phrases. Over the years he cultivated a loyal following that included several correspondents that he called his Lexicographic Irregulars.

“The wonderful thing about being a New York Times columnist,” he gushed, “is that it’s like a Supreme Court appointment – they’re stuck with you for a long time.”

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From 1973 to 2005 wrote his twice weekly “Essay” for the Op-Ed page of the Times where he was “a forceful conservative voice in the liberal chorus.” The six columns he wrote about Bert Lance (President Jimmy Carter’s Office of Budget and Management director) earned him the 1978 Pulitzer Prize in commentary.

In addition to his work at the Times, Safire also wrote four books about language and as many novels. In his language books he welcomed the viewpoints of his readers, noting that “Nobody stands taller than those willing to stand corrected.”

Like many lexicographers, his approach to words and their meanings was descriptive. “At a certain point, what people mean when they use a word becomes its meaning.”

Even so, he still warned his legions of fans: “Adapt your style, if you wish, to admit the color of slang or freshness of neologism, but hang tough on clarity, precision, structure, grace.”

One neologism (“new utterance”) Safire came up with was “phrasedick,” a word he used more than 30 times between 1983 and 2007. According to Gawker.com, his readers “have mostly concluded that ‘dick’ is meant in its early-last-century sense of ‘detective’: a phrasedick is someone who tracks down early appearances of now-idiomatic phrases.”

Strict as he was, Safire wasn’t above having fun with words. He cheekily warned his readers that “It behooves us to avoid archaisms. Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.”

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His other “advice” on writing included, “Remember to never split an infinitive. The passive voice should never be used. Do not put statements in the negative form. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. And don’t start a sentence with a conjugation.”

He also warned his readers, tongue in cheek, to “Avoid overuse of ‘quotation “marks.”’”

“Last, but not least,” he said, “avoid cliches like the plague.” And, “If you re-read your work, you can find on re-reading a great deal of repetition can be avoided by re-reading and editing.”

In the end, Safire claimed to not be bothered by whatever traits cause our wonderful language to be ever-changing. “Is sloppiness in speech caused by ignorance or apathy? I don’t know and I don’t care.”

Safire, who began writing for the New York Times Op-Ed page 50 years ago in 1973, passed away in 2009, but his zest for writing and the English language lives on in his columns, books and other writings.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at jlwitherell19@gmail.com.


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