in "ON LANGUAGE" of NEW YORK TIMES Magazine Sections


William Safire receiving the 2006 Presidential Medal of Freedom
Born: December 17, 1929(1929-12-17) New York City, New York, U.S.
Died: September 27, 2009 (aged 79) Rockville, Maryland, U.S.
Occupation: Author, columnist, lexicographer, journalist and political speechwriter
Nationality: United States
Genres: Non-fiction
Subjects: Politics

(Very readable for those who discern the beauty of the English Language, and enjoy the nuances!)


Published: April 16, 2006 (in New York Times - Magazine Section)

"There seems to be a virus going around on television" e-mails Olivia Hugill, "that causes people to make a sort of verbal parenthesis and insert the term if you will. This may have started with V.P. Cheney, who is fond of the phrase, and now it's spreading unchecked. Could you do a riff on the subject so that we might ridicule it into permanent retirement?"

A riff is an oral or written improvisation, often comic, with the phrase or approach repeated so as to become a kind of signature; a second sense is "a variation on a theme." The word (possibly a clip of riffle) is most likely an alteration of refrain, because it is derived from a 1930's coinage describing a recurring musical phrase played by an inspired jazz soloist.

I don't do riffs; I do weighty stuff for a hyperliterate, persnickety readership. The subject Hugill raises was touched on in this space 15 years ago, as Americans picked up the British habit of emphasizing understatement. Today it deserves more profound treatment than a mere riff; it has to do with the kudzu-like creep of deferentialisms, on which I have been assembling a dossier in the years since.

The vice president, as Hugill notes, is a frequent deferentialist. Asked a couple of months ago about threatened Congressional restrictions on the National Security Agency's surveillance program, he told Jim Lehrer, on the "NewsHour" on PBS, that "the possible amendment, if you will, to additional legislation" would be damaging. (One year ago, Cheney used the same deferentialism on the subject of Iraq: "I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency.") If you will is a shortening of "if you will permit me to say" or "if you will pardon my saying so," which is not quite what the clipped phrase means. The speaker or writer needs no such permission; on the contrary, the shortening means "I'm going to say this, and you may not like it, but that's just too bad, so here goes." The point is not to show deference, as the words say, but to make a pass at submissive respect while making a forceful point.

To Lehrer in the same interview this year, the embattled but unbowed veep used a variation about Congressional critics who had been previously informed of the warrantless wiretapping: "We've had some members head for the hills, so to speak." Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, also employed the short form of in a manner of speaking: "The State of Louisiana's phased evacuation plan, which was revamped. . .a year earlier, worked quite well," she told her Homeland Security committee. "Then, so to speak, the wheels came off."

In both cases, the speaker was using a familiar metaphor ''the last throes before dying, the wheels coming off before crashing '' and then seemed to apologize for the vivid word-picture or for the cliche. In Hawaii, Rosalyn Baker, a state senator supporting an anti-bedbug expenditure to protect the tourism industry, used the appended apology on a much less frightening metaphor, urging colleagues to "nip it in the bud, so to speak, before it becomes a real issue out here."

These verbal stutter-steps both call attention to the metaphor-cliche and simultaneously back away from it. They are the rhetorical equivalents of tugging at the forelock (difficult to imagine in Cheney's case) in a kind of uppity modesty, as it were.

And now to as it were, the clip of "as if it were so," with the subjunctive-case were signaling "contrary to fact," or at least "not to be taken literally." David Hare, the British playwright of "Stuff Happens," a fictional treatment of the buildup to the Iraq war, told a Times interviewer that "the terrible thing is that the two as it were benign characters in the play - Tony Blair and Colin Powell. . .both these men get mashed." In this citation, the deferentialism as it were acts as an adverb modifying benign, making that adjective slightly malignant, or at least less than "as if it were benign."

Rhetoricians have Greek names for phrases like as it were, so to speak and if you will, calling them metanoia or correctio. Prof. Frederick Dolan of the University of California at Berkeley says that they are often ''ways of ironically drawing attention to the fact that understatement is being used'' and so to the cleverness of the understatement (and understater).'' I say that such deferentialisms are smarmily pretentious, not to put too fine a point on it''.

