Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Among the Moonbats and Wingnuts

Last week we presented the first part of our interview with New York Times columnist William Safire about the latest edition of Safire's Political Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 2008), a thoroughgoing guide to the nuances of American political lingo. In part two, Safire explores how the discourse of politics has changed since the previous edition of the dictionary was published in 1993. It's a peculiar terrain full of moonbats and wingnuts, where pork-busters decry the bridge to nowhere.

As we did in our last installment, we've compiled some excerpts from Safire's Political Dictionary to provide some added depth to the words and phrases touched on in the interview. This week's excerpts can be found here.

VT: It's been fifteen years since the previous edition of the Political Dictionary was published. There have been a number of changes in political language since them. How do you think online discourse such as the blogosphere has changed the language of politics? Do you see a significant transformation in what happens in online forums and on blogs now?

WS: Blogs are a blessing and a curse. They're free speech, which is terrific. They're also unrestrained and unedited speech. And you can't necessarily trust the reliability or the accuracy of the assertions. So you've got to love them and you've got to watch them. And the word blogosphere is a relatively new term. And webcast is a new term, and so is robocall. So I obviously had to cover all of those in the book.

VT: You had to cover the moonbats and the wingnuts.

WS: Oh, that's a fascinating one. I tracked back the moonbats to an experimental plane back in World War II that looked like a bat to some people. Then moonbat was used later in science fiction writing. And of course because of the association of moon and luna- with derogations of the Left — the loony left and the lunatic fringe and that sort of thing — that became a derogation of lefties. Then moonbats immediately triggered the rise of the wingnut. Now a wingnut, as every carpenter or home improvement type knows, is a small nut that you twist onto a screw. It has little flanges or wings on it that help you turn it around. So wingnut was sitting there as a word. But then you got to talking about the right wing nuts, which was elided into wingnuts. And the wingnuts are now arrayed against the moonbats.

VT: One interesting thing about the blogosphere is that very often it's trying to be oppositional to what people online frequently refer to as the mainstream media, or the MSM.

WS: First of all, the mainstream media was coined by Ralph Nader in 1985. He didn't realize it when I told him about it relatively recently, "Hey, you were the coiner of that." And that consumer advocate was kind of surprised.

VT: Do you see, in the rise of the so-called netroots, a more democratic approach to political discourse, taking the reins of linguistic authority from the mainstream media?

WS: I would not use the word "authority" there because authority comes from reliability and general acceptance of the truthfulness — or truthiness, as it has been called — of the materials under study. I think the blogosphere and netroots have not only revolutionized political fund-raising, but they've added spice and zest to the political lingo. And also, because of the ability of search engines to find earlier uses and to enable amateur etymologists to quickly take the shallow plunge, we get a lot more interest in words. And that's a healthy sign.

VT: One other obvious change in the landscape recently is the 24-hour news cycle. Sometimes it seems that on cable news they often focus on language, rather than actual policy differences between candidates. We've seen that recently, for instance, with Obama's remarks about the Pennsylvania small-town voters: "Then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion." There were endless discussions about what he meant by bitter, what he meant by cling. Do you see that as a new development, that almost excessive parsing, as it's sometimes called, trying to unpack the meanings of words, as with bitter and cling, used by Obama?

WS: I kind of like parsing. I like the close examination of words and the coloration of words. And if there's a bunch of bloggers who would jump on a word like bitter, there'll be another bunch of bloggers who will jump on usage by Hillary Clinton of a bird-dog minute. And others will jump on a "misspeaking" by John McCain on Iran versus Iraq, or another example if somebody misspeaks. As a matter of fact, Hendrik Hertzberg did a piece in the New Yorker about misspeaking, and that gave me a trigger for a Times Magazine column on misspeaking. I was there when [Nixon press secretary] Ron Ziegler used to say, "The President misspoke himself." So, I think in answer to your question, yes, the explosion of the blogosphere has increased the ability to examine a candidate's words. And YouTube has brought another dimension. You can actually see him or her goofing or misleading or inspiring. So, I'm not at all upset about the speed in which words are weighed by the public.

VT: So the speed has increased, and perhaps the overall tenor of the conversation has intensified. But do you see it as qualitatively different from earlier times, for instance, when people analyzed what Jimmy Carter meant by malaise, and other words that emerged out of presidential politics?

WS: Well, I believe Jimmy Carter never used the word malaise. It was used by Pat Caddell, his pollster. But it seemed to fit him. And some people hung it around his neck. I don't often defend Carter, but I would in this case.

VT: I always assumed he did because people refer to his "malaise speech."

WS: Exactly right. And sometimes, you characterize a speech with a phrase. I characterized a speech that George H. W. Bush made in the Ukraine, when he suggested that the Ukrainians not try to become independent from the Soviet Union. And I referred to it as his "Chicken Kiev" speech. And that's hung around his neck, and he hasn't talked to me since.

