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.

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Comments from our users:

Monday September 28th 2009, 9:25 AM
Comment by: Keith (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
Speaking of pundits..................

Don't you think the following sentence in your opening paragraph is poorly constructed - and incorrectly punctuated?

"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."

The “he was not…..however” linkage is illogical (they are not opposing personal traits). Also, the comma and colon placements seem to me to be incorrect.

I think it should read as follows:

"He was not simply a pundit on matters political and linguistic; he was also an extremely generous man, both publicly in his philanthropic work with the Dana Foundation and privately with friends and colleagues."
Monday September 28th 2009, 12:41 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Thank you, Ben. I was distressed, too, to learn of his passing. I've been a fan for decades and have him to thank for learning that Gen McAuliff really did say "Nuts!" when asked to reply to the Germans asking him to surrenderat Bastogne. My apologies if I've misspelled any names there; I'm working with a memory strained by years. I think I've got the right general.

His passion for words lives on, however, with you and the many he inspired.
Monday September 28th 2009, 11:01 PM
Comment by: Tom L. (Apalachicola, FL)
Your critic is incorrect. "However" does not always imply contrast. It can also mean a continuation of a thought or the implied meaning "as well as".
Any loss of a man of letters is a tragic loss in these days when ignorance of and disregard for the beauty of carefully crafted writing is pervasive. Safire will be missed.
Wednesday September 30th 2009, 8:47 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I think the critic missed the meaning of the colon in Ben's punctuation that sentence.

I quit reading when I realized that 'anonymous' was just critizing and missing the point: the writer's relationship with a great man of letters who died -- too soon.

But thank you, Tom, for being the first to name that post as coming from a critic.
Tuesday October 6th 2009, 9:25 AM
Comment by: Donna B.
Tears for William Safire a true friend, a beloved teacher for many, many years
Friday March 12th 2010, 10:08 PM
Comment by: Thomas M. (Seattle, WA)
I'm still knocked out and, I might add, rather bereft at the passing of the great linguist Mr. Safire. It is good to know that a man as talented, thoughtful, learned and open-minded as Mr. Zimmer has been chosen to fill his shoes. If Mr. Zimmer is able to make reading "On Language" only half as much fun to read as it was to read his predecessor's column, we'll be satisfied: he appears to be capable of great things, and I look forward to reading his column in the future.

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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.