Horror Show

When Jill Carroll, a freelance reporter working for The Christian Science Monitor, was freed by her kidnappers in Iraq after three months in captivity, The Boston Globe reported that her first, cautious comments "evoked the horror of her experience."

The Latin horridus means "shaggy, bristling, menacing," and its many offspring send shudders through synonymists. The least scary is horrid, perhaps because of the Longfellow poem about the good little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. "But when she was bad she was horrid." It gets worse with horrible, often applied to accidents and weather and by Queen Elizabeth II to a year she called "an annus horribilis." More frightening still is horrific, with its emphasis boosted by the urgency of "terrific." Most solemnly alarming is horrendous, as in Bush's "evil men who want to use horrendous weapons," with the word gaining size from the similarity to "tremendous."

The novelist and linguist Anthony Burgess, in "A Clockwork Orange," introduced horror show to describe the pleasure taken by cruel men; it was a sly play on the Russian word khorosho, meaning "good."



Another very readable article
Published: May 14, 2006 (in New York Times - Magazine Section ON LANGUAGE)

You can find a variety of senses for the word bump in our leading dictionaries: as a verb, it means "collide with; knock into"; as an imitative noun, "a swelling or protuberance"; in strippers' slang, a forward thrust of the hips.

But the sense that lexicographers are slow in recording is racing through our vocabulary, filling a word void. What term do we use today for the visible manifestation of pregnancy?

In the past, the euphemism was no noun at all: in a family way and expecting were the general terms for a pregnant woman, and she's showing was the delicate phrase to describe a delicate condition that, when it could no longer be hidden, was later called big with child. Informal usage was a bun (turkey, duck) in the oven.

According to Joan Hall at the Dictionary of American Regional English, other descriptions included knocked up, caught the preggies, infanticipating, in bloom, one on the way and eating for two. A note of arch elegance appears in the use of the French word enceinte.

For a time, the protuberance ''the part that sticks out'' was also called the belly or the tummy, but those nouns denoted the stomach or the abdomen more often than the womb or the uterus. In the 1980's, the British adopted a word for the swelling in the front of a woman carrying her future infant: "Maternity wear rarely looks good belted at the waist," noted a 1987 style article in The Guardian, "after the bump has disappeared."

Zoe Griffiths at Mother & Baby magazine in London says that she saw the word used in the early 90's and now "cannot think of any other words we use for the actual pregnant tummy, aside from bump. We have a sister title here called Pregnancy & Birth; during its launch in 1994, before the mag had a name, it was called Project Bump."

The usage jumped the Atlantic and, thanks to celebrity magazines at supermarket checkout counters, is now firmly planted here. "Britney's Bump Balloons Fast" headlined The Star last year, before Britney Spears had her baby boy. This year, People magazine reported that guests gathered at the actress Melissa Joan Hart's California home to "eat lasagna and cupcakes and marvel at her bump." In nonceleb news, The Times reported in March that pregnant brides are "wearing gowns that flatter their bump and, in short, refusing to give up any elements of a traditional wedding just because there is a baby visibly on the way." A new sense of an old word has been born and appears to be here to stay. Needless embarrassment has been replaced by pride in pregnancy, and the unmistakable sign of impending childbirth is called a bump. Welcome, new sense, to tomorrow's dictionaries, and a Happy Mother's Day. (Mothers' Day? Mothers Day? No; Mother's Day; unlike Presidents' Day, celebrating two presidents, or Veterans Day, celebrating all veterans, this celebrates the individual mother.)

Fur Ball


Another enjoyable article
Published: June 4, 2006 (in New York Times - Magazine Section ON LANGUAGE)

"It was a difficult time" at the National Security Agency when James Risen of The New York Times revealed government eavesdropping, without a warrant, on global telephone calls between Americans and people overseas suspected of involvement in terrorism. In Senate testimony on his confirmation as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Gen. Michael Hayden recounted a crisis meeting at the N.S.A. at what he characterized as "the height of the first fur ball about this."

