Saturday, March 18, 2006

William Safire

Jacques Barzun is cited frequently in William Safire’s New York Times column “On Language”. Here is some of what Mr. Safire writes about Mr. Barzun this Sunday:

Then in came a letter—a real postal letter signed in antediluvian ink, mailed from San Antonio at the cost of an old-fashioned stamp—from Jacques Barzun, the revered emeritus professor from Columbia University who published his masterpiece, From Dawn to Decadence, in 2000, when he was 92.

After saluting my energy in skewering nonce neologisms like deliciousing, my candidate for World's Wisest Living Intellectual wrote: “Isn’t there a sign of split personality or bipolarity of some sort”—everybody’s a shrink—“in your appending a squib about the error of he instead of him in an otherwise normal sentence? For my part, I would let go all the rules requiring whom, him and as for like and so on. They are but survivals in a language that has been stripped of niceties, and I consider deliciousing a far worse offense than between you and I.”

. . . The instruction that comes from my friend and mentor Jacques is welcome because he doesn't merely correct. He teaches with specific examples. Consider this letter that followed a column of mine about “snoopspeak,” the lexicon of sophisticated electronic surveillance that can no longer accurately be called wiretapping. “I regret that you want to discard wiretap,” he wrote. “You lend aid to the fallacious notion that the use of every new gadget for an old purpose must get a new name. Doing that regularly would be distracting, and the quality of the perpetual replacements would be dubious. . . .”

“The fallacy behind perpetual recoinage,” Barzun continued, “is to suppose that words must describe instead of stand for and evoke. For a reasonably stable language, words must continue to cover new details, and they can: we ship goods by truck and plane. We have cash in the bank though it is only a balance and not even written down. The bath room has only a shower stall. The table and bed linen are of cotton thread with some plastic intertwined. A lecture is not necessarily read. I am typing on a computer that uses no type. The man you quote who said record store was ‘outdated but still in use’ didn't stop to think. What are CD's and DVD's if not records?”

—William Safire, “On Language”, New York Times Magazine, March 19, 2006. In the Houston Chronicle.