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In Memory: William Safire

Bryan A. Garner, word lover and author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, remembers William Safire, New York Times columnist, language enthusiast, and political pundit.

He was a mild-mannered man who in the political sphere could hit hard (repeatedly calling Hillary Clinton a liar). But in the linguistic sphere he was much softer in his approach. His “On Language” column began in The New York Times Magazine in 1979 and remained a fixture in Sunday-morning breakfast talk for the next 30 years.

His passion lay in the language of politics. His most lasting linguistic contribution was one of his worst-selling: Safire’s Political Dictionary, which appeared in an updated edition in 2008.

For his column, he routinely called on experts—or “mavens,” as he called us—to help him sort through legal terms such as recuse, interjections such as pish posh, Americanisms such as okay, and political argot such as situation room. He had dozens of mavens–informants that he would call on throughout the English-speaking world.

I first corresponded with him in 1981, when I was a law student; my letter appeared in his next book. I first met him in 1986 at the Library of Congress event to celebrate Robert W. Burchfield’s completion of the Oxford English Dictionary Supplement. After that, we talked from time to time, and he included many of my books in his annual Christmas-book recommendations. I didn’t see him again until May of this year, when he took my fiancée, Karolyne Cheng, and me to lunch at his favorite D.C. deli. As we walked in, we met a long line in front of the counter but were immediately ushered to his regular table. The three of us spoke of books and book-collecting, of politics, of lexicography, of new beginnings, and of literary legacies. He lamented that he could sell other authors’ books much better than he could sell his own—but added that he would be glad to help sell my books if he could.

As we walked back to his office, he smiled and asked me, “Where on earth did you find her?” It’s a miracle I did find her, I replied. “You know I’ve been thinking the two of you should write a book–on romance.” And we parted.

At heart he was a romantic. But he was so much more.

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