Hayden drew on his Air Force background in using this locution. Most Americans associate the phrase Fur Ball, usually capitalized, with events to raise funds for the Humane Society or A.S.P.C.A. This is to care for cats, dogs, horses and other animals; an annual black-tie dinner in Washington to which dog owners are accompanied by their canine companions is called the Bark Ball. (I once took my Bernese mountain dogs there and made a speech; the audience howled.) During World War I, a duel of early aircraft was dubbed a dogfight, recalling an earlier expression, popularized in Davy Crockett's 1834 autobiography, about "making the fur fly." In 1983, a U.S. Air Force English dictionary defined fur ball as "a confused dogfight full of swarming airplanes." The expression combines the fighting-animal image of flying fur with the eventful, sometimes charitable, occasionally frenetic, nature of a ball.

Takeoffs and Crashes

When asked if he believed that Senators on the Intelligence Committee should have been informed earlier about the secret domestic eavesdropping, General Hayden said he would answer with "a very crude airman's metaphor."(Airman is not considered sexist in the Armed Forces; though it contains man, it is considered as unisexual as soldier or sailor. Crude, however, can mean "vulgar," which the metaphor was not. The general meant "vivid" or "colorful.") Hayden's metaphor was,"If you want people at the crash, you've got to put them on the manifest." Manifest is a noun in this context, as in a "list of passengers including crew." (Though as an adjective, it means "obvious," as in the paleoconservative Manifest Destiny.) Curiously, the general's observation is an alternate of a more familiar saying, also rooted in aviation. When Edward R. Murrow, forced out of CBS, took a job as director of the U.S. Information Agency, he found himself faced with the need to deal with J.F.K.'s ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion. Murrow asked to attend future meetings of the National Security Council, noting, according to the U.S.I.A. Web site, "If they want me in on the crash landings, I better damn well be in on the takeoffs."

Anchored Away?

Although he demonstrably knows the ropes on aviation tropes, General Hayden is less adept at nautical metaphors. Asked by Democrats on the panel if he recalled discussion within the Bush administration about Congressional authorization to use "all necessary force" against Al Qaeda, he replied, "Our discussion anchored itself on Article II" of the Constitution, which deals with the president's authority as commander in chief.

A legal decision may be bottomed on previous rulings, but anchored on has a clanking sound. "In the Navy we say anchored in," Rear Adm. Dick West (retired) tells me, "as in 'anchored in 300 fathoms of water.' To be more specific, you could say that the anchor is on rock, sand or sediment. When you want to say you're physically attached to something, you say that you're moored to it, like moored to the dock."

When asked by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California if the White House had pressed for data on local phone calls as well as those made overseas, Hayden demurred, replying, "I will give you a touch more granularity in the closed session."

The popularity of granularity is on the rise in government. A granule is a coarse grain; granular means "grainy," often applied to the consistency of sugar (lump, granulated, powdered). In bureaucratese, however, granularity is "the state of being finely, even deliciously, detailed."

"In the military context," a Pentagon spokesman says, "granularity refers to detailed parts of a more overarching topic. It's like the grains of sand on the beach; the beach is big, but the grains themselves are small."

Truth to Power

Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland demanded to know if the nominee would succumb to "the gaga factor" when standing next to the president, or if he would exert his independence by "speaking truth to power."

The earliest use I can find of that challenge to authority was in a letter, probably written in the 1820's, from the British painter B.R. Haydon (no kin to General Hayden) to the editor of The Edinburgh Review. The artist told the editor, "My life has been a whirlwind of brilliant victory and bitter defeat. . .because in my early and ardent aspirations after excellence I told truth to power! "The phrase became a favorite of the Quakers in the 20th century, first reported in a letter by Bayard Rustin, a civil rights advocate and Quaker, in 1942. Anita Hill, who became known for her Senate testimony about Clarence Thomas, titled her 1997 memoir "Speaking Truth to Power."

The history of gaga includes a 1917 usage by Rudyard Kipling meaning "senile," but a decade later, in Vanity Fair, it was defined as "crazy over her" and now continues as Old Slang meaning "infatuated," from the Latin fatuus, "foolish."

Transformation Nation

"What is the difference," Hanching Chung of Taipei e-mails, "between transformational diplomacy and transformational leadership?" This query was stimulated by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's speech at Georgetown University in January, in which she called for "a diplomacy that not only reports about the world as it is, but seeks to change the world itself." She added, "I and others have called this mission transformational diplomacy."

