Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Remembering the Language Maven

William Safire passed away over the weekend at the age of 79, and his loss is felt particularly strongly by those who loyally followed his "On Language" column in the New York Times Magazine for the past three decades. Safire retired from his Pulitzer Prize-winning political column for the Times in 2005, but he continued to relish his role as "language maven" to the very end. He was not simply a pundit on matters political and linguistic, however: he was also an extremely generous man, both publicly in his philanthropic work with the Dana Foundation and privately with friends and colleagues.

On hearing of his passing, fellow maven Paul Dickson remarked to me that Safire "opened a door which a lot of people got to walk through and play with words as a vocation." That was certainly true in my case. As a word nerd in training, I read "On Language" religiously every Sunday. When I was perhaps nine or ten, I recall taking issue with something Safire had said in one of his columns and writing a letter to him (in pencil!). Unfortunately, I was too intimidated to follow through and never mailed the letter.

Flash-forward to 2003, when I was bit braver in corresponding with him. He often published requests for assistance from those he dubbed "Lexicographic Irregulars" (word sleuths after the manner of Sherlock Holmes' Baker Street Irregulars). On this occasion he sent out a request about the history of the expression "stay the course." I had done some hunting on the expression and found that it had originally meant something quite the opposite of its modern sense: 'to stop or check the course (of something).' Safire then wrote a column citing my research and considering other "Janus-faced" words and phrases that span opposite meanings. Even though I was a lecturer in linguistic anthropology at the time, I was proud to be considered a Lexicographic Irregular.

Over the ensuing years I graduated from Irregular to something more regular. After becoming editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press, I fielded occasional queries from Safire and his research assistants (on everything from "go figure" to "fire wall"). He was always quick to give credit where credit was due, and he also enjoyed coming up with warm-spirited epithets for those who helped him. (I was on the receiving end of "that etymological Inspector Javert," "netymologist," and "longtime capo of the Phrasedick Brigade" — sobriquets that I will always treasure.)

When I made the move from OUP to the Visual Thesaurus last year, he was extremely supportive, readily agreeing to be interviewed about the revised edition of his magnum opus, Safire's Political Dictionary. (We ran the interview in two parts, here and here, with extended excerpts from the dictionary here and here.) He was also kind enough to recommend me for fill-in columns this year while he was on vacation and then on hiatus for health reasons. Few were aware that he was so gravely ill, and so the news of his passing was, for me and many others, sudden and unexpected. He will be remembered fondly for his openness, humanity, and thoughtfulness. Farewell, Language Maven.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

William Safire, R.I.P.
Language-bloggers remember Safire.
Part one of our interview with Safire about the new edition of his "Political Dictionary."
In the second part of our interview, Safire considers 21st-century political lingo.