Bring in The Donald

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I've defended William Safire from David Beaver. I even nominated him for an award, though when the news leaked out, it was biggest public relations disaster in the history of this venerable weblog.

But now I'm starting to come around to my colleagues' view. It's time for some serious housecleaning at Safire Industries Ltd. We need a new reality show: The Language Maven's Apprentice.

In last week's "On Language" column, Mr. Safire starts out with a wave of the hand in the direction of dictionaries:

When a candidate for national office uses an unfamiliar word in public, the nation’s working vocabulary is immediately enriched — provided the voters take the trouble to look it up.

Then, after some forgettable stuff about the meaning of revanchist and the pronunciation of perfect, he takes up Barack Obama's use of endemic:

Obama criticized as “distorted” his pastor’s “view that sees white racism as endemic.” From the context, most listeners assumed that word to mean “innate, inborn” or “pervasive.” But the primary meaning of endemic is “localized; characteristic of one group or nationality.” In diseases, epidemic means “spreading rapidly and widely,” while endemic means “confined to one region or population.”

Safire calls this a "semantic nitpick" — "semantic nitwit" is more like it.

The Oxford English Dictionary's gloss for endemic is

A. adj. Constantly or regularly found among a (specified) people, or in a (specified) country.

This seems to fit exactly what Obama meant: he was criticizing the "view that sees white racism as endemic", i.e. as constantly or regularly found among white people.

The American Heritage Dictionary gives the first meaning of endemic as

1. Prevalent in or peculiar to a particular locality, region, or people: diseases endemic to the tropics.

Again, substituting this into Obama's phrase, we find him criticizing the view that racism is prevalent in white people, which seems to be exactly what he meant to say.

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary offers

1 a: belonging or native to a particular people or country b: characteristic of or prevalent in a particular field, area, or environment <problems endemic to translation> <the self-indulgence endemic in the film industry>

And again, this has Obama criticizing the view that racism is now characteristic of or prevalent in American whites, which again was exactly his point.

I've been concerned for years that William Safire's interns and ghostwriters are failing him. Now they stand revealed as incapable even of checking a couple of online dictionaries in order to prevent their boss from making a fool of himself in public.

Since Safire is too soft-hearted to insist on competent help, it's time to bring in The Donald. I can see it now: in the first episode of The Language Maven's Apprentice, the current crew of bumbling nincompoops at Safire Inc. will be grilled mercilessly about the many miscues of past columns. (Of course, Trump would delegate most of the questioning to a panel featuring Language Hat, Mr. Verb and David Beaver.) In later episodes, …

Well, you get the idea.

[Update — Fred Vultee writes:

I will totally watch the Safire show every week. Are you going to get the Secte Phonetik to do the theme music?

Love it! Hey, you over there, hire Vultee to write for the show! ]

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