William Safire, 1929-2009

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William Safire has passed away, and it is no small measure of his impact that even linguabloggers who were most critical of his "On Language" column in the New York Times Magazine (Languagehat, Mr. Verb, Wishydig) have been quick to post their sincere condolences. Grant Barrett has written about his generosity of spirit, and I too was touched by his personal kindness.

I'll be posting a longer remembrance tomorrow in my Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus, but for now I'd like to note one example where Safire, despite his occasional prescriptivist predilections, showed a willingness to heed the work of descriptive linguists. In a 2006 column, he described political "template phrases" such as "No X left behind" and "We are all X now." At the time, I was disappointed that he was unfamiliar with the work of Language Loggers on snowclones. But earlier this year, when Safire approached me for my thoughts on the expression "I don't do X," I nudged him to an appreciation of snowclones, and of Language Log. He followed up the column with another one ("Abbreve That Template") explicitly acknowledging Language Log's pioneering work in snowclonology. Even at the end of his prolific career, he was eager to learn something new.

[Update, 9/28: My Word Routes remembrance is here.]


  1. Mark F said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 7:33 pm

    I always thought he was less of a prescriptivist than people accused him of. His "On Language" column wasn't primarily peevological and he didn't write as if he thought the state of English was in decline. I may be wrong; I haven't gone back and checked his old columns. But I just thought he often seemed more intrigued than repelled by newly popular usages.

  2. Mark F said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 7:37 pm

    I just went back and read the "Abbrev that Template" column linked in the post, and I think I can rest my case. Rather than condemn "going forward" as an example of mindless blather, he held it up as a natural example of the human need for novelty, which I think is pretty close to the mark.

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 8:32 pm

    We should remember that William Safire gave a 1994 collection of On Language columns the memorable title In Love with Norma Loquendi, referring to Horace's explanation that language changes "si volet usus / quem penes arbitrium est et ius et norma loquendi" ("if it be the will of custom, in the power of whose judgment is the law and the standard of language").

    I've enjoyed his columns, and learned from them, and risked professional ridicule (or at least pretended to) by praising one back in 2004. He was a natural friend of the linguistics profession, though not everyone appreciated this, as this post jokingly suggests. I'll miss him.

  4. Lance said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 9:14 pm

    I grew up reading collections of Safire's columns in book form, which dated from the 1970s and which tended to be far more prescriptivist than his more recent work, which tended toward examining current usage and tracing its origins. I'm hardly a prescriptivist now in spite of his influence, but I can't deny that those books in my early years were formative. I, too, will miss him.

  5. fev said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 11:41 pm

    Well … de mortuis nil nisi bonum and all that, but when the roll of "congenital liars" is called in heaven, Hillary Clinton will probably have to stand aside and let certain language mavens go first.

  6. Nathan Myers said,

    September 28, 2009 @ 12:06 am

    It's not surprising that Safire missed the authoritarian overtones of "going forward".

  7. Geoff Pullum said,

    September 28, 2009 @ 7:34 am

    We should not forget that Safire formed a lasting pen-pal relationship with the great MIT-trained linguist and polymath James D. McCawley, and consulted McCawley regularly, and clearly valued what he learned thereby. Another sign of his intellectual openness and genuine interest. His attempts at being a grammar-nitpicker decreased as the years went by (especially after Steven Pinker skewered some of his grammar opinions in The Language Instinct). When he was wrong he would admit it with a mea culpa in a later column. There were some low points (like when he called Hillary Clinton a "congenital" liar in a politics column, and then tried to back up his distinctly ill-chosen adjective in a language column the next week), but in general very few Republican speechwriters could even dream of doing anything as informative and insightful as what Safire did by way of writing about language. A little known fact (concealed by a slight spelling change in the family name) is that he leaves a professional linguist bereaved: Professor Ken Safir of the top linguistics department at Rutgers University is (as he was sometimes just a little embarrassed to admit to fellow linguists) William Safire's nephew. Our condolences to Ken.

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