William Safire’s amiable, pun-mongering ”On Language” column usually generates more mail than anything else published in The New York Times Magazine. Syndicated widely, his columns also have been collected in six books, of which this is the latest. Armed with a well-thumbed Oxford English Dictionary, Safire has made a witty and instructive journalistic confection out of a subject — grammar, proper usage, the origins of words-usually considered the province of pedants. And he’s not alone. Books on language by John Simon and Edwin Newman, among others, have sold briskly in the past few years. Does this mounting interest in language amount to a revolution in the making?
Unfortunately not. Safire and his fellow adepts in what he disarmingly calls the ”language dodge” pose no threat to the American way of tongue-tied . life. Our politicians continue to trip over their own syntax every time they attempt an unscripted sentence, and much of the rest of the country will continue to follow along, misplacing valuable modifiers and dangling helpless participles. There is a problem here, but Safire’s often mistaken strictures (never start a sentence with ”there is”?) aren’t about to solve it.
At his most constructively destructive, he chips away at the jargon erected for purposes of concealment and intimidation by official Washington. Since more confusion is caused by bureaucratic and academic self-importance than by simple ignorance, Language Maven Strikes Again is nice work. But in general Safire is better off when engaging in etymology, tendency-detection, and other forms of curiosity than when offering dubious taboos (never start a sentence with ”but”). It is typical of him to declare that one must never start a sentence with ”it is,” only to elicit a devastating reply from a woman who quotes the famous opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice (”It is a truth universally acknowledged…”) and adds, ”It is good enough for me.”
His usual procedure is to pounce on a word or phrase in some public pronouncement and to wonder when it got started or what it portends, nailing it down with the help of the OED and his vigilant and quarrelsome readers. How did ”vanilla,” which once stood for something special, come down in the world to mere blandness? When did human relationships begin to secrete ”chemistry” ? Why is ”flaky” crazy? Why are dogs no longer dogged with canine names like Fido? When was intercourse, which once meant ”communication,” confined to bed? His manner in pursuing these matters is agreeably anecdotal and open-minded, never pedantic. He gracefully concedes a point-many points. As Safire has written in a piece not included here: ”I think we have a need to know what we do not need to know…Knowing how things work is the basis for appreciation, and is thus a source of civilized delight.” So, in general, is this book. B