"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Monday, September 28, 2009

Writing well is the best revenge


William Safire, former Nixon speech writer and conservative political columnist for The New York Times has died. This is neither the time nor the place to discuss his politics, which, while essentially conservative, could be unpredictable at times, making him a more valuable columnist than the vast majority of drones working that field.

Our interest in him here is as a language maven. Together with the late Edwin Newman of NBC News, Safire thought wrote about the American language, mostly descriptively rather than proscriptively. (That is, he was more likely to make observations than rules.) Those observations could be found in his Times column "On Language" which ran from 1979 to 2009, many examples of which were collected in numerous book anthologies. Like my favorite writer on language, E.B. White, Safire valued crisp, clear, effective, efficient and unambiguous expression (unless the ambiguity was intentional).

To the extent Safire did have rules, they were expressed in a pedagogically memorable manner:
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 clich├ęs like the plague. And don’t overuse exclamation marks!!
Safire is also remembered as a phrasemaker, mostly for Vice President Spiro Agnew, for whom he coined “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” Also memorable, but not to be encouraged, especially since they furthered the Us. vs. Them agenda of the Nixon presidency, the residue of which stills lives with us and makes America so difficult to reconcile and to govern.

Interestingly, Safire himself did not seem to subscribe to that view of the world. He frequently befriended or was befriended by political opponents and had warm friendships with people from all sorts of backgrounds and political opinions. And after all, he was brought into the left-of-center New York Times specifically to be a different voice in that forum. It speaks well for the man and for the manner of civil discourse he represented (and which has been fraying lately) that he is so fondly remembered by so many.

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