As my Taiwanese correspondent notes, the phrase (successor to dollar diplomacy, gunboat diplomacy, Ping-Pong diplomacy and shuttle diplomacy) was bottomed on transformational leadership. That term was in the 1978 book "Leadership" by the historian James MacGregor Burns, who tells me: "I was responding to the excessively transactional leadership of the time." (Transactional deals with competent means, transformational with great ends, usually with a moral overtone.) When I asked whether he had considered transformative, Professor Burns replied, "Transforming would have been shorter and stronger."

The handful of deep-structure grammarians who read this column with amused detachment are now probably Chompskying at the bit: what about their revered transformational grammar, progenitor of all this voguish transformationalism? That system of analyzing language set forth by Noam Chomsky a half century ago, also called generative grammar, holds that a fixed set of rules generate every sentence we speak or write, transforming abstract structures deep in the brain into understandable sentences when they reach the surface of speech. (If I were angling for a foreign policy job in a Clinton Restoration, I'd start fiddling with the phrase generative diplomacy.)



Another enjoyable article
Published: Jan 8th, 2006 (in New York Times - Magazine Section ON LANGUAGE)

''Have you had enough?'' the questioner asks.

''I'm good'' is the reply.

''Would it be all right with you if. . .?''

''I'm with that.''

''Are you sure you don't need a sweater?''

''I'm good, Ma. Quit buggin' me.''

Here have one of the basic words of the English language -- originally used in the place of God to avoid irreverence -- gaining currency in an unremarked new sense.

Early on, I'm good meant ''I am without sin,'' but that is now seldom the meaning. In later centuries, good -- followed by the preposition at -- acquired a utilitarian sense, as in ''I am good at whist, as well as at hand-held computer games.'' When followed by the preposition for (meaning ''in place of'' or ''with the purpose of''), the adjective good became the hyphenated adjective and noun good-for-nothing. Recently, it acquired the phrasal meaning of ''readiness,'' good to go.

The sense we examine today is a response to a question about capability or mood. ''I'm good'' means ''I can handle it'' or ''It doesn't trouble me''; its implied ensuing preposition is with, as in ''It's all right with me.''

You may ask: ''Why do I have to know this? It's a nonce usage, kids' talk, likely to disappear from their vocabulary in a trice.'' (Nonce, from the Middle English ''for then ones'' compressed to ''then once,'' now meaning ''for the time being'' or ''transitory.'' Trice, sailors know, is a single yank at a rope that hoists a sail.) You don't have to clutter your head with the etymology of nonce or trice, which I found in the fourth edition of the editor Michael Agnes's Webster's New World Dictionary, but the newest sense of good is important to know lest we lose intergenerational communication.

Remember how those of us in the language dodge examined the slang sense of bad as an antonym of good? That usage, pronounced as a sheeplike ba-a-a-d, was first noticed here 22 years ago. Many readers thought it would pass through the body of language like a dose of salts.

Webster's New World now includes badder, baddest in the slang sense of ''very good, stylish, effective.'' The fourth edition of Joseph Pickett's larger American Heritage Dictionary, in one of its many useful usage notes, observes: ''While it is of Black English origin, this usage has been recorded for over a century,'' which illustrates ''a favorite creative device of informal and slang language -- using a word to mean the opposite of what it 'really' means.. . .What is more unusual is for such a usage to be generally accepted within a larger community. Perhaps when the concepts are as basic as 'good' and 'bad' this general acceptance is made easier.''

Yeah, I'm good with that analysis of the semantic flip. In a few years, other lexicographers may add the latest informal sense to the ancient word good: ''satisfied by; untroubled with; prepared to find acceptable.'' If I'm right, the new usage will be with us not just for the nonce, but for good. If mistaken, I made my bad and will have to lie in it.


The dedication page in most books is sincerely unimaginative. John Zubal, the Cleveland antiquarian bookseller who occasionally ships me a box of old language books to donate to the Syracuse University library, sent along ''Dedications,'' a 1913 anthology that shows how the dedication page began in ancient obeisance of authors to their royal patrons or ecclesiastical protectors, then bogged down in platitudinous salutes to family members ''without whom....''

