Safire on language
Thread poster: Jacek Krankowski (X)

Jacek Krankowski (X)  Identity Verified
English to Polish
+ ...
Dec 19, 2002

Moving over here from

\".... A tangential cavil: to me, an acronym is a pronounceable word created out of the initials or major parts of a compound term, like NATO, radar, or TriBeCa. But G.O.P is universally pronounced gee-oh-pee -- by its initials -- and never as the word \'\'GOP,\'\' rhyming with \'\'cop.\'\' Though not all dictionaries agree, I say that makes G.O.P. an initialism or abbreviation. In the same way, the initialism for the Securities and Exchange Commission is S.E.C., pronounced sibilantly ess-ee-see, not, dryly, \'\'seck.\'\' And R.I.P., gravestone initialese for \'\'Rest in Peace,\'\' is pronounced as individual letters, not \'\'rip.\'\' ....

Here\'s the plank in my platform: it\'s true that not everybody knows the derivation of G.O.P., but it\'s just as true that not everybody has to know its root to know what it means. Etymology is an elective, not a course required for newspaper comprehension. If a word or set of initials communicates meaning to most people and it\'s not vulgar, use it.

My kids plan to give me a DVD player for Christmas. That stands for \'\'digital videodisc,\'\' and by the time I finish this sentence I\'ll have forgotten the whole phrase. All I need to know is \'\'who can hook up the DVD?\'\' \"

--William Safire

[ This Message was edited by:on2002-12-19 20:24]


Andrzej Lejman  Identity Verified
Local time: 02:03
Member (2004)
German to Polish
+ ...
Jacek, Dec 19, 2002

DVD stands for Digital Versatile Disc...




Elena Sgarbo (X)  Identity Verified
Italian to English
+ ...
Andrzej Dec 20, 2002

I am not totally sure about what \"DVD\" stands for, but I believe you. Your comment on the \"DVD\" spell out will certainly interest Mr. Safire. In one of his books (Quoth the Maven), Safire publishes letters from many readers who bring up errors or misconceptions in the words or concepts expressed by Safire.

That\'s why I think Mr. Safire would like to hear about the Aabreviation -not acronym icon_wink.gif \"DVD\".

You may want to write to Safire to Random House, in NY.



Jacek Krankowski (X)  Identity Verified
English to Polish
+ ...
Etymology Dec 22, 2002

Going to Pot


\"Is America Going to Pot?\'\' asked Time magazine on its cover recently. The article was about the battle over legalizing marijuana, and the headline was wordplay on the familiar expression going to pot (synonymous with \'\'going to hell in a handbasket\'\'), which the headline writer tied into the slang term for the hemp plant.

Scholarly potheads know the derivation of pot, the controlled psychoactive substance: the word is rooted in the Mexican Spanish potiguaya, which are marijuana leaves after their pods have been removed. The word may be derived from potacion de guaya, a potation (from the Latin potere, \'\'to drink\'\') that causes guaya, \'\'lamentation\'\' in Latin American Spanish. Apparently, this was \'\'the wine of grief\'\' in which marijuana buds were steeped. (The word marijuana could come from Mariguana, one of the Bahamian islands, or from a seductive Maria Juana -- Mary Jane. It\'s a mystery.) ....

The phrase collector John Ray in 1670 defined to go to pot as \'\'to perish; to be done for; as by death, bad seasons, pecuniary difficulties and so forth.\'\' A decade later, the poet John Dryden wrote, \'\'Then all you heathen wits shall go to pot/For disbelieving of a Popish plot.\'\'

The cannibalistic origin of the metaphor -- to chop people up into edible portions and stew them in a pot until tender -- disappeared over the centuries. The meaning is now \'\'to deteriorate; to fall apart; to go to seed.\'\' Colleen Barrett, president of the profitable, no-frills Southwest Airlines (bring your own lunch), told reporters recently, \'\'A nongrowing company is the quickest way to have morale go to pot.\'\' ....


Jacek Krankowski (X)  Identity Verified
English to Polish
+ ...
Andrzej? (see no. 12 below) Jan 5, 2003

Culpa for Mea

by William Safire

1. When the self-described language maven wrote, \'\'Such past experience

should remind us, . . . \'\' David Prentice of Sheenboro, Quebec, a member of

the Squad Squad policing redundant tautologies, noted coolly, \'\'I wonder

what other kind of experience there is?\'\' (O.K.; when dealing with

experience, lose past.) ...

