March 02, 1981 12:00 PM

William Safire, 51, was already well established as America’s most provocative, or at least most pun-drunk, political columnist, but it is only in the past two years that so much of his weekly mail has begun “Shame on you!” or “You of all people!” That was when he launched his syndicated New York Times column On Language and became probably the most read—and, inevitably, most corrected—”pop grammarian,” as he good-naturedly calls himself. Safire’s career as a wordsman is long and colorful. A native of Manhattan, he dropped out of Syracuse University to report for the New York Herald Tribune. Then came stints as a radio and TV producer; as a public relations man (he set up the famous 1959 “kitchen debate” between Nikita Khrushchev and then Vice-President Richard Nixon at a client’s exhibit in Moscow); and as a key speechwriter in the Nixon White House (he coined “nattering nabobs of negativism ” for Spiro Agnew). Then in 1973 Safire became the Times’ token Tory columnist. He lives in Chevy Chase, Md. with his British-born wife of 18 years, Helene, and their children, Mark, 16, and Annabel, 15. The child is often father of the man in language, he says, and he finds at home as well as elsewhere “a savage linguistic backlash rising against sloppy speech—especially my own.” At his office in the Washington bureau of the Times, Safire reviled lax syntax and muddled meaning with Eric Levin of PEOPLE.

How did you get to be a word pundit?

That question is usually phrased, “Who the hell are you to say what’s correct and what isn’t?” I wrote a political dictionary in the ’60s, I’ve been a professional writer for some 30 years, and I wrote my first poem at age 8 while lying in bed: “Someone in Heaven pulled a lever/And I came down with scarlet fever.” I haven’t done much better than that. Of course you have to know the proper way to pronounce lever.

What is most responsible for corrupting the English language?

The telephone. A couple of generations ago people wrote letters to each other. Not anymore. We have become an oral society; we’ve forgotten how to write. After you forget how to write, you forget how to read; then you forget how to speak. That results in conversation studded with “like, I mean, you know, wow”—a form of grunting that would be familiar to cavemen. I don’t consider cavemen sexist either. I include cavewomen under the rubric cavemen.

What has been the impact of television on language?

Bad. Whenever you get more oral communication and less written communication, you get less thinking before communicating. The worst of TV is the talk shows, because they’re ad-libbed. Then come the sitcoms, which enshrine error by duplicating the speech mistakes real people make.

How much are schools to blame?

Johnny still can’t read, and it’s getting worse. Black English—”He be gone,” for example—is important for teachers to understand, but understanding it and accepting it are two different things. At last teachers are getting their dander up and demanding their students use standard English.

How do you rate politicians in their use of language?

Politicians today have an inflated regard for the question-and-answer format. Because Carter felt he could communicate better that way than with a speech, we saw a sharp decline in the quality of political language in his four years as President. Ford wasn’t much better; neither was Nixon. There was very little follow-up and you could answer anything in 60 seconds. It’s insulting when a lot of politicians think that Americans can’t take a speech and need to be spoon-fed little bites.

How is the Reagan administration shaping up linguistically?

We could be entering a Golden Age of neologisms, euphemisms and jargon. Secretary of State Al Haig is possibly the point man on this. He was the one who said during his Senate confirmation hearings, “I’ll have to caveat that.” When you hear caveat used as a verb, you know you have a real jargonaut among the Reaganauts.

What about the President himself?

It’s hard to tell—though I think he will come up with his share of bloopers. We’re all on tenterhooks watching the White House press conferences because in those spontaneous exchanges the new locutions will be hatched. A tenterhook, incidentally, is not a “tender hook,” which is what a lot of people think.

What is it?

A tenter is a frame for drying and stretching cloth. The word tent comes from it. The things that hold the cloth on the frame are these tenterhooks. Lots of times one comes across information like this that’s totally useless. But here I am in a job where I can take all this useless information and dump it on people—and get paid for it. Marvelous racket.

How do you trace etymologies?

Some you can find in source books; others, like “hit the ground running,” you can’t. So the first man I would call is Stuart Berg Flexner, the leading authority on American slang. If he doesn’t have anything in his files, I’ll run a little ad in my column and in come hundreds of letters from readers anxious to help. There I go again. Eager to help. People anxious to help are simply worrywarts. “Hit the ground running,” by the way, is probably naval in origin, “ground” taking the place of the more specific “deck.”

Do Americans torture the language more than other English-speaking people?

The British traditionally stick to the King’s English and make a great point of overcoming caste by achieving, Pygmalion-like, a certain level of accent and usage. Americans have less concern about class and as a result have gleefully changed, transmuted and amended the language.

Are these changes good or bad?

Both. Take airlinese. Good: “deplane” instead of debark or disembark; after all, you’re getting off a plane, not a bark. Bad: “Please observe the no-smoking sign.” What the stewardess means is please observe the no-smoking rule. She doesn’t want you to sit there puffing away while you stare at the sign.

What words are now in vogue?

The big one now in academese is “quintessential.” Nothing is essential anymore, or central; it’s quintessential. The same is true of “perceived”—perceived differences, perceived wisdom. So many people are trying to take a cool and detached view toward things that they sprinkle their language with perceived, as if to say whatever they’re talking about may not be real.

Where are most current trends in language originating?

Instead of traditional sources like musicians’ argot, the underworld or Black English, they’re coming from politics, communications and science and technology. “Mode,” for instance. People find themselves in “interrogatory modes” and “closing-down modes,” as if they’ve become machines. Mathematicians are going crazy over the stealing of “parameters.” But the word’s been closely identified with perimeter and has come to mean scope, or the factors limiting a situation.

Are you for or against using “parameter” this way?

For it. Technically it’s incorrect, but there’s a need for such a word and there’s no really adequate synonym. “Perimeter” doesn’t quite do it, neither does “boundaries.” So I say go ahead and use it. Of course I get a lot of angry mail from mathematicians. Better make that mail from angry mathematicians. Stationery doesn’t lose its temper.

You’ve also taken a liberal position on “hopefully.”

Hopefully, I’ve taken a realistic position on that. The reason I use it to mean “it is to be hoped” is not because I accept loose new standards but because I embrace time-tested and readily understood usage. That’s why, when somebody asks me when to use the word “presently,” I say don’t use it. It’s confusing; it can mean either “right now” or “in a while.” Give the word a couple of generations and we’ll see if it works itself out.

Do you fraternize much with other pop grammarians?

We contact each other, which is acceptable shorthand for “get in touch with.” Bob Burchfield, a wonderful New Zealander who’s editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, recently asked a few of us to lunch. So Edwin Newman, Stu Flexner, John Simon and I sat down with him. It was very tense at the beginning. Everybody was worried about who would make the first mistake. Finally I blurted out, “The reason why we’re here…” I phumphed around and corrected myself, “The reason we’re here…” But it was too late; I was ruined.

Which writers do you admire?

Bernard Malamud is my idea of a classy writer. He has a seeming ease with the language, a gift for producing the startling turn of phrase three or four times in a paragraph. If you read him fast, you miss a lot. Anthony Burgess, who wrote A Clockwork Orange, is another important writer. John Steinbeck worked pretty hard on arriving at those simple sentences.

Do you ever regret having dropped out of college?

No, and, what’s more, I did it before it became popular. I left after my sophomore year, but my education continued because I kept writing. The more you write, the more you know. Also, the more you write, the better you write—if you’re any kind of a writer.

Can you always meet your own stringent standards?

Whenever I don’t satisfy my standards, I make an exception and lower the standards for that day.

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