Lessons learned from William Safire
I wonder whether William Safire is aware of the gap he left at his untimely death some weeks ago. Or the unexpected effect his sudden absence has had on at least one of his readers - more than one, I suspect.
Safire loved words, not simply as a means of communication, but as a delicious form of entertainment, like a New York Times cross-word puzzle, or the re-run of a favorite Fred Astaire film.
Because I am also excited by words, I find myself these days playing with vocabulary, thinking of words, for example, that sound alike and are sometimes confused with others. Like meretricious and meritorious. Like solipsism and solecism. Like otiose and odious. Granted, solipsism is not a word most of us would find useful, but solecism is.
My Webster informs me that it is both a violation of conventional usage and grammar, as in “He done his best,” or a violation of good manners, like wearing shorts and a halter top to a funeral service. I, for one, am ready and eager to add “solecism” to my vocabulary, but I’m not sure how. Perhaps, observing someone in a breach of etiquette, one might think or say, “That’s a perfect example of a solecism.” But would we? Maybe it comes into its own in writing rather than speaking.
I am reminded of an engaging story about Maureen Dowd, and op-ed writer for the New York Times, catching William Safire in his incorrect use of the word “congenitally.” No words were exchanged, but later, when Ms. Dowd happened into Mr. Saffire’s office, she noticed a slip of paper on his desk with the words ‘habitual’ and ‘inveterate’ scratched on it.
Then there is the whole world of metaphors, used by all of us all the time. Recently I thought it would be fun to count the number of figures of speech I used in one day. I threw up my hands (speaking of metaphors) when I found out I had used “Hold your horses!” and “Cut that out!” to my dog inside of fifteen minutes. While the roots of some metaphors are easy to figure out, others are not. One of my favorites, which I used for a long time without knowing its origins, is “to cotton to,” which is the notion of cotton mixing well with wool. Who would have guessed?
Some interesting words simply can’t be used in everyday language, so I find it comforting to make a written list, because I don’t want to lose them. “Prelapsarian” is a fine word used frequently by the English novelist Anita Brookner. In common usage it means “old fashioned.” Its formal definition has to do with the time before the fall of man. I can imagine an educated word-conscious young person exclaiming in exasperation to her mother or grandmother, “Honestly! Your are so...so...prelapsarian!” Well, maybe only if she were a Brookner fan.
Brookner is also fond of the word “rebarbative,” when she is writing about a person she finds repellent or forbidding. If one delves a bit, one finds that literally the word means “to face, beard-to-beard,” from which we derive the word “barber.”
And speaking of derivatives, what is more enjoyable than discovering them in Latin, a language sometimes dismissed summarily as “dead.” One has only to think of “The Lord’s Prayer,” familiar to secular humanists as well as church-goers, to realize that English words like “father” and “daily” and “temptation” come from Latin words. Over the years I have heard several high school and college graduates express gratitude that they had chosen to study Latin, noting that it had added immeasurably to their understanding of literature.
One of the hardest things for many of us to deal with these days are the abrupt changes taking place, not only in some of our well-established organizations, but in the ways we are called on to adjust some of our most ingrained habits and beliefs. We reel as newspapers and magazines die sometimes overnight and books are discarded for faster, easier ways of approaching literature. The importance of words becomes crystal clear in such an environment.
Once long ago I had to have an old apple tree removed from my yard and I remember that before that sad event my children and I picked as many apples as we could. Perhaps we can think of words as apples, to be selected and savored even when their source vanishes. To know words that amuse, challenge, comfort and enlighten us is no small gift. And they are available to all and sundry.
Nancy P. Williams Ann Arbor