Further thoughts on the Language Maven

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In this Sunday’s “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine (already available online here), I take a look back at the legacy of the column’s founder, William Safire. As I write there, “Safire’s acute awareness of the limits of his own expertise was often lost on fans and critics alike.” Indeed, the “language maven” title that he liked to use was intended to be self-deprecating. (Some might say “self-depreciating,” but let’s not open that can of worms.)

Part of that self-awareness was a willingness to acknowledge his errors in judgment. In that spirit, I follow up the “On Language” tribute with my latest Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus, taking a look at one of Safire’s early miscues: declaring, in 1979, that could care less was a “vogue phrase” on its way to extinction. Thirty years later, the verdict is: not so much. Fortunately, Safire didn’t often confuse his language mavenry with futurology.



10 Comments

  1. dw said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 1:34 am

    I never heard “could care less” until I moved from the UK to the US. Google news searches reveal that the phrase has made some headway in the UK, but not that much:

    News sites in the UK:
    “could care less”: 14*
    “couldn’t care less”: 62
    Percentage using couldN’T: 82%

    News sites in the USA:
    “could care less”: 522
    “couldn’t care less”: 513
    Percentage using couldN’T: 50%

    * Two of the 14 UK hits for “could care less” actually conform to Safirean usage, including the top one: “Where exactly [the money] is coming from, who could care less as long as it’s legal?”. Ideally I would have gone through the 522 USA hits and done the same check, but I didn’t have the energy.

  2. Will Fitzgerald said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 8:18 am

    Nice remembrance, Ben.

  3. rolig said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 9:29 am

    I personally like “could care less”: it’s the ultimate in not caring. What it says, in fact, is, although I could, just possibly, care less than I do now, given the right circumstances, I really can’t be bothered to try.

  4. mgh said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 9:47 am

    Ben, do you know if the New York Times has made a decision about whether to continue running a weekly “On Language” column, as a Safire legacy?

    [(bgz) The column will certainly continue in the short term, with an ad hoc collection of contributors. After that, we shall see…]

  5. Simon Cauchi said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 9:55 am

    BZ: “. . . self-deprecating. (Some might say “self-depreciating,” but let’s not open that can of worms.)”

    Why not? I, for one, deprecate the use of “self-deprecating” where “self-depreciating” is meant. And I’m sure I’m not the only one.

    People generally seem to be able to get the nouns right, “deprecation” (usually plural “deprecations”, isn’t it?) and “depreciation”. How come they muddle up the verbs?

  6. Faldone said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 10:21 am

    self-deprecating. (Some might say “self-depreciating,” but let’s not open that can of worms.)

    Right. Here’s the can. Here’s the can-opener. Now don’t none of you early birds get no ideas.

    I suppose, if one is acting in a way to lessen one’s monetary value, one could reasonably be said to be self-depreciating, at least based on my admittedly cursory search of several of the more prominent dictionaries at onelook. If one wishes to be understood by the great masses of the unwashed one is advised to use “self-deprecating”.

    [(bgz) Okay, I’ll pry open the can just a little. For starters, you can take a look at MWDEU’s extended treatment of depreciate/deprecate, which concludes:

    To recapitulate, we see these historical trends: depreciate has for some time been retreating into specialization as a financial term; it is less and less used as a term of disparagement. Deprecate has taken over much of depreciate‘s old territory, although its “modest” use is one depreciate was seldom used for.

    See also the entry for self-deprecating/self-deprecatory, adjectives that are “occasionally dragged into the dispute about deprecate and depreciate to the obfuscation of that issue.”

    Note that even the dyed-in-the-wool prescriptivist Bryan Garner has given up on self-depreciating. Nancy Friedman quotes the relevant entry from the new edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage here.]

  7. Robert Coren said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 11:40 am

    Does the MWDEU really contain that possessive it’s? I’m appalled.

    [(bgz) You can easily click through to the Google Books link I provided to see that the it’s was my own transcribing error, which I’ve fixed. Sorry about that.]

  8. Gordon P. Hemsley said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 12:53 pm

    I feel it may be appropriate, in spirit, to comment on one of the sentences in the last paragraph of your article:

    “Having grown up on his columns, I felt honored to know him and mourn the loss of this distinctive American voice.”

    Doesn’t that sentence mean that you felt honored to mourn his death, rather than that you do, in fact, mourn his death? (That is, shouldn’t you have added “I” before “mourn”?) Because that’s how I parsed it the first time around….

    [(bgz) I went back and forth on that one, eventually trusting that the coordinate structure of [I [felt honored to know him] and [mourn the loss…]] would be obvious enough to the reader. I’d be interested to know if anyone else had a garden-path experience with that sentence.]

  9. Geoff Nunberg said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

    Google reports 4 million plus hits for “mourn the loss.” Whatever the actual number, it’s a passel — hard to see how anybody could seriously be brought up short by it. My guess is that Safire would have said, “give it a rest.”

  10. Gordon P. Hemsley said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 10:00 pm

    Geoff, I wasn’t questioning the use of the phrase “mourn the loss”. I was commenting on the grammaticality of the sentence it was used in. As bgz notes, it became a garden path for me.

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