News & Politics

No Uncertain Terms: More Writing From the Popular “On Language” Column in The New York Times Magazine

“Safire’s detail can become dense. . . . He’s at his best when having fun.”

 Because this is a book of previously published columns, devotees of the Washington-based Safire will have read much of it already. Many of his subjects are also old news: Y2K—remember that?—is mentioned, and references to “the President” are mostly to Clinton. But as most pieces are a page or two long, it’s easy to choose the most interesting.

 The history of the politically correct phrase “emerging nations”—which emerged form the politically incorrect “Third World”—makes for a fascinating discussion of a term’s gradual honing. Another compelling column is on the political wordsmithing of Bill Clinton and his supporters, whose calculated use of “move on” and “move forward” helped get the press and the public beyond talk of Monica Lewinsky.

 Safire’s detail can become dense, especially when he gets overly grammatical, such as in a column about the phrase “Enough already!” He asks, “Should there be a comma between the first and second words . . . ?” Safire is aware of the potential overkill: “The reader may now vent exasperation at a surfeit of data by expostulating the very phrase being so minutely examined.”

 He’s at his best when having fun. One column discusses the stylistic omission of prefixes, as was done in a New Yorker article: “I was furling my wieldy umbrella when I saw a descript person, a woman in a state of total array.” In another he shares the joke “If vegetarians eat vegetables, what do humanitarians eat?”

 Readers weigh in—many of them members of what the author calls the Gotcha! Gang. “I wish to formally disagree with your characterization of bilious as ‘how you feel when your liver secretes too much bile.’ . . . [Bilious] does not refer to oversecretion but rather to regurgitation of bile and acids from the proximal intestine and stomach into the oral cavity.”

 Sometimes Safire’s vast knowledge and formal style come across as showy and unfriendly. He’ll order the reader about: “Hold still for a further nuance.” Unless you share his enthusiasm for language’s minutiae, you won’t hold still for long.

William Safire

Simon & Schuster