3. Conjunctionitis: \'\'Burton\'s likely successor is the fabled G.O.P.

fund-raiser Tom Davis, though Representatives Chris Cox or Christopher Shays have much more investigative experience.\'\' The charge of the Boo-Boo Brigade was led by Frank Gado: \'\'Cox OR Shays HAVE? Shame!\'\' The plural verb have

would have been correct if the two names had been tied together with and, but by introducing the conjunction or, the careless writer separated the two individuals. If such separation was desired, its purpose would have been served with \'\'Cox and Shays each have.\'\'

4. In that regard, the law of proximity: \'\'Henry [Kissinger] is one of the

few who has the trust of the keepers of the secrets.\'\' Ken Paul e-mails:

\'\'The antecedent of who is \'the few,\' and thus the verb should be have.\'\'

The Yip Harburg rule of agreement: if you\'re not near the antecedent you

love, you use the antecedent you\'re near.

5. The right to be left: \'\'Brent Scowcroft and his leave-Saddam-alone

acolytes on the president\'s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.\'\' Writes

the purist Alvin Hattal: \'\'Leave Saddam alone? Not let?\'\' He\'s correct in

his pristine prescriptiveness: to leave alone is \'\'to allow to remain in

solitude,\'\' while to let alone is slightly different: \'\'to refrain from

disturbing.\'\' It\'s a nice distinction, often ignored by good writers but

worth preserving, remembering Justice Louis Brandeis\'s defense of privacy as

\'\'the right to be let alone.\'\'

6. Present laughter: \'\'William Bulger . . . is presently the respectable

president of the University of Massachusetts.\'\' And again: \'\'Just because

the F.B.I. brass hats are presently computer-literate. . . . \'\' John Di

Clemente of Tinley Park, Ill., says, \'\'I was taught that presently meant \'in

a short while\' and that currently meant \'now.\'\'\' The maven was taught that,

too, and presently forgot, but is currently reminded. Nothing beats now and

soon for plain comprehension. ...

8. Mistake detector: In a blast at the sweat machines known as lie

detectors, the maven wrote, \'\'That was one fewer career lost to the

predatory polygraph.\'\' Bob Davidson of New York consulted his trusty

high-school grammar book, which said, \'\'Use fewer if the word it modifies is

plural; use less if the word it modifies is singular.\'\' Unless the maven

studies that old grammar, he\'ll have one less career.

9. What, never? In an article protesting Singapore\'s suppression of a free

press, the maven thundered: \'\'The New York Times, which willingly corrects

itself when in error, does not settle libel suits for money. Never.\'\' Wes

Pedersen of Washington writes: \'\'I served under an early \'word man\' who

would have nailed my embarrassed hide to the city-room wall for a gaffe like

that. To him caning would have been far too mild a punishment.\'\' The never

following the not formed a double negative, even though it was tacked on as

a sentence fragment. A repeated negation, however, is not a double negative;

the fragment tacked on for emphasis should have read \'\'Not ever.\'\'

10. Hawkish on dove. In the same castigation of Singapore, the gaffe-prone

vituperator claimed that a news executive he tried to reach \'\'dove under his

desk.\'\' By analogy of the verb pair drive/drove, the past tense of dive was

mistakenly thought to be dove. Longfellow used dove in his \'\'Song of

Hiawatha\'\' but changed it in a later edition. It is currently (now) widely

accepted as an American variant, but not by hard-nosed grammarians who read

this column from their posts high on the ramparts. ...

12. Play it, Sam: \'\'DVD stands for \'digital videodisc.\' \'\' Buncha surly

nit-pickers insist it means \'\'digital versatile disk.\'\' Now it does, but

only because rival manufacturers got together in 1995 to change video to

versatile so as to emphasize its ability to store everything from music to

data to movies.


Jacek Krankowski (X)  Identity Verified
English to Polish
+ ...
The whole world listens when a president speaks Jan 18, 2003


(Frank Abate is a lexicographer and president of Dictionaries International,

a consulting and editorial services firm. William Safire is on vacation.)