Ben Jonson, the often-panned playwright who was Shakespeare's contemporary, was having none of such obsequiousness or sentimentality in 1631: ''To the Reader, if thou be such, I make thee my patron, and dedicate the piece to thee....Fare thee well, and fall to. Read.''

Benjamin Disraeli, in his 1826 ''Vivian Grey,'' added a note about his readership: ''To the Best and Greatest of Men, I dedicate these volumes. He for whom it is intended, will accept and appreciate the compliment. Those for whom it is not intended, will do the same.''

Here is Mark Twain in 1897, writing self-mockingly in a copy of his ''Following the Equator'': ''This book is affectionately inscribed to my young friend Harry Rogers, with recognition of what he is, and apprehension of what he may become unless he form himself a little more closely upon the model of The Author.''

That last is an inscription, a personal form of a book's dedication and the most valuable of all to the recipient. Even as the printed dedication page shows a lack of creativity, now and then a personal inscription shows a flash of personality. The director Alfred Hitchcock signed a biography about him with a cartoon of himself; the poet Ogden Nash, master of the unexpected rhyme, signed a collection of his poems ''to an interviewer whose heart is pure.'' (The author of a book about mistakes in grammar signs his ''with every best wishes.'')

Why do readers, or at least buyers, line up to have books signed by authors on book tours? One reason is that the author may someday become famous and that that signed copy of the book will become a rarity, selling for a bundle. A better reason is that an inscription, especially with the reader's name included, establishes a remote bond with the author, making the book a collector's item unlikely to be thrown or given away. If that's so, shouldn't authors give more attention to the printed dedication page, aiming it not just to the specific dedicatee but personally relating it to many of the other readers?

I once appeared on a television panel with the novelist James Michener and took along a first edition of ''Tales of the South Pacific,'' his first book, for him to sign. He said: ''I'll be glad to, but there's something you should know. What you have here may be a great rarity -- the only unsigned copy.''



Another enjoyable article
Published: Dec 10th, 2006 (in New York Times - Magazine Section ON LANGUAGE)

You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.

As a young language maven, whenever I heard someone say, “That’s how I raise my kids,” I would pass along the rule “You raise cattle but you rear children.” That’s the correct usage that I was brought up (or reared, never raised) to say. The “rule” was easy enough to remember: Raise animals or crops, rear little human beings. As the years smoothed the sharp corners of my irascibility, whenever I heard a friend slip into that solecism, I zipped my lip; still, a little gong went off in Wernicke’s area of my brain, where word meanings are recognized.

With the increased coverage of the same-sex marriage issue, the constant gonging keeps me awake nights. “Growing numbers of couples,” reports The Boston Globe, “are choosing to raise children, buy homes and build family lives without religious or civil approval of their partnerships.” The gay New York Blade notes, “We go to work, raise children, pay taxes and live in the boring ’burbs.” And on the cover of The New York Times Magazine last month was the headline: “An Extended Nuclear Family? Gay men, lesbians and the kids they are making and raising, sort of together.”

Other reports on nontraditional marriage adhere to traditional usage: The Washington Post writes of “new possibilities for lesbians and heterosexual women to rear children successfully.” The Richmond Times-Dispatch quotes a former lawmaker describing marriage as the best way “in which to rear children.” So which is it to be? (So I offend good usage by beginning a sentence with so. So what? Idioms is idioms.) Etymology is no help; both raise and rear as verbs come from the same Scandinavian root, the earliest meaning being “to set upright, to stand on its end,” the way a horse rears, or raises, itself on its hind legs. Over a millennium, raise covered more meanings than rear; no poker player says, “I’ll see you and rear you.” Rear has become a loser verb, used only in clichés like “rears its ugly head.”

Although I’m usually a prescriptive usagist, I’ll now argue that to tut-tut at “I’m raising my kid to be a billionaire” is to commit an incorrection. (That relatively new noun means “a correction that is itself incorrect.”) My advice to the stalwart rear/raise differentiators, drawing to an inside straight: fold ’em. Raise takes the pot.

Disinterest (Yawn)

“I don’t have a dog in that fight” has long been a favorite Texas saying of former Secretary of State James Baker (now cuttingly called “acting secretary of state”). Now that he is back in the news as co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, we can anticipate such a description of non-canine involvement — along with a more benign Bakerism, “singing from the same hymn book” — as a way of declaring his impartiality in striking a compromise between “cut and run” and “stay the course,” between dovish “timetable” and hawkish “benchmark.” His search for common ground will be determinedly disinterested.

