Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Gleanings from the Political Word Maven

William Safire is surely known to Visual Thesaurus readers as the man behind "On Language," the weekly New York Times Magazine column that he has penned continuously since 1979. From 1973 to 2005 he was also a Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist for the Times, taking on the persona of a "vituperative right-wing scandalmonger," in his own self-deprecating terms. But since retiring from the Op/Ed page, his "word maven" persona is now ascendant, particularly with the latest edition of Safire's Political Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 2008), a book that Newsweek has hailed as "the definitive work on the subject."

We were delighted to speak to Mr. Safire about his Political Dictionary, which has gone through five editions since its first publication in 1968 under the title The New Language of Politics. He has brought to bear a lifetime of experience in creating and expanding the dictionary, having worked over the course of his career as a reporter, a radio and television producer, the head of a public relations firm, and senior White House speechwriter for President Richard Nixon. He has also found time to write dozens of other books, from anthologies of his "On Language" columns to historical novels. Since the retirement of his political column, he has devoted much of his time to chairing the Dana Foundation, a nonprofit organization active in brain research, immunology, and arts education.

In part one of our two-part interview, Safire recounts how he first embarked on a trail in political lexicography, the ways in which his work as a speechwriter and columnist has informed his dictionary, and the old pros and curmudgeons who have inspired him. Next week we'll delve into the muddy waters of 21st-century political discourse. If you'd like to read more about the political terms mentioned in this interview, you can find excerpts from Safire's Political Dictionary here.

VT: You sometimes say that, in terms of your writing, there are actually two William Safires. Could you describe these two William Safires?

WS: Well, the first has long been the "vituperative right-wing scandalmonger," something I delighted in for some 35 years on the Op-Ed page of the Times. And simultaneously, at least for 25 of those years, I was a scholarly, thoughtful, profoundly interested lexicographer and word maven. I remember when covering something at the World Economic Forum in Davos, I was on an elevator to some mountaintop with a couple of Iranian diplomats. And one of them saw my name on the little card that was hanging around my neck, and he said, "Which William Safire are you? The one that writes the dictionaries, which is very interesting, or are you this terrible man that we deplore all the time?" And what could I tell him? I told him, "Both." And that's the truth.

VT: So you developed this split personality more than 25 years ago, when you started writing the "On Language" column in the New York Times Magazine?

WS: Yes. I'm Dr. Jekyll one day and Mr. Hyde the next. But now, I'm almost exclusively Dr. Jekyll.

VT: You must have had a deep interest in language, and particularly political language, before you started writing the column, going back to your days as a journalist and speechwriter.

WS: Right. The first time I really took a plunge into lexicography was back in the mid-Sixties, when I became interested in doing a political dictionary. And I remember going to the British Library in London and asking for some advice about where I could look up British slang having to do with -bashing, which was beginning to be used in America. And the librarian there said, "Why don't you go over to the corner there. Eric Partridge is researching there. We gave him a desk because he's here so often." [Eric Partridge (1894-1979) was a noted lexicographer who wrote A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, along with more than forty other books. - Ed] And so I went over to meet this great gentleman, and he very graciously told me what he knew about -bashing and a way to look it up, and kind of inspired me to do a dictionary of my own — because, frankly, he was the only guy around who was doing a one-man dictionary in this teamwork day and age. And so I thought, well, Samuel Johnson did one, and then Noah Webster did one, and Eric Partridge did one. Why can't I try?

VT: Would you describe Eric Partridge as an old pro?

WS: An old pro, of course, in political terms need not be elderly. You can be an old pro in your thirties because the meaning in politics is one who is deeply experienced. And you can get the political experience on the firing line at an early age, as Barack Obama is now showing. But Partridge at the time, I would think, would be defined as an old pro in the old sense, as a genuine professional, who is getting on in years.

VT: Who were the other early inspirations for your writing about politics and language?

WS: Well, there have been a couple of political dictionaries. Hans Sperber and Travis Trittschuh did American Political Terms, very strongly on the etymology of political terms. That was back in the Sixties. And that gave me a leg up because for all us in the "word dodge," we stand on the shoulders of giants. Actually, it would be kind of cruel to stand on the shoulders of pygmies! In this case, I looked at them. Then subsequent research turned up slang dictionaries having to do with politics, both in Britain and the U.S. And I found those, and I credited those in my introductions and bibliography. It's wonderful among lexicographers — it's not like among star quarterbacks, where everybody's competing and people are hiding their sources and things. There's a wonderful cooperation among lexicographers and etymologists, more so than most scholars. And so I was fortunate to join the ranks.

VT: Someone who I think of as a model for your work is H.L. Mencken, in terms of his deep journalistic interest in both American politics and "the American language," as he called it. Did you find inspiration from Mencken?

WS: Not only in his dual role, but in the fact that he was an outstanding curmudgeon. Curmudgeon is defined in my dictionary at some length because a Life columnist called somebody that in 1969 and he took it as a terrible insult. The writer checked the first edition of my dictionary, where I defined it as "a likeably irascible old man." And that sort of got the writer off the hook when the person he aimed it at complained.

VT: The style of the Political Dictionary is rather unusual. It's not simply a dictionary that lists a word or phrase and then a brief definition. You take more of a discursive approach, creating mini-essays ruminating on the words that you're talking about. Was that something that you set out to do to make this different from ordinary dictionaries?

WS: Well, you used the word "discursive" correctly. That's what I am in this. I'm not trying just to give a quick definition of something. I'm an essayist. That's what I've been as a journalist for a long time. And I write an essay about a word, dealing with its current meaning, its previous meanings, the etymology of it — going back to ancient times, if that road is there — and then citing current and amusing usages. And then, if I have a personal recollection of some kind of a word, I'll tell an anecdote about it.

When I was reviewing doctrines, I talked about the Monroe Doctrine and then about the Nixon Doctrine. I remembered a meeting with Henry Kissinger and Donald Rumsfeld and a few others back in 1970 when the Parrot's Beak Cambodian invasion took place. And I piped up as a Nixon speechwriter at the time with, "How does this fit into the Nixon Doctrine?" And Henry blew up and said, "We wrote the goddamn doctrine, we can change it!" So, I figured that belongs in a definition of the word doctrine.

VT: Your experience as a speechwriter must give you a special insight into the crafting of political oratory. How important do you see the role of the speechwriter in creating political language that lasts and that could actually enter a political dictionary?

WS: Well, you never really know when you're writing a speech for a President or another top principal in the world whether any of the words that you use will become immortalized, or at least notorious. First of all, they are not your words, they belong to the principal. He chooses whether to use them. The Silent Majority, for example: that was not capitalized in President Nixon's 1969 speech. I didn't submit it. I don't think the other speechwriters submitted it. He just used it. And then, of course, when it took off, when everybody said, "Oh, that's the phrase that summarizes the people who supported Nixon in those days," then everybody scrambled around to look for previous usages. And, of course, it's there — the silent majority used to be the reference for the dead, all the people who had died in the past of our civilization. Of course, that's not the meaning he had in mind.

So, in answer to your question, of course, a speechwriter loves to create a phrase and hopes that it'll fly. But number one, it belongs not to the speechwriter, but to the speaker. And number two, you'd be amazed the ones that don't fly and the surprise that the speechwriter gets when some phrase suddenly emerges.

[Stay tuned next week for part two of our interview, in which Mr. Safire muses on moonbats and wingnuts, pork and earmarks on a bridge to nowhere, and the post-9/11 war on terror. -Ed.]

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