No Uncertain Terms : More Writing from the Popular "On Language" Column in The New York Times Magazine
There is no wittier, more amiable or more astute word maven than Pulitzer Prizewinning columnist William Safire.
For many people, the first item on the agenda for Sunday morning is to sit down and read Safire's "On Language" column in The New York Times Magazine, then to compose a "Gotcha" letter to the Times. Each of his books on language is a classic, to be read, re-read and fought over. Safire is the beloved, slightly crotchety guru of contemporary vocabulary, speech, language, usage and writing, as close as we are likely to get to a modern Samuel Johnson. Fans, critics and fellow language mavens eagerly await his books on language. This one is no exception.
William Safire has written the weekly New York Times Magazine column "On Language" since 1979. His observations on grammar, usage and etymology have led to the publication of fourteen "word books" and have made him the most widely read writer on the English language today. The subjects for his columns come from his insights into the current political scene, as well as from technology, entertainment and life in general. Known for his delight in catching people (especially politicians) who misuse words, he is not above tackling his own linguistic gaffes. Safire examines and comments on language trends and traces the origins of everyday words, phrases and clichés to their source. Scholarly, entertaining, lively and thoughtful, Safire's pointed commentaries on popular language and culture are at once provocative and enlightening.
Want the 411 on what's phat and what's skeevy? Here's the "straight dope" on everything from "fast-track legislation" to "the Full Monty," with deft and well-directed potshots at those who criticize, twist the usage of or misunderstand the meaning of such classic examples of American idiom as "grow'd like Topsy," "and the horse you rode in on," "drop a dime" (on someone), "go figure" and hundreds more, together with sharp, witty and passionately opinionated letters from both ordinary readers and equally irate or puzzled celebrities who have been unable to resist picking up a pen to put Mr. Safire in his place or to offer detailed criticism, additional examples or amusing anecdotes.
No Uncertain Terms is a boisterous and brilliant look at the oddities and foibles of our language. Not only "a blast and a half," but wise, clever and illuminating, it is a book that Mencken would have loved and that should be on the desk (or at the bedside) of everyone who shares Mr. Safire's profound love of the English language and his penchant for asking, "Where does that come from?"
This new collection is a joy that will spark the interest of language lovers everywhere.
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Simon & Schuster
May 14, 2003
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Excerpt from No Uncertain Terms by William Safire
To be revealed before your very eyes is the anatomy of an "On Language" column. You will discover its impetus, its motive, its little research tricks, its blinding flashes of lexicographic insight and the way the writer, straining to show how language illuminates The Meaning of Life, settles for the meaning of a word.
1. Glom onto a vogue word just as it passes its peak.
"White House Finds 'Fast Track' Too Slippery" was the Washington Post headline over a story by Peter Baker. His lead: "Attention White House speechwriters: The term fast track is no longer in vogue." As the drive for free-trade legislation began, the phrase of choice was "Renewal of Traditional Trading Authority."
Just as many of you were getting your engines steamed up to take the fast track, your track gets renamed. Why
"Fast-track legislation" made its burst for fame in the mid-70s as Congress gave the President a right that stretched to twenty years to negotiate trade treaties with other nations without having to face amendments back home; as a result, subsequent treaties would be ratified or turned down, all-er-nuthin'. Robert Cassidy, a lawyer who helped draft the Trade Act of 1974, recalls the adjective surfacing toward the end of the Tokyo Round in the late 70s; it did not appear in legislation until 1988.
When presidential authority to zip a treaty through expired, a Republican Congress was not so eager to hand that power back to Democrat Clinton. That's the reason White House wordmeisters derailed the use of fast track (too hasty-sounding) in favor of the solid, stodgy, nothing-new-here "Renewal of Traditional Trading Authority," as if George Washington had been born with the old fast track in his crib.
2. Involve the reader.
Here is a postcard from a slum dweller in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, with an incomprehensible scrawl for a name asking: "What's with fast track Whatever happened to 'life