That word disinterested presents a problem. It means “impartial; free of bias; without any ethical conflict or selfish motive or financial interest.” It does not mean uninterested; the word with the un- prefix, less frequently used, means “lacking interest; indifferent; disengaged to the point of terminal boredom.” A big difference in meaning, right? The dis- word deals with ethical purity, while the un- word deals with the lack of attention. No argument; no semantic overlap; everything clear in everyone’s mind.

And yet, and yet. In 1954, the literary critic I. A. Richards dared to say, “More people seem to be saying disinterested when they mean uninterested” and worried “that would only mean that a noble distinction, hard to replace, would be lost.” Like a clockwork orange, in 1985 the British linguist-novelist Anthony Burgess agreed, calling the use of disinterested to mean uninterested “one of the worst of all American solecisms.”

Hmph! snorted E. Ward Gilman of Merriam-Webster, the most influential usagist in America. In a lengthy entry in his magisterial 1989 Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, he reported that nearly three-quarters of the citations of disinterested in their files used the ethical sense and that “reports of its demise have been shamefully exaggerated.” His conclusion, meekly followed by his army of acolytes ever since: “The alleged confusion between disinterested and uninterested does not exist.”

As M-W’s previous paragon of permissivism, Philip Gove, might say: Ain’t so. It may well be that most published citations still preserve the distinction, but to my ear the breaking down is under way, especially in the spoken word and the blogosphere.

Recent examples from the newspaper with the most eagle-eyed copy editors in the U.S.: a cultural critic noted “Bush’s disinterest in serious policy analysis”; an anonymous letter alliteratively attacked a prelate for “dishonesty, deception, disinterest and disregard”; one sportswriter described a Mets player as having “waved at the television in disinterest and ignored the Phillies game”; while another described a Redskins football coach’s “disinterest in controlling the ball and the clock.”

The alarmists of a generation ago were right to warn of barbarians at the gate. To paraphrase a poet: Rear up and rage, rage against the dying of an enlightening distinction.

P.S. to the Phrasedick Legion: The source of “You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em” was the song “The Gambler,” by Don Schlitz, recorded in 1978 by Kenny Rogers. The aphorism was probably used earlier and was reflected in the card game of a couple of generations before named Texas Hold ’Em.



Another enjoyable article
Published: Jan 7th, 2007 (in New York Times - Magazine Section ON LANGUAGE)

Ruminating in his Washington Post column about the potential political “firsts” in the 2008 campaign, Eugene Robinson noted that “we’ve come far enough to seriously consider electing the first U.S. president who can be described without using the adjectives ‘white’ and ‘male.’ Who has the better chance of breaking through, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama?” He concluded by zeroing in on the cliché most often used by the chattering class in reviewing the media adulation of both: “I hereby pledge never to liken either one to a political ‘rock star’ unless he or she is actually holding an electric guitar.”

I started to circle rock star as the hot bit of jargon used by pundits to describe charismatic candidates, but then the old-fashioned phrase electric guitar caught my eye. The adjective is fading out; guitars powered by electricity are commonplace and are simply called guitars, while their predecessor instruments require linguistic amplification as acoustic guitars. The same cultural shift happened in baseball: few fans say night game any more, because most games are played at night, and it’s the former time of play that needs a modifier, which gave rise to the phrase day game.

That newly necessary modification of an old noun is called a retronym. It was defined in the fourth edition of the unabridged American Heritage Dictionary as “a word or phrase created because an existing term that was once used alone needs to be distinguished from a term referring to a new development.” An example was in the wristwatch trade: when digital watches that flash the numbers came along, the old-fashioned watch, with hands pointing to numbers or marks on the face, became an analog watch. The example given in the Encarta dictionary is snail mail, “coined by those for whom mail is likely to mean e-mail.”

