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.
NYTimes, Sept 27, 2009
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.
This weekend’s New York Times Magazine On Language column, written by Ben Zimmer (in for Sir Safire) looks at what Zimmer calls “the age of undoing,” the preponderance of backformed words created by tacking a convenient un- to the front of everything.
The article begins:
“What’s done cannot be undone,” moaned Lady Macbeth in her famous sleepwalking scene. If she woke up in the 21st century, she would be pleased to discover that whatever can be done can be undone, too.
Or perhaps it just seems that way in the new social spaces we are carving for ourselves online. On popular Web sites devoted to social networking, innovative verbs have been springing up to describe equally innovative forms of interaction: you can friend someone on Facebook; follow a fellow user on Twitter; or favorite a video on YouTube. Change your mind? You can just as easily unfriend, unfollow or unfavorite with a click of the mouse.
The recent un- trend has also seeped into the world of advertising. KFC is marketing its new Kentucky Grilled Chicken with the tagline “UNthink: Taste the UNfried Side of KFC.” The cellphone company MetroPCS challenges you to “Unlimit Yourself,” while its competitor Boost Mobile wants you to get “UNoverage’D” and “UNcontract’D” (ridding yourself of burdensome overage fees and contracts). Even victims of the financial downturn can seek solace in un-: ABC broadcast a special report in May telling viewers how to get “Un-Broke.”
It goes on to trace the un-ing of words back to some linguistic genesis, one rooted largely in the electronic world. Forsooth, there once was a time when the “Undo” command was novel. But what interests me more than their digital-etymological rise are the cultural connotations of these words, and what they signify beyond their definitions.
Take, first, Zimmer’s advertising and ABC examples: UNfried, UNlimit, UNoverage’D, UNcontract’D and Un-Broke. What I see here is more than clever marketing, but the display of a pervading sense of dissatisfaction. Typically, branding serves consumers (that’s us) with aspirational images. Beer will make you cool and popular, makeup will make you beautiful, etcetera, ad infinitum. Buy this, become better. But these un- slogans are not about becoming what you want; they’re about un-becoming what you are and wish you weren’t.
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Posted in Shoot the Messenger, Write and Wrong
Tagged ben zimmer, boost mobile, facebook, kfc, new york times magazine, nytimes, on language, un-, william safire, youtube