President George W. Bush pronounced malfeasance without its s in July 2002,

adding to the growing collection of his verbal gaffes, dubbed Bushisms. Web

sites listing Bushisms are legion. Bush has a well-documented habit of

tripping over words, especially when, as with subliminal and malfeasance,

they\'re somewhat bookish. (...)

So, in his pronunciation of nuclear, Bush is in line with a national trend

as well as bipartisan presidential tradition. Indeed, from the founding of

the country, American presidents have had their way with English, for good

or ill. I scoured the Oxford English Dictionary, now out as version 3.0 on

CD-ROM, and was struck by the many words for which U.S. presidents provide

the earliest-known dated evidence.

George Washington referred to his presidential tenure with the word

administration, the earliest example given in the O.E.D., dated 1796.

Notable, too, is that he did not use government, the already established

British term for the elected leadership in power: \'\'In reviewing the

incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error.\'\'

The O.E.D. also quotes Washington for the earliest examples of such common

words as ravine (1781, for \'\'a deep narrow hollow . . . worn by a

torrent\'\'), tin can (1770, though George spelled it Tinn can), tow path

(1788, for a path next to a canal; the British term is towing-path), corn

row (1769, for \'\'a row of planted corn\'\') and even Newtown pippin, a variety

of apple named for the town on Long Island where it was introduced.

As in other presidential matters, Washington set the tone for his

successors. Familiar terms like normalcy (popularized though not coined by

Warren Harding), belittle (from Thomas Jefferson\'s \'\'Notes on the State of

Virginia,\'\' 1782) and lunatic fringe (from Theodore Roosevelt\'s \'\'History as

Literature,\'\' 1913) are so well established that their presidential roots

are a mere etymological footnote. (...)

Other everyday terms got a boost from once or future presidents, whether or

not presidentially coined. Here\'s a rundown, all first examples in the

O.E.D.: public relations (Jefferson, 1807), squatter (Madison, 178icon_cool.gif,

caption (Madison, 1789, in the sense \'\'a heading in text,\'\' used instead of

the British terms title or heading), relocate and relocation (Lincoln, 1834

and 1837), point well taken (Lincoln, 1863) and come to stay (Lincoln, 1864,

referring to peace: \'\'I hope it will come soon, and come to stay\'\').

The whole world listens when a president speaks, so we should expect that,

in prepared remarks, presidential words are very carefully chosen. In

January 1998, President Clinton famously said: \'\'I want you to listen to me.

I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.\'\'

The choice of the term sexual relations is a very formal way of putting it;

one might have expected something like \'\'I did not have an affair with that

woman\'\' or \'\'I did not have sex with that woman.\'\' I turned to Webster\'s

Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, a standard authority in

American legal practice. There, sexual relations is defined as \'\'coitus.\'\'

Given the facts of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair as they have generally been

reported, Clinton spoke the truth, albeit deceptively.

Did the Clinton White House check its Webster\'s Unabridged before the

president spoke and script his words in line with its definition, thus

sidestepping out-and-out perjury?

This trove of president\'s English could go on: bully pulpit (Theodore

Roosevelt, 1909), military-industrial complex (Eisenhower, 1961), a thousand

points of light (George H.W. Bush, 198icon_cool.gif. Listen closely as President George

W. Bush, from his bully pulpit, delivers the State of the Union address

later this month. But for now, to adopt Truman\'s words (1945), the buck

stops here.



President Bush said recently that the United States has a \'\'fabulous\'\'

military. On other occasions, he has proclaimed himself proud of such a

fabulous country, and of his fabulous cabinet. Texas and Alaska are both

fabulous states. Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, is a fabulous


Laura Bush is doing a fabulous job as first lady, and Mr. Bush\'s father is a

fabulous man. Last fall, Mr. Bush attended a fabulous World Series, and last

summer proclaimed baseball a fabulous sport.

That was around the same time that Mr. Bush said he hoped to make \'\'some

fabulous history\'\' with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. Last year,

despite all the tragedy, was a fabulous year for Mr. Bush and his wife. He

expects 2002 to be fabulous, too.

One of the jobs of the president of the United States is repeating himself,

whether it is calling for tax cuts or promising to smoke out the evil ones.

Still, students of the presidency have noticed that Mr. Bush says

\'\'fabulous\'\' an awful lot.

It is particularly noticeable when Mr. Bush uses the word alongside his

trademark Texas frontier talk, or when he shouts it out, as he did last

month at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle, to a hangar filled

with thousands of roaring American troops.