Along comes Merriam-Webster, the company founded by Noah himself (the lexicographer, not the patriarch), with its breezily scholarly Web site, www.m-w.com. Last month, its “word of the day” was retronym, more apt than Time’s narcissistic person of the year. Presumably, this means that the term it defines as “consisting of a noun and a modifier which [sic] specifies the original meaning of the noun” will appear in the next edition of its Collegiate dictionary. The example chosen by M-W is console television set, a deeply bulky device receding into the mists of media history in this age of LCD and plasma screens.

The Merriam lexies, always strong on etymology, cite the earliest usage they can find of retronym in this column in 1980, which credited Frank Mankiewicz, then president of National Public Radio, as the coiner. He was especially intrigued by the usage hardcover book, which was originally a plain book until softcover books came along, which were originally called paperback and now have spawned a version the size of a hardcover but with a soft cover trade-named with the retronym trade paperback. I’m glad Frank is getting mintage recognition on his word to illuminate social and fashion change because his father, Herman, never got the fame he deserved for co-writing the screenplay of “Citizen Kane.”

Last year, Frank — in charge of neologisms at the p.r. firm Hill & Knowlton — alerted me to the skirt suit. In the glass-ceiling era, a female executive used to be required to wear a suit, which was a jacket and matching skirt. Then came the substitution of slacks (trousers that men called pants) for the skirt, producing the pants suit of the last generation or so. Now we are seeing the retronym skirt suit, a combination jacket and matching skirt, to differentiate it from the disappearing pants suit, likely to make a comeback under another name not yet vouchsafed to me.

“In intercollegiate sports,” Mankiewicz told me recently, “we now hear a gifted young athlete called a true freshman. What used to be a freshman is now clouded by young men who have been ‘redshirted’ for a year, thus preserving four years of eligibility by technically remaining freshmen.”

Remember the telephone with a dial? (It replaced the horn-and-clicker device into which Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee shouted, “Hello-Central!”) Along came the push-button phone, quickly re-named the touch-tone phone, requiring the coinage today of the retronym rotary phone. Now even that retronym has a retronym: with the ubiquitous cellphone, everything from touch-tones to rotary dials to two tin cans connected by a taut string are referred to as land lines.

When nobody answers the cellphone, you can leave a message on what used to be called voice mail, faster than e-mail and infinitely faster than the aforementioned retronymic snail mail or postal mail. However, the unmodified noun message, by virtue of its unspoken method of communication, has forced the creation of the retronym text message, often blasted out by those long scorned as “textual deviates.”

Am I milking this subject beyond its intrinsic worth? That reminds me: my refrigerator is stocked with nonfat milk (what happened to skim?) 2 percent milk, calcium-enriched milk, lactose-free milk, chocolate milk (just a half-pint for the middle of the night), soy milk and half-and-half, all of which has caused the creation of the retronym whole milk.

Those fogies that S. J. Perelman wrote were “afflicted with total recall” will remember what they used to call water. With the rising tide of bottled water, not to mention sparkling water (formerly soda water, or seltzer), New Yorkers who yearn for the pristine product of the local reservoirs have taken to asking the waiter for Bloomberg water, formerly Giuliani water, after the sitting mayor’s name. In the rest of the nation, that refreshing and pleasantly inexpensive drink, not carbonated but with its own beaded bubbles winking at the brim, is now known by the retronym tap water.



Another enjoyable article
Published: June 29th, 2008 (in New York Times - Magazine Section ON LANGUAGE)

To a fisherman, a gaff is an iron hook attached to a pole to drag aboard a large catch; to a sailor, it’s a spar attached to the mast; to a Hollywood director, a gaffer is the chief lighting electrician hanging from the set’s rafters; to a “gotcha!” journalist, a gaffe — with an e ending, from the Old French for “hook” — provides the hot news lede on a dull campaign day. To a politician — even one who can “stand the gaff” or abuse — it’s the dread mistake that pierces the psyche like the angler’s sharp hook.

“President Bush said one thing but meant the other,” wrote the A.P.’s Deb Riechmann, covering Bush’s planned farewell tour of Europe this month. She reported the president’s mention of “the North American Initiative and the Forum for Freedom,” when Bush intended to say “North Africa Initiative and the Forum for the Future,” errors she labeled as “verbal stumbles.” When he substituted civil for cold in referring to allied unity during the cold war, the reporter classified that as a blooper.

