Spread the Word: Further Writings from the Popular

Spread the Word: Further Writings from the Popular "On Language" Column in the New York Times Magazine

by William Safire, Terry Allen

As William Safire writes in his introduction to Spread the Word, the eleventh book collecting his "On Language" columns from The New York Times Magazine, in language matters "it's a comfort to have a rule." And yet, as he makes clear throughout this entertaining collection,
the question that confronts writers and public speakers daily is


As William Safire writes in his introduction to Spread the Word, the eleventh book collecting his "On Language" columns from The New York Times Magazine, in language matters "it's a comfort to have a rule." And yet, as he makes clear throughout this entertaining collection,
the question that confronts writers and public speakers daily is deciding when a rule should be applied rigorously to a linguistic dilemma, and when that rule is best sidelined by common sense.

In the two decades that Safire has entertained and enlightened readers of his weekly column, he has consistently enlivened our national conversation about what's new and what's acceptable in language. In Spread the Word, he adroitly dissects the evolution of current phrases, verbal trends, and the origins of colloquialisms that often go unexamined. He tackles all topics, from the habits of newspaper editorial writers to teenagers' argot to the often tortured speech of politicians.

Here, Safire examines such conundrums as the origin of There is no free lunch; the correct use of among and between; the evolution of the word babe; the subtle distinctions between diddly squat, diddle-daddle, and just plain diddle; the meaning of bad hair day, tough sell, hard love, and shoulda, coulda, woulda; the vogue status of such words as daunting, same-old-same-old, and dope; and the inherent humor of bananas.

In this vigorous and erudite assemblage, which is organized alphabetically by topic, Safire shares his infectious curiosity about how we use words with an approach that is often amusing and always thought-provoking. In fact, "On Language" columns often elicit passionate commentsfrom Safire's readers, the Lexicographic Irregulars. A lively selection of their letters on specific linguistic issues is interspersed throughout the book.

From a reader in Providence, Rhode Island, "on the indispensability of the hyphen: Personals ads seem to be a goldmine of casual usage, never proofread and seldom submitted to grammarians for grading. One gem was from a man who started describing himself as a BIG FIRM ATTORNEY."

And this from Fred Cassidy, chief editor of The Dictionary of American Regional English: "Your picture of the stupid dog not responding to the command 'sic 'em' reminds me of the corresponding cat story of the man who had made three holes in the bottom of his door so that his cats could come and go when the door was closed. An efficiency-minded neighbor asked him, Couldn't all your cats use a single hole? 'No!' he glared. 'When I say scat I mean scat!'"

Shown by the many letters included here—and in the delight that the Gotcha! Gang takes in correcting America's foremost language maven—readers take great enjoyment in the national dialogue that William Safire fosters about words every week.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal - Library Journal
Here are two new books by well-known columnists/language mavens. Safire is funny, thought-provoking, and, after 20 years of writing columns for the New York Times Magazine, an American institution. Gathering these columns and including many letters from readers, his book focuses on the way our language was used historically and how it is used now. The columns are clever and highly readable, and some of the letters from readers are just as much fun. Wallraff has been writing her witty column for The Atlantic Monthly for many years. Partly a style and usage manual that will be valuable for reference and on the corner of a writing desk, this book is also a written lecture by a great English teacher. Safire and Wallraff cover some of the same ground and sometimes differ, one notable example being the use of the article an before words that start with h such as historian. The best part of these books is, in most instances, that the "right" usage is not as important as reading about how the authors formed their opinions. Safire may have a slight edge owing to name recognition, but both books will put smiles on many a reader's face.--Lisa J. Cihlar, Monroe P.L., WI Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The 11th volume of the cunning linguist's New York Times Magazine "On Language" columns. Safire is more than a witty journalist covering grammar and usage, as his fiction (Sleeper Spy, 1995) and nonfiction (The First Dissident, 1992) attest. The Pulitzer-winning political pundit fuses politics and linguistics when discussing "the need to reject the no-longer-pertinent language of the cold war." In high-ranking Washington company, Safire hears America's newly global policies described as "enlargement," but he prefers the less pathological "engagement." He wonders whether pundits should call pro-Communist Russians left- or right-wingers. Elsewhere, his research outflanks a writer who deems the term "philistine" insensitive to Palestinians. Most of the book celebrates language for its own sake. Only Safire could contemplate the hole of a doughnut thus: "Where was I? Yes. Where is the toroidal quality in a nut? (Only a few moments ago, you would not have understood that question)." The reader soon confronts holey bagels and Life Savers, as well as a dunk into the etymology of the donut (a legitimate variant, we're told). Much of the fun of reading Safire's mail is the many "incorrections," or inaccurate corrections. With an ear to pronunciation, we learn that some say "PRAH-sess," while the more logical Brits say "PROH-sess." Quoting from TV Guide, Roseanne, or Hillary Clinton, Safire champions spoken language and attacks politically correct atrocities, like one that would turn zoos into Wildlife Conservation Parks. Not that Safire is opposed to new coinages. These articles are mad with serious and invented neologisms like "Pun jab" and new definitions, such as "news junkies" as"consumers of junk food for thought." In 20 years on the language beat, Safire has waged a delightful battle for correct but common English, taking on its petrifaction with such defiant phrases as: "You'd think the Brits invented it."

Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.35(w) x 9.48(h) x 1.02(d)

Meet the Author

William Safire, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary, has been a newspaper reporter, a White House speechwriter, a lexicographer, an anthologist, and a bestselling novelist. In addition to his weekly column, "On Language," for The New York Times Magazine, his primary post is political columnist for The New York Times.

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