“I went out—it was a black afternoon—and I wandered through the streets, oppressed, somehow, by a terrible sadness. I had an awful feeling of something left undone… I went into the park, sat on a bench—I seemed to have developed some variety of what I believe is sometimes called “hysterical” coughing—and then it suddenly hit me that everyone on earth who could read John Donne was now dead. They were all dead.”
-From The Designated Mourner, by Wallace Shawn
If any man living or recently deceased could have been counted on to question the idiomatic imperative for a dead person to rest in peace, William Safire was/were/would have been that man. But Safire is no longer here to do the questioning, having succumbed to pancreatic cancer yesterday at the age of 79, so the job must fall to those who survive him. Nonetheless, the three letters we’ve seen so much of in this celebrity death-riddled year feel like a paltry epitaph for one who spent so many years dedicated to railing against verbal paltriness.
Though his politics are likely to be the common subject of Safire obituaries, they were hardly the most remarkable element of his life’s work. You may find it hard to eulogize the man who all but literally put the words in Richard Nixon’s mouth before and during his presidency, and later formed a conservative bulwark behind the predominantly liberal front lines of the New York Times. True enough, Safire helped craft the message of a politician whose convictions (if we’re being charitable) led to actions that made the name Nixon a working synonym for corruption and venality in American government. It’s also unfortunate that his most oft-quoted line as a speechwriter, Vice President Spiro Agnew’s designation of the press corps as “nattering nabobs of negativism,” was one of the lamest utterances by any Republican of the past 50 years. Yet the difference between political conviction and passion for language is the difference between fealty to ideology and reverence for ideas. And if the latter of those two contradictory qualities can exist in a person, there is always hope.
“Say what you like about the founding fathers,” he wrote in Fumblerules, “they knew what to do after dependent clauses.”
Safire’s greatest legacy was his work as America’s reigning (and possibly last remaining) public grammar snob. In his magisterial weekly NYT column, On Language, and in his many books about words and their discontents, Safire established himself as far more than a crank or a pedant—though he was surely both of those. He wasn’t some didactic purist correcting people who say “who” when they mean “whom”; he was the laureate of usage, microscopically attuned to the minutiae of punctuation and participle, while also eternally vigilant against more widescreen lapses of expression in journalism, advertising, and politics that threaten us all in ways we're too busy to notice. More to the point, though, Safire was also a devout student of meaning’s eternal evolution through usage, and the holy elasticity of English—“as long as we know the rules,” he wrote, “we can break them.”
As often as his columns parsed the misdirection of governmental doublespeak (the Bush years were very good for “On Language”) or traced the etymology of phrases like “bated breath,” they were more often braced by curiosity about some new development in the lingua franca. And he never gave up on "literally." Though you could feel an aging man’s dismay (and sometimes disdain) coming through the pieces he wrote about tech talk and the newspeaky constructs of text and IM-based communication, his diligence in reporting and contextualizing them never faltered. He had a corny sense of humor and his puns were usually groaners. Still, it’s hard not to love the opening line of the intro to his 2004 On Language collection, The Right Word In the Right Place at the Right Time: “We will come to sodomy in a moment.”
It’s no secret that to most of the world, being corrected about grammar is only slightly more enjoyable than emergency gum surgery. It’s a commonplace that hardly anybody cares about proper English usage anymore, and while that’s true, it’s also true that there are still people around who know how to deploy reasonably good grammar in written and spoken communication, people who still appreciate and enjoy and care about it. Their numbers are dwindling, but they’re there—grammar fans. What’s becoming more precious and rare, however, is the master grammarian. The non-academic class of people dedicated, through education and vocation, to understanding every nuance of the rules of usage, who wouldn’t let a modifier dangle if you paid them, who don’t have to use Google (as I just did) to remember the difference between a gerund and a participle, is passing into ether. I don’t know how much these things ultimately matter to the state of the union, but the passing of William Safire reminds me that we are one step closer to a world in which no one alive truly knows the history and the soul of the English language. He was a guardian and a steward, not just of gerunds and participles, but of attention to the soon-to-be-forgotten world of first principles and all they imply, not merely the skin and bones, but the cells, the DNA, the nucleotides—the elements that comprise meaning itself.
Some memorializers will probably call Safire an anthropologist. That isn’t wrong, exactly, but it misses something about the constancy of his inquiry, and also about its romance. “Knowing how things work,” he wrote, “is the basis for appreciation, and is thus a source of civilized delight.” Few if any writers in the public sphere were as abundantly knowledgeable about how language works as William Safire, and few delights were ever more civilized than reading his explorations of its mechanisms. For that, if for nothing else, one hopes he's resting in peace.