In the official White House transcript of Bush’s remarks, an asterisk was dutifully placed after the spoken errors, and corrections were made in footnotes. This reminded me of a mistake in a text I prepared in a Vietnam speech for President Nixon. Seated in the Oval Office, he told the nation: “At this very desk, President Woodrow Wilson . . . said, ‘This is the war to end war.’ ” A curator later discovered, however, that the “Wilson desk” was not President Wilson’s, as we assumed, but once belonged to Henry Wilson, a vice president under Grant. (A footnote in the collected presidential papers corrects my mistake.)

None of these qualified as gaffes. My Nixon text contained a plain inaccuracy requiring a curator’s fix. In Mr. Bush’s mix-up of America and Africa as well as his substitution of freedom for future, his spoken error was neither a blunder nor a blooper.

Why not? The meaning of blunder — probably rooted in the Old Swedish blundra, meaning “to have one’s eyes closed” — has evolved to “a serious mistake, often with far-reaching consequences.” Its most famous use was attributed to several Frenchmen, including Talleyrand in 1804, referring to the wrongful execution of a nobleman whom Napoleon suspected of conspiring against him: “It is worse than a crime. It is a blunder.” That’s an English translation of the French faute, meaning “fault, foul, misdeed, offense.” Blunder is a heavy charge, a synonym for “strategic misjudgment” that can lead to military or political defeat.

Blooper has a kooky quality of embarrassment, rooted in the howling sound made by the feedback of a bouncing signal in the early days of radio. It is allied to a baseball synonym for “Texas leaguer,” a half-hit baseball looped over the infielders and too short to be caught by an outfielder. Not a heavy charge; both meanings of blooper elicit an apologetic “whoops!” It is one step short of a goof, which is “a silly misstep.”

A fluff is a minor verbal goof like a mispronunciation, as when the announcer Harry von Zell introduced President Herbert Hoover with the spoonerism “Hoobert Heever.” The closest synonym is slip, a clip of “slip of the tongue.” Such a misspoken or tripped-over word or phrase sometimes gets edited out of a taped interview in an act of kindness.

Misspoke, as in the usage “the president misspoke,” is a verb back-formed from the aforementioned “misspoken.” It is a press-secretarial phrase in growing use that asserts with a note of defiance: “You know that’s not what he meant, so don’t make it a big deal.”

Asked about Hillary Clinton’s false memory of being under sniper fire at a Bosnian airport — which the psychiatrist-journalist Charles Krauthammer perceptively diagnosed as a relatively common psychological “confabulation” — John McCain said: “I have misspoken from time to time, and so I think she just misspoke. . . . Maybe we should be focusing on the issues that are of importance.” I would classify Clinton’s gleefully derided Bosnia recollection as an exploitable mental lapse; her strategy of ignoring small-state caucuses was a blunder; and her evocation of the length of Robert Kennedy’s primary campaign, with its ancillary reminder of his assassination, caused such a shudder that it can be judged a gaffe.

McCain’s admission that economics was not his strong suit makes it into the gaffe tank because he was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee for six years and such modesty now haunts him. Contrariwise, his statement that U.S. forces might be in Iraq for “100 years,” seized upon as a gaffe by Obama supporters, lends itself to counterattack as a smear because the tape exists to show the phrase was taken out of context.

“When Barack Obama incorrectly named the wrong concentration camp that his great-uncle had helped liberate, that was incorrectly called a gaffe,” protests James Miceli in an e-mail message. I agree; it was a slip, or to use a newer word, a thinko, coined on the analogy of “typo.” Last month, Obama thrice called Matt Lauer of the “Today” show “Tim” until the embarrassed host had to correct him for what CNN called a faux pas, French for “false step,” meaning “social error”; Obama had been on “Meet the Press” the day before with Tim Russert (whom we now remember as TV’s fairest of them all), and the repeated misnaming can be dismissed as a lapse. Most Democrats, however, would glumly concede that he got into trouble with his April remark about people in small towns: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them . . . as a way to explain their frustrations.” That was a gaffe because it added fuel to charges of elitism (though it was a stretch to label it “bittergate”).

One thing for which the millions of us who are mistake-prone can be thankful: nobody descends to the baby-talk boo-boo any more.