VT: In the book there are a lot of new words and phrases from 21st-century politics, and also ones that are newly revived. For example, you have earmarks, which has its own history to it, but has often become a preferred term for pork barrel spending. When McCain talks about wasteful spending these days, he very often refers to earmarks rather than pork. Is there a distinction there?

WS: Now, pork is a classic Americanism, in terms of politics, in dealing with the slaves before the Civil War, who would be fed out of a pork barrel. And they would cluster around it and grab for whatever food they were given. And that image was applied to politicians offering voters their form of pork, or special benefits. So that's deeply rooted. Then, frankly, you need a new phrase every now and then, and earmark was a legislative phrase, taken of course from the earmark of cattle or of a pig to identify the animal.

And then it goes further than that. Then you get metaphoric, and you get the bridge to nowhere as an example. Now, that particular phrase had been used to exemplify wasteful spending for about twenty years, and I was able to track down the origins of it. But that was the vivid phrase that hung around the necks of pork-barrelers or earmarkers. Particularly it was used in the Alaska case, possibly unfairly, against Ted Stevens.

VT: I've noticed it continues to get used as emblematic of wasteful spending even after the bridge to nowhere...

WS: Went nowhere.

VT: ...went nowhere after the Governor of Alaska gave it the thumbs down. So it has a powerful resonance as a kind of iconic image.

WS: Right, and when you get a phrase like that, even day of infamy, suddenly, whether it's a well-termed image or a well-termed phrase, it lasts and reverberates. And of course when FDR wrote that phrase — and he wrote it himself, even though he had [speechwriter] Robert E. Sherwood standing right there — it was "a date which will live in world history." And then, on the way to giving the speech to Congress, asking for a declaration of war, he crossed out "world history," and put down an unfamiliar word, infamy. Now, that was Roosevelt at his writing best, and that's what made that phrase.

VT: What about the new reality of realism?

WS: Realism versus idealism has been a fascinating change in the meaning of words. The realists used to be the followers of realpolitik, and particularly the beliefs articulated by Henry Kissinger in the Seventies and Eighties and even more recently. Then, at that point, Woodrow Wilson was considered an idealist and he was kind of derogated because his idealism about the League of Nations had been set aside. But then they changed the goalposts and now, the realists are the ones who are more willing to make the deals. And the idealists are, more or less, the ones who want to extend democracy and freedom around the world. So that's why you see John McCain saying, "I'm an idealist, but a realistic idealist." That's why you have to recognize that there are these switches in words.

With McCain, I noticed a speech he made recently in which he used the word revanchist, as in "revanchist Russia." Now, French words are not often used in American politics, but d├ętente was a big one. And revanchism, which is based on the French word for "revenge," was a favorite Soviet blast at NATO. And they were using it for years. The people who knew foreign policy know what that meant. And so here in talking about Ukraine and Georgia being under fire from Moscow now for trying to assert their independence, McCain slammed the Russians for revanchism and just kind of turned the tables. Now, you know, one percent of the foreign policy establishment knew that, but it was delicious. And so I grabbed it and fortunately have defined it in my dictionary. I was able to say, "Hey, see, this is what he was saying." And that was caviar to the General.

VT: Finally, we should touch on words and phrases related to the post-9/11 political landscape: war on terror, Islamofascism, and 9/11 itself, of course.

WS: Now, 9/11 poses a problem when you're dealing in global terms because different people write dates differently. In Britain for example, you write the day before the month, so, it would be 11/9. 9/11 went over immediately here because 911 is the number you dial for emergencies. And I use the word dial instead of "punch a button" because sometimes words just last, you know? We talk about "the bell going off" when we're talking about a buzzer that buzzes in our pocket. So 9/11 is not used when you're writing for the International Herald Tribune. You talk about the war on terror.

As for Islamofascism, I have an entry on that detecting who came up with it, which is in dispute. Everybody wants it. I don't know if that's going to last — we'll see. I always have the problem with what's a "nonce word" that will go away, and what will last. And so I sometimes just make a guess and err on the side of putting the nonce word in, and if it lasts, it lasts. And if it doesn't, I can take it out of the next edition.

VT: Sometimes it seems that words or phrases last if they're based on previous models that have proven to be productive. So, war on terror, you could say fit a kind of paradigm: war on..., like war on poverty.

WS: Yes. And frankly, we overdid the war on... usage, and it became a parody of itself after a while, until the war on terror. Suddenly, it was a real war. And it's disputed because terror is not a country or an ideology. It's a tactic. And do you war on a tactic? So it's a little confusing when you examine it. But when you don't examine it, people know what you mean.

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