For lovers of the English language and the etymology of words and phrases, news of the death of William L. Safire was a severe blow.
As is well known by now, Mr. Safire, a former speechwriter for President Richard M. Nixon, who began writing an op-ed column for the Times' in 1973 died on Sunday from pancreatic cancer. He was 79.
Though Mr. Safire leaves behind a rich collection of writing that can easily be accessed through the Times’ archives, his fellow colleagues won’t be able to replace his friendship, professionalism, and literary guidance over the last 30 years.
Thomas L. Friedman, columnist for The Times, responding through an email, wrote that ``Bill Safire was a mentor and friend. I am deeply saddened to hear of his passing. He had a great wit, a lively pen, a wonderful edge and was always, always loyal to his friends and colleagues. A real loss.’’
Anyone who read Mr. Safire’s ``On Language’’ column with any regularity will have noticed the name Grant Barrett, American lexicographer and editor of ``The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English ‘’ (May 2006, McGraw-Hill) and the ``Double-Tongued Dictionary.’’
Mr. Barrett, in his blog on Sunday thanked Safire for giving him credit ``as often as possible in his column for helping him with his [Safire's ] research, which allowed my own star to rise in the "language dodge’’….``. He did this for lots of people and he did it unbegrudgingly.’’ Barrett wrote.
Though Safire probably will be remembered best for coining the phrase ``nattering nabobs of negativity’’ for former Vice President Spiro Agnew (in his relentless battle with the media), and for his biting political commentary, hammering Bert Lance during the Carter administration for his conflict-of -interest, labeling First Lady Hillary Clinton a ``congenital liar’’, and attacking the Patriot Act for being in tension with the countries civil liberties; what I most admired about Safire was his Sunday ``On Language’’ column.
In fact, on Saturday night I often began to poke around the Times’ website to see if the Sunday Magazine had been posted yet; and ``On Language’’ was the first column my eyes would gravitate toward.
I always felt a little smarter and a bit wiser as Safire would take a popular phrase like ``Gotcha politics’’, ``Over the Top’’ ``Swift Boat’’, ``Surge’’, ``Don’t Go There’’ and host of other common phrases that crept into our everyday language, and shared with readers how the expression gained currency.
As a frequent reader to the ``On Language’’ column, I was surprised beyond belief, when Mr Safire mentioned my name in his column after I emailed him a few headline suggestions (tongue-in-cheek), soon after Tony Snow was named George W. Bush’s press secretary in 2006. He never knew how much he made my day.
In a way, I guess I can be thankful I never knew Safire personally. I can only imagine him stopping me in my tracks to inform me I had just voiced a double-negative, an annoying cliché or heaven forbid, a ``Yogisim’’
In past columns, Safire pointed out how Sen. Edward Kennedy criticized the Republicans’ for their ``transparent cover-up’’ or Sen. John Kerry and former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan for using ``negative attacks’’ in the same sentence.
In a 2003 Times’ webcast, Mr Safire estimated he must have written 5,000 columns for The Times’ and five to six million words, which didn’t include four novels, along with at least three edition’s of ``Safire’s Political Dictionary’’
Safire’s final op-ed column for the Times’ was written on January 24, 2005; his final ``On Language’’ column appeared on September 13th, 2009, just two weeks ago, on a phrase widely used in the current health care debate ``Bending the Curve’’
As the Times’ editors look back on the former libertarian conservative's career, they probably are most grateful to former executive editor, Abe Rosenthal, who called the columnist into his office in 1977, puzzled over his constant harping on President Carter’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Bert Lance, for his apparent mismanagement and conflict-of-interest when he was with the Calhoun National Bank in Georgia.
Rosenthal thought the story was on a fast track to nowhere; that is, until Safire explained the crimes involved. Rosenthal was convinced enough to assign a reporter to the story. Lance ended up resigning in September, 1977, for, among other misdeeds, the use of the National Bank’s planes for personal and political purposes, violations which were raising questions whether Mr Carter’s personal confidant should be criminally prosecuted.
Safire’s column ``Carter’s Broken Lance’’ published on July 21, 1977 earned him a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary that year