\'\'We\'ve built a fabulous coalition of many nations!\'\' Mr. Bush said.


Lyndon B. Johnson, another president from Texas, did not say fabulous, at

least according to Michael Beschloss, the editor of two volumes of Johnson\'s

White House tapes. If Mr. Johnson used a superlative, Mr. Beschloss said, it

was often \'\'wonderful\'\' -- but drawled out without the d, as

\'\'wunnnnnerful,\'\' almost the way Lawrence Welk said it.

Presidential verbal tics are nothing new. Former President Bill Clinton used

the phrase \'\'a big deal\'\' all the time -- on more than 75 occasions between

January 1993 and May 1996, in fact, to describe everything from a pending

crime bill to a Western buffalo preserve to the joys of homeownership to the

deer population of Arkansas. At the time, Mr. Clinton\'s excessive use was

cited as an example of a president sounding too many notes and failing to

distinguish what was really important from what was not.

Former President Ronald Reagan had some verbal tics, too. \'\'Forgive me,

but,\'\' he would say repeatedly -- a genial, gentlemanly disclaimer before

letting someone have it. (...)

Jesse Sheidlower, the principal editor of the Oxford English Dictionary\'s

North American editorial unit, said that all people, not just presidents,

have individual \'\'ideolectal\'\' patterns that distinguish their speech.

\'\'Everyone speaks particular dialects, which are usually regionally and

socially distinguished kind of language,\'\' Mr. Sheidlower said. A person\'s

ideolect, for example, encompasses pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, tonal

qualities and speed. Presidential ideolects, Mr. Sheidlower said, are simply

noticed more than others.

Mr. Bush used \'\'fabulous\'\' in public on Friday at Fort Bragg, N.C., though

he converted it from his usual adjective to adverb, as in \'\'these are

fabulously trained soldiers.\'\' Mr. Bush was referring to troops who had just

staged a mock liberation of what was supposed to be a United States embassy

from anti-American forces, a military exercise that left him impressed.

\'\'That was exciting,\'\' he said to reporters afterward, dropping, for the

moment, his favorite word.

Still, it is notable that Mr. Bush uses \'\'fabulous\'\' more often outside of

Washington, and in settings where he speaks from note cards, not a prepared

text, before thunderously adoring crowds. For Mr. Bush, fabulous is also a

good-times word, something he reaches for when he is feeling, well,




Jacek Krankowski (X)  Identity Verified
English to Polish
+ ...
When in Rome, romanize as the Romans do? Jan 18, 2003

Roh or No?


In print, the name of the new president of South Korea is spelled Roh Moo

Hyun. But in transcripts of broadcasts, the family name as spoken by

American newscasters is spelled not Roh but Noh, reflecting the way it is

pronounced. Which is it -- Roh, as in \'\'row your boat,\'\' or Noh, as in \'\'a

thousand times, no\'\'?

Answer: It is spelled Roh but pronounced Noh. How come?

Reached in Seoul, the new president\'s media adviser, Ben Limb, says: \'\'It is

common practice for people in Korea whose family name is Noh to

transliterate it Roh. Roh Tae Woo, former president of Korea, also spelled

his name this way.\'\' Sorry, \'\'common practice\'\' is no explanation.

At Sogang University in Seoul, a British-born monk who has taken the name An

Sonjae offers this: Korean syllables are pronounced in three parts --

initial consonant, middle or peak vowel, final consonant. The Korean

alphabet, known as Hangul, contains a symbol that is usually romanized

(spelled in English) as r. When this symbol comes first, it is pronounced as

\'\'a liquid n\'\' if the vowel following is a simple one, but disappears

completely if it is followed by a diphthong, a gliding sound like oi. So?

\'\'The English spelling Roh,\'\' An says, \'\'reflects the original Chinese

pronunciation more accurately than the spelling in Korean does, but the

pronunciation Noh reflects the modern Korean pronunciation.\'\'

Wait a minute. If the name in Korea is pronounced with what we romanize as

an n, why do we write it in English to make it sound like an r? That defeats

the whole idea of transliteration -- imitating the sound of one language in

the alphabet of another. Makes no sense.

