Orwell and Safire

Here’s a link to a savvy obituary of William Safire, written by Steven Menashi for Forbes in 2009. (It is called “Political Lexicographer: William Safire’s Voice.”)

Here also are brief excerpts (I’ve added bolding):

“Orwell, another member of that group, advocated an active effort to purge the language of silly words and shopworn idioms. Many phrases had been “killed by the jeers of a few journalists” and “there is a long list of flyblown metaphors which could similarly be got rid of if enough people would interest themselves in the job.” In “On Language,” Safire often took up this invitation, pressing readers to abandon expressions that had outlived their usefulness or never had it to begin with.”

“While fine-tuning the language that structures our politics is no frivolous matter, Safire delighted in examining every word and phrase. In at least this respect, he was no “nattering nabob of negativism,” though he coined that phrase for Spiro Agnew. Of the Watergate scandal, Safire wrote “Politicians and historians deal with that period with severity, but to lexicographers, the era of the Watergate vocabulary was a Golden Age of Political Coinage.” Safire himself, no stranger to the Nixon White House, popularized the use of “gate” as a suffix for any political scandal. In his dictionary, he immodestly reports that the “formulation with the –gate suffix is too useful to fade quickly.”

* * *

Menashi’s piece on Safire is well written, but even so, it includes words that may thwart Orwell’s and Safire’s desire for freshness. For example, is “shopworn” ironically shopworn?   Is “fine-tuning” worn out and, when implicitly paired with “structures,” part of a mixed metaphor?  These questions are meant to show that as much as we try to write freshly and precisely, we will likely use familiar words and phrases or mix metaphors, partly because idioms are currency easily exchanged.

Was Safire right to be proud of the -gate suffix, especially when one of its effects may be to conflate the significance of different scandals?  And is freshness such a great thing when it serves chiefly to create distraction, maintain political spectacle, and create political enemies?  The point of deploying  “nattering nabob of negativism” was not to express a worthy idea clearly but to make Agnew seem clever, distract people from real issues, and turn any journalistic reporting into the “negativism” of Nixon’s “enemies.”   It was lovely of Safire to continue Orwell’s work and write all those columns and books on language, but the other Safire, Frank Luntz’s grandfather (so to speak), was Orwellian in another sense.

But thanks to Menashi for the concise tribute to Safire.


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