AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble and this week on WORDMASTER:
We remember William Safire, who died Sunday of pancreatic cancer at the
age of 79.
RS: Readers of the New York Times knew him not only
from his years as a conservative political columnist, and winner of a
Pulitzer Prize, the highest honor in print journalism. He was also a
linguistic pundit who wrote the "On Language" column in the Times'
AA: He dealt with topics like word origins,
usage, new terms and old terms with new meanings. He was also a
novelist and editor of Safire's Political Dictionary. Our colleague
Adam Phillips interviewed him last year during the presidential
RS: One of the terms they discussed was a
phrase that William Safire himself wrote during his days as a
speechwriter for President Richard Nixon and his vice president Spiro
WILLIAM SAFIRE: "I was looking for some criticism of
people who were defeatist, who thought that we could never win in
Vietnam. And so I came up with the nattering nabobs of negativism. That
is known as red meat rhetoric. When you talk about 'There's no red
meat in this speech,' that means there's no ammunition that you can feed to
your supporters to use, or throw into the cage of a lion that was hungry.
have to use metaphors and similes and word pictures and figures of
speech in order to capture attention and encapsulate an idea or a vague
program that otherwise would put people to sleep. So they have to say
'I'm gonna offer you a New Deal' or 'take you to a New Frontier' --
I've just quoted [Franklin] Roosevelt and [John] Kennedy - or
suggest a New Covenant. Now that was suggested by Bill Clinton and it
didn't fly for some reason. You never really know when the political language
is going to work or when it's gonna lay an egg.
"So political speech then has two functions. One is to draw attention to
oneself as a politician, so that people sit up and pay attention, and
the other is to explain a complicated idea in a shorthand form."
SAFIRE: "Shorthand is very important in political language. For
example, a word that's flying around now is superdelegate. We used to
call them party elders or, before that, party bosses. The fun of the
political language is to stop and say 'What am I saying? Does it have
the right overtones, the right coloration?' When we talk about
superdelegates, there is a sinister quality to 'superdelegates,'
because it suggests some delegates are subdelegates, or not as
APS: William Safire has often pointed out
that political speech is always changing. New words and phrases get
created, and older ones attain new relevance. He gives the phrase fire
in the belly as one example.
WILLIAM SAFIRE: "A candidate has to
have ambition and a real burning desire to become whatever he's running
for. And that's called fire in the belly. And it was a problem that
Barack Obama had, because he was essentially cool, intellectual. He
actually talked in paragraphs. So there was a feeling that he didn't have
fire in the belly. He recognized that and worked out a phrase that had
a resonance in the black community, because it was used by the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 'Are you fired up?
Are you ready to go?' And they would shout back 'Ready to go!' And that
gave the feeling that, indeed, he had fire in the belly.
got to remember that the most important thing about political language
is its vividness, it's calling up of an image in your mind. In the
nineteen thirties, someone who left under great criticism, it was said
that he left in a hail of dead cats. You can envision a cartoon really
of a man running with cats being thrown at him.
political economists, also came up with a feline image. Cat lovers
don't like this phrase, but when the stock market goes down and down
and down, and then comes back up a little, they call that a dead cat
bounce. When a cat hits the ground and bounces back, it doesn't mean
it's alive, it just means that was what we'd call a sucker rally.
AP: "There's another one, right?"
WILLIAM SAFIRE: "I do that unconsciously, I guess."
AP: "I guess we all do. That's how come we know they're really words."
WILLIAM SAFIRE: "Well, you know they're really words if you look them up in the Political Dictionary."
William Safire, editor of Safire's Political Dictionary, language
columnist for the New York Times and former White House speechwriter,
died Sunday at age 79.
RS: You can find more of that interview
from last year with VOA's Adam Phillips at voanews.com/wordmaster. And
that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.