The Korean Embassy in Washington sticks to the party line: \'\'The r spelling

is a function of the Hangul letter,\'\' says an uncomfortable spokesman, \'\'and

how it is pronounced when that Korean initial letter is followed by that

vowel. It is a weird grammar rule.\'\' Ah, but here is the anecdote that may

shed light on the n that is masked by an r. In 1987, Howard Chua Eoan wrote

in Time magazine about the previous President Roh: \'\'As a young military

officer, he wore a small brown identification tag with his name inscribed in

English as NO. It was the most common pronunciation of his surname. Quickly,

however, the unpropitious English meaning of \'no\' got to him. Using a less

frequent but acceptable pronunciation, No Tae Woo became Roh Tae Woo. Said

Roh: \'N-o is negative, and I am a positive person. So I prefer R-o-h.\'\'\'

That \'\'less frequent\'\' pronunciation -- with the nonnegative r -- was

obviously a media manipulation by a smart politician determined to overcome

the problem of the English meaning of the Korean sound of \'\'no.\'\' But roh

with an r is not the way most Koreans pronounce the Korean name, nor is it

the way Jim Lehrer and his broadcasting brethren properly say it on


What to do? When in Rome, romanize as the Romans do: spell the word in

English the way it sounds to most Koreans, north and south. Should we call

the new president No, and with sublime consistency spell his name No, or to

give it a foreign flavor, Noh? I say yes.


Jacek Krankowski (X)  Identity Verified
English to Polish
+ ...
Smoking guns and class warfare Jan 25, 2003

Smoking Gun


...\'\'U.N. Inspectors Criticize Iraqis Over Arms List\'\' was The New York

Times\'s more objective headline, with the hot phrase in the subhead: \'\'But

search teams find no \'smoking gun.\'\'\' ...

When did that phrase first become the favorite figure of speech meaning

\'\'incontrovertible incrimination\'\'? ...It was made famous during the Golden

Age of Political Coinage. The Watergate era coined or popularized Saturday

night massacre, stonewalling, cover-up, dirty tricks, straight arrow,

expletive deleted, third-rate burglary, plumbers, Deep Throat, Big

Enchilada, enemies list and my personal favorite, twisting slowly in the

wind. That was when Doyle\'s smoking pistol, which had changed in occasional

usage over 80 years to smoking gun, blazed its way into dictionaries.

It first appeared in The New York Times on July 14, 1974, in an article by

Roger Wilkins: \'\'The big question asked over the last few weeks in and

around the House Judiciary Committee\'s hearing room by committee members who

were uncertain about how they felt about impeachment was \'Where\'s the

smoking gun?\'\'\' The question was rooted in a Nixon defense strategy, to

narrow the grounds for impeachment to a provable crime. ...

Today, in applying the phrase to the inspection of Iraq for evidence of

making weapons of mass destruction, those opposing an attack on Saddam

Hussein\'s regime have adopted the defense strategy of Nixon\'s lawyers: to

demand incontrovertible physical evidence, which journalists and United

Nations officials agree to call the smoking gun. ...

Class Warfare

The opening salvo came from the Democrats. \'\'The tax break the president is

proposing ... is the wrong idea at the wrong time to help the wrong

people.\'\' President Bush fired back: \'\'I understand the politics of economic

stimulus. Some people want to turn it into class warfare.\'\'

...The phrase\'s origin was in the 1848 Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and

Friedrich Engels: \'\'The history of all hitherto existing society is the

history of class struggle\'\' -- in German, Klassenkämpfen. The German Kampf

(as in Hitler\'s Mein Kampf, \'\'my struggle\'\') is sometimes translated as

\'\'battle\'\'; it is not quite Krieg, meaning \'\'war\'\' (as in Blitzkrieg,

\'\'lightning war\'\').

...That war was condemned by anti-Communists. In 1927, Aldous Huxley decried

\'\'those who would interpret all social phenomena in terms of class

warfare.\'\' As the 20th century progressed, and especially in its latter half

as the nature of the Soviet Union was exposed, the phrase was anathematized

in the West. Politicians of all stripes knew that class warfare was

something most people were against, along with categorizing people in

classes. (\'\'Working class\'\' is O.K.; \'\'chattering class\'\' is used with a

sneer at pundits; \'\'lower class\'\' is out.)

Today, class warfare is a phrase conservatives use to blast liberals, and

that liberals, long on the defensive about it, are at last beginning to use

to attack conservatives.


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