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The First Blogger

Today the OUPblog is honored safire_william_01.JPGto have William Safire author of Safire‘s Political Dictionary to write about the origins of blogging. Safire began his writing career as a speechwriter in the Nixon Administration, he then became a columnist with the New York Times, and for many years has written the weekly “On Language” column in the New York Times magazine. His Political Dictionary is a savvy guide to the political language being used and abused in America today.

Who was the first blogger?

Hundreds of weblog pioneers will compete for that title, and it will be interesting to see who they will consense upon. (As a language columnist, I feel free to coin a neologism now and then; “consense” is a verb that can replace “form a consensus”. Not the opposite of “nonsense”.)

In the search for the Grand Originator, bloxicographers should not limit themselves to finding the first to use the Internet. “Blogging”, as it will be understood, is broader than “creating a weblog to express a personal opinion and/or to establish an information community.” Although the word “blogosphere” was coined in 1999 by Brad L. Graham “as a joke” and re-minted in all seriousness in 2002 by William Quick with his Daily Pundit, we ought to dig more deeply to place blogging in the great scheme of human communication. That means we should reach back in history to find the person who first popularized the idea of influencing the world by using some medium to get across his ideas to large groups.

The first to suggest a nominee is Joseph Felcone, an antiquarian bookseller in Princeton N.J.. In his most recent catalogue of books for sale, he lists under the headline “The First Blogger?” a book by Plinius Caecilius Secundus, Gaius, better known to all of us as Pliny the Younger, a consul of the Roman empire. The book (a 1518 edition of which, lightly dampstained on a few leaves, is offered for 1400 depreciating U.S. smackers) is titled “Epistolarum libri X. Panegyricus”. We all recognize “epistle” as a letter; according to the Oxford English Dictionary, panegyricus is a “public eulogy”. Thus, young Pliny’s book, one of nine he published between A.D. 99 and 109, would be titled if published today: “Letters in Praise of Great Friends”. The bookseller notes that this Roman consul c9780195340617.jpgommented “on political events, social life in Rome and the provinces, and the domestic events of the day. Some letters are paeans of praise for particular friends, whereas others are requests for support of his own agenda…Unlike many of the existing letters of Cicero, Pliny’s letters were intended for public consumption, and are well-crafted from a literary perspective.”

Is this not the definition of the pre-blogger, especially one touting a particular candidate for office or seeking support for his own altruistic ideas or nefarious schemes? Pliny the Younger (son of Pliny the Elder, who ventured too close to the mouth of Mt. Vesuvius) deserves consideration for the title of “First Blogger”.

Others commenting on this OUP blog will put forward the abovementioned Cicero, who preceded the Plinys by a century, famed for his denunciation in the Senate of an assassination conspiracist: “You are not, O Cataline, one whom either shame can recall from infamy, or fear from danger, or reason from madness.” Tough criticism, making today’s sparring between Obama and Clinton look tame, but limited to listeners in the Forum and not disseminated to the wider public — the sine qua non of the blogosphere.

Bloxicographers and blogymologists around the world and elsewhere are invited to comment on my choice and submit their own choices for “first blogger”. By virtue of their participation and scholarship, they will be consider “superbloggers” and their votes will be dispositive no matter who else marshals popular votes for Mulliganicus.
There are those who will complain “who are you, Safire the language columnist, to select the first blogger when you don’t even have a blog, and when you have not even found the ‘first columnist’?”

The fact is, I have. His name is Simeon Stylites the Elder. According to the OED, a stylite was “an ascetic who lived on the top of a pillar”. (Greek “stylos” means “pillar”.)The sainted Simeon the Elder took up residence atop a column in Syria in AD 423. He remained atop that column and others for 37 years, each loftier and narrower than the preceding; his final column was 66 feet high.

Simeon the Elder stood day and night, leaning on a rail, dependent for food on what his disciples (and presumably the Younger) brought him by ladder. He preached sermons to those gathered around his column, who then went out and spread his pastoral teachings. Other columnists took up his technique and were also called stylites. He was the subject of a poem by Tennyson, concluding with “I, Simeon, The watcher on the column till the end.”

That was the first columnist. Now it’s up to you guys: who was the first blogger?

Recent Comments

  1. Ann Dozzi


    I don’t know who the first blogger is, but the “wirst” blogger is definitely Perez!
    You like that play on words-first/wirst?
    I kill myself!

  2. Cassie

    My vote’s for Doogie Howser, MD. Remember, he had that computer journal he kept at the end of every episode?

    Okay, so he’s not a “real” person, but still. Blogging is a huge part of modern pop culture, so where better to claim it started than on a tv show?

  3. A/V Setup

    Pliny put the “guy” in Gaius.

  4. rogueclassicist

    Lucilius … hands down.

  5. Michael Lee

    How about St. Paul? All those letters …

  6. ezekay

    “Hundreds of weblog pioneers will compete for that title, and it will be interesting to see whoM they will consense upon.”

    You phony.

  7. boombaby

    I’m no scholar, but didn’t God start this way back when and continues to blog, daily?

  8. RHR

    Moses deserves a mention at least, those sturdy, stone tablets being a medium certainly, and a desire to influence being the motive.

  9. Anonymous

    Safire was a steadfast supporter of Bush’s rush to war. He has blood on his hands, an no measure of artful word-smithing will wash it away.

  10. Ohg Rea Tone

    The idea of blogging is not new – early printing presses gave birth to the first blogs. Professional journalism gained prominence in the 20th Century – but pitfall remained. The modern blogger is redefining the constraints of journalism………..

  11. Tito

    If we go back to Cicero’s and/or Pliny’s era, we can come to the conclusion that today’s society is not the ‘first’ to do anything. The way we handle politics was established back then, religion, war, communication.
    All we’ve changed is the ‘how’ not the ‘why’ or ‘what’.

    To be honest with you, I’m not an expert in history, but Pliny the Younger is a good nominee. He gave us the idea, so now we need to formulate a different question, and try to figure out who was the first actualy blogger of our era.

  12. Tags

    How about consensuous?

  13. Anne Onymous

    Typical “Safire”istry: Ask a question as a ‘hook,’ and then answer a different question — without ever resolving the question first posed.

    The burden of proof, sir, is on the writer.

  14. Cogito Ergo Doleo

    Oh, Jesus? The Apostles? King David, et.ilk.?

  15. […] Wiliam Safire on The First Blogger. He certainly has a point about the first […]

  16. rbtroj

    Doesn’t “blog” contract from “web log”? Thereby somewhat requiring the Internet as a platform? If so, then it is silly to suggest anyone from antiquity as a “blogger”. I’m with the commenter who nominated Doogie Howser (even though he wasn’t using the Web).

  17. rogueclassicist


    Yes, it does so contract, but WS’ ‘challenge’ states:

    “That means we should reach back in history to find the person who first popularized the idea of influencing the world by using some medium to get across his ideas to large groups.”

    … father of Roman satire wins …

  18. […] post my material alongside the likes of Anatoly Liberman “The Oxford Etymologist” and William Safire of the New York Times is just too good to […]

  19. Cogito Ergo Doleo

    While rbtroj’s on the money concerning the Safirical challenge, IMO, rbtroj’s off the mark when it comes to pronouncing the father of Roman satire “the winner” (unless, of course, said commentarian can produce evidence anyone has had greater success at reaching and / or influencing human beings than Christ Himself). The sheer number of Christians, surely, suggests there are far more of them than converts to Lucilianity?

    (Sorry about the silly punishment; but, it might work as a line of dialogue in The Life of Brian: In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holi-Roli-Poli Luciliantics . . ..)

  20. Cogito Ergo Doleo

    Oh, Dear . . . Please forgive me, rbtroj, for my incorrect attribution; it was the esteemed rogueclassicist who declared the father of Roman satire the winner, not you. I am deeply sorry.

  21. Cogito Ergo Doleo

    Apologies to both rogueclassicist and rbtroj for the confusion. The former posited the belief the father of satire wins, not the latter.

  22. Mark Alonge

    A small correction: Mr. Safire has misunderstood the title of the edition of Pliny he’s talking about. The title indicates that this edition contains two distinct works, first, the letters of Pliny arranged in 10 books, and second, an oration in praise of the emperor Trajan, which is known as the Panegyricus. Mr. Safire’s construing of the title would be correct if it were “Epistolarum libri X: Panegyricus,” but the full stop in this case is more like a comma: it is separating two different things that are in a series. The characterization of Pliny’s letters, however, is basically accurate, nonetheless.

  23. […] Sunday at 79 but had a lot of fun and skewered a lot of egos while yet he lived, once speculated on who might have been the first blogger. See if you agree. Share this […]

  24. clfagan

    Who was the first American Blogger?

    In an antiquated world with no technology, Benjamin Franklin stood alone as the first and foremost blogger and social networker.
    Franklin’s editorials were printed weekly in almost every newspaper in the American colonies, much like the blogs people post today. And each day of the week for over twenty years, he penned pithy sayings in Poor Richard’s Almanac—sayings that at under a hundred and forty characters long could easily be considered the same as tweets today. He also corresponded with over six hundred people worldwide by snail-mail on a yearly basis, more names than most people have in their entire email address book.

    In extensive research on Ben Franklin for my new historical time travel novel, Lightning Strikes the Colonies, (to be published November 1st) it was interesting to learn that this incredible humanitarian, scientist, and journalist was the first to network world wide.

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