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Remembering William Safire, 79, a Maven of the English Language

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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble and this week on WORDMASTER: We remember William Safire, who died Sunday of pancreatic cancer at the age of 79.

RS: Readers of the New York Times knew him not only from his years as a conservative political columnist, and winner of a Pulitzer Prize, the highest honor in print journalism. He was also a linguistic pundit who wrote the "On Language" column in the Times' Sunday magazine.

AA: He dealt with topics like word origins, usage, new terms and old terms with new meanings. He was also a novelist and editor of Safire's Political Dictionary. Our colleague Adam Phillips interviewed him last year during the presidential election campaign.

RS: One of the terms they discussed was a phrase that William Safire himself wrote during his days as a speechwriter for President Richard Nixon and his vice president Spiro Agnew.

William Safire
William Safire

WILLIAM SAFIRE: "I was looking for some criticism of people who were defeatist, who thought that we could never win in Vietnam. And so I came up with the nattering nabobs of negativism. That is known as red meat rhetoric. When you talk about 'There's no red meat in this speech,' that means there's no ammunition that you can feed to your supporters to use, or throw into the cage of a lion that was hungry.

"Politicians have to use metaphors and similes and word pictures and figures of speech in order to capture attention and encapsulate an idea or a vague program that otherwise would put people to sleep. So they have to say 'I'm gonna offer you a New Deal' or 'take you to a New Frontier' -- I've just quoted [Franklin] Roosevelt and [John] Kennedy - or suggest a New Covenant. Now that was suggested by Bill Clinton and it didn't fly for some reason. You never really know when the political language is going to work or when it's gonna lay an egg.

ADAM PHILLIPS: "So political speech then has two functions. One is to draw attention to oneself as a politician, so that people sit up and pay attention, and the other is to explain a complicated idea in a shorthand form."

WILLIAM SAFIRE: "Shorthand is very important in political language. For example, a word that's flying around now is superdelegate. We used to call them party elders or, before that, party bosses. The fun of the political language is to stop and say 'What am I saying? Does it have the right overtones, the right coloration?' When we talk about superdelegates, there is a sinister quality to 'superdelegates,' because it suggests some delegates are subdelegates, or not as important."

APS: William Safire has often pointed out that political speech is always changing. New words and phrases get created, and older ones attain new relevance. He gives the phrase fire in the belly as one example.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: "A candidate has to have ambition and a real burning desire to become whatever he's running for. And that's called fire in the belly. And it was a problem that Barack Obama had, because he was essentially cool, intellectual. He actually talked in paragraphs. So there was a feeling that he didn't have fire in the belly. He recognized that and worked out a phrase that had a resonance in the black community, because it was used by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 'Are you fired up? Are you ready to go?' And they would shout back 'Ready to go!' And that gave the feeling that, indeed, he had fire in the belly.

"You've got to remember that the most important thing about political language is its vividness, it's calling up of an image in your mind. In the nineteen thirties, someone who left under great criticism, it was said that he left in a hail of dead cats. You can envision a cartoon really of a man running with cats being thrown at him.

"And economists, political economists, also came up with a feline image. Cat lovers don't like this phrase, but when the stock market goes down and down and down, and then comes back up a little, they call that a dead cat bounce. When a cat hits the ground and bounces back, it doesn't mean it's alive, it just means that was what we'd call a sucker rally.

AP: "There's another one, right?"

WILLIAM SAFIRE: "I do that unconsciously, I guess."

AP: "I guess we all do. That's how come we know they're really words."

WILLIAM SAFIRE: "Well, you know they're really words if you look them up in the Political Dictionary."

AA: William Safire, editor of Safire's Political Dictionary, language columnist for the New York Times and former White House speechwriter, died Sunday at age 79.

RS: You can find more of that interview from last year with VOA's Adam Phillips at www.unsv.com/voanews/wordmaster. And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

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