Had political columnist, linguist, and brain donor William Safire lived in the United Kingdom in an earlier time, he may well have identified with the antidisestablishmentarians. In the United States from 1973 until 2005 he wrote Opinions pieces for the New York Times that largely favored the social and economic conservatism built on Church of England-style Protestant tradition.
Safire, who died Sunday of pancreatic cancer at the age of 79, wrote speeches for Richard Nixon and novels for the bestseller list. But in certain parts, he was most known for his views on another kind of style. In his weekly column for the Times Magazine, “On Language,” Safire brought his views to bear on matters of English usage, often citing the gaffes, slogans, and proclivity for hyperbole of his political colleagues in Washington.
Long words didn’t impress Safire nearly as much as neologism intrigued him and alliteration absorbed him. But he would be the first to delight in the cultural implications of the Oxford English Dictionary’s example usage of antidisestablishmentarianism: “The longest words that most people know are antidisestablishmentarianism and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Nor was he concerned about the extinction of the polysyllabic in the age of 140-character-count limits. “Stop worrying about the ‘dumbing down’ of our language by bloggers, tweeters, cableheads, and MSM thumbsuckers engaged in a ‘race to the bottom’ of the page by little minds confined to little words,” he wrote in July. His confidence in the health of English was likely bolstered by his own power as a “language maven and talking head” to influence the discourse on the discourse.
While he couldn't be called a hard-fast syntax stickler, a linguistic relativist Safire was not. Behind the wordplay and sly pun-ditry was a man dedicated to the monitoring and upkeep of the rules of the game. Granting authority to those rules allowed us access to Safire’s clubhouse, which was built of wit and gritty self-assurance on a foundation of solid research and genuine concern for the fate of the interrobang.
Pro-establishment or not, those of us who relished Safire’s opinions in matters of language (those of us so famously outed as the “last remaining kind of truly elitist nerd” by David Foster Wallace because of the pleasure we take in “hunting for errors in the Safire column”) can’t help but wonder who could possibly bandy a neologism or brandish a pun as well as Big Willy Style. This was the man who put alliterations into the mouth of Spiro Agnew, who second-handedly stuck Nixon’s finger into the chest of Nikita Khrushchev.
Whether or not we’re in cahoots with Safire and his language SNOOTs (Syntax Nudniks Of Our Times), we can learn from his dedication and resourcefulness. At the Independent we strive to emulate Safire and “take [our] phrasedick assignments seriously.”