William Safire: Language Legend

William Safire: Language Legend

Late speechwriter and columnist leaves a towering legacy.

By Eugene Finerman

Obituaries described William Safire as an author, lexicographer, speechwriter, pundit and maven. He would have relished those words, not simply as a tribute to him but as a display of the rich diversity of the English language. Safire could have told you the derivation of each word. Author is from Latin, lexicographer is Greek, speechwriter is Anglo-Saxon – a dialect of German, pundit is Hindi and maven is Yiddish. Safire loved English for its vitality, earthiness, expansiveness and humor. People loved him for the very same qualities.

Toastmasters, in particular, admired his eloquence. Anyone who has struggled to write a speech that articulates exactly what it should – with wit, precision, style and poetry – understands the value of this man’s accomplishments

The erudite New York native, who died last September at age 79, wielded enormous influence in the communications arena. “On Language,” the witty and widely read column he wrote for the New York Times Magazine for 30 years, made him one of the world’s best-known arbiters of English vocabulary and language usage.

Safire was also a Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist for the New York Times, a noted speechwriter for United States president Richard M. Nixon and a high-profile public relations man before that.

Peggy Noonan, a Wall Street Journal columnist who achieved fame as a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, praises Safire’s abundant contributions, calling him a “giant” in the world of media and politics. He was also a generous mentor and friend, she says.

“Bill gave me some of the best professional advice that I ever received: ‘Write what you experience and see,’” Noonan recalls in an interview with the Toastmaster magazine. “He felt that those who are living history (and everyone who works at the White House is living history) have a responsibility to record it as accurately, as truly, as possible – to not let it go, and disappear into anecdotes told late at night.”

Safire’s prodding paid off, says Noonan, grateful for the encouragement and support.

“He urged me to write, each day, a thought or two. I told him it was a great idea but I didn’t have time; I got home from the office at 10 p.m., and I was tired. He said, ‘Just a sentence, anyone can do that!’ I agreed anyone could, and tried. What he knew is that no writer writes just a sentence. By getting me to agree to write one, he was getting me to agree to a page or two or three. Because of this I didn’t ‘lose’ my White House, I kept it; I recorded it to the best of my ability.”

In his language column, Safire wrote with wisdom and humor about linguistic trends, grammar issues, political rhetoric and the endless permutations of words and phrases. He delved into subjects ranging from “blargon” (blog jargon) to the grammatical nuances of the phrase “enough already!”

Other columns were etymological excavations, with Safire digging into the origins of slang and the history of words as basic as “soap.” He once tracked the evolution of the word galumph, tracing it back to its birth as “galumpher” in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Ever wonder about the word canoodle? Safire’s sleuthing found it may be related to the German dumpling called “Knoedel.”

“I am a language maven, a word with a range of senses, from ‘aficionado’ to ‘enthusiast’ to ‘scholar’ to ‘connoisseur,” Safire once wrote.

Even football was fair game. When the Rolling Stones performed at the halftime show of the 2006 Super Bowl, Safire took the famous frontman Mick Jagger to task for using bad grammar. Introducing their hit “Satisfaction,” Jagger said to the crowd, “Everything comes to he who waits.” Here was another halftime malfunction, noted Safire – this time verbal. The columnist’s professorial explanation of Jagger’s error: “Because he is the subjective case of the third-person male pronoun, it cannot be the object of the preposition to. The pronoun must be the objective case him.”

Got that?

Imagine having William Safire as your club’s grammarian. It no doubt would have been an educational experience.

Safire first came to American national prominence in the late 1950s, when he was an executive at a New York public relations agency. In 1959, the United States and the Soviet Union enjoyed a thaw in the Cold War, and the powers sponsored cultural exchanges. That year the “American National Exhibit” came to Moscow and Safire was there, overseeing the model-home exhibit produced by his client – a home-construction company. Then-U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon hosted the event’s opening ceremonies, and the guest of honor was the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev; the two leaders might have browsed past the model home but Safire thought of a way to make them the inadvertent promoters of his client.

The exhibit had planned for a smooth, one-way flow of traffic. Safire made a slight alteration, rearranging the cordons so that tourists were coming from both directions and blocking the access of Nixon and Khrushchev. Along with their interpreters and other dignitaries, they were trapped inside the model’s kitchen. One thing led to another, and somehow Nixon and Khrushchev ended up pointedly discussing nuclear weapons. This episode famously became known as the “kitchen debate.“ It included a memorable photograph – which Safire had slyly set up – of Nixon poking his finger into Khrushchev’s chest. That image solidified Nixon’s credentials as a man who could stand up to the Soviets. The vice president had to admire the savvy publicist who manipulated the encounter. William Safire had won a new client.

When Nixon became U.S. president in 1968, Safire joined the administration as a speechwriter. Ironically, in the five years he served as a White House speechwriter, Safire is best remembered for a punch line. Assigned the role of the administration’s partisan defender, Vice President Spiro Agnew denounced critics as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” That unique phrase, so distinct from the usual political rhetoric, made a sensation. It reflects Safire’s flair for language as well as his love of alliteration, which he displayed throughout his career.

After working as a speechwriter, Safire became a tenacious and acerbic commentator for the New York Times, winning the coveted Pulitzer Prize in 1978. But despite the fear he could inspire in targets of his political columns, he was known as a warm and accessible man, particularly generous to other writers. Noonan says he was a great help when she started as a speechwriter in the White House.

“Bill was a generation older than I,” she notes. “He encouraged me in the way that is always most needed and most appreciated by the young, and that is he listened to me when we spoke and paid the compliment of taking me seriously. The young are used to being patronized. Bill didn’t patronize. He had a wholly egalitarian sense that he could learn from everyone, whatever their age or stage, and they could learn from him, too.”

Safire’s love of language began early. Growing up in New York, he wandered through the various neighborhoods and overheard a world of languages: Italian, German, Ukrainian, Chinese and Yiddish. Even in the neighborhoods where English was prevalent, the dialect often had a distinct Irish brogue.

He wrote his “On Language” column from 1979 until a few weeks before he died. His 13,000 columns and many books established him as one of the world’s leading commentators on the English language. Safire might rue common mistakes – such as confusing “fortuitous” with “fortunate” – but he was not a hide- bound traditionalist. On the contrary, Safire once wrote, “I welcome new words, or old words used in new ways, provided the result is more precision, added color or greater expressiveness.“

The gifted wordsmith, who was a popular pundit on the Sunday morning talk shows, also wrote a number of books, including novels and a memoir. One of his books was Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History. Several others books were compilations of his “On Language” columns.

When Bill Safire died last fall, he left us his love of language as his legacy and his talent as a standard. 

Eugene Finerman is a freelance writer living in Chicago, Illinois. Reach him at www.finermanworks.com.

A Sample of Safire

One of Safire’s most famous columns was his “Rules for Writers,” in which he listed 18 rules by cannily demonstrating what not to do. Here are a few examples:

  • “A writer must not shift your point of view.”
  • “And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction. (Remember, too, a preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence with.)”
  • “Don’t overuse exclamation marks!!”
  • “Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.”
  • “Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.”