Remembering the Language Maven

Ben Zimmer at the Visual Thesaurus:


William Safire passed away over the weekend at the age of 79, and his loss is felt particularly strongly by those who loyally followed his “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine for the past three decades. Safire retired from his Pulitzer Prize-winning political column for the Times in 2005, but he continued to relish his role as “language maven” to the very end. He was not simply a pundit on matters political and linguistic, however: he was also an extremely generous man, both publicly in his philanthropic work with the Dana Foundation and privately with friends and colleagues.

On hearing of his passing, fellow maven Paul Dickson remarked to me that Safire “opened a door which a lot of people got to walk through and play with words as a vocation.” That was certainly true in my case. As a word nerd in training, I read “On Language” religiously every Sunday. When I was perhaps nine or ten, I recall taking issue with something Safire had said in one of his columns and writing a letter to him (in pencil!). Unfortunately, I was too intimidated to follow through and never mailed the letter.

Flash-forward to 2003, when I was bit braver in corresponding with him. He often published requests for assistance from those he dubbed “Lexicographic Irregulars” (word sleuths after the manner of Sherlock Holmes' Baker Street Irregulars). On this occasion he sent out a request about the history of the expression “stay the course.”

More here.