William Safire, a speechwriter for President Richard M. Nixon and a Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist for The New York Times who also wrote novels, books on politics and a Malaprop’s treasury of articles on language, died at a hospice in Rockville, Md., on Sunday. He was 79.
Over the weekend we lost our country’s most popular authority on words, the preeminent pundit of parlance. William Safire’s weekly On Language column in the New York Times Magazine was to usage mavens what US Weekly is to celeb-o-philes, and has been, to me, a consistent source of intellectual delight and professional inspiration. In fact, in June of last year Safire briefly noted at the end of an article that his researcher had taken another job. I took that as a cue, and sent him an earnest, if obsequious email pleading for the opportunity to apply. “I have oft pondered ways,” I admitted, “that I might scam my way under your tutelage.” (I received a call a few days later for an interview. Unfortunately the job was in DC. In retrospect, perhaps I should have considered the relo.)
From the Times obit:
The columns, many collected in books, made him an unofficial arbiter of usage and one of the most widely read writers on language. It also tapped into the lighter side of the dour-looking Mr. Safire: a Pickwickian quibbler who gleefully pounced on gaffes, inexactitudes, neologisms, misnomers, solecisms and perversely peccant puns, like “the president’s populism” and “the first lady’s momulism,” written during the Carter presidency.
There were columns on blogosphere blargon, tarnation-heck euphemisms, dastardly subjunctives and even Barack and Michelle Obama’s fist bumps. And there were Safire “rules for writers”: Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. Avoid clichés like the plague. And don’t overuse exclamation marks!!
I should have known those rules were his.
I doff my digital cap to Mr. Safire. Here’s hoping I can help forward the cause for correctness on Earth, and that heaven offers an abundance of malapropisms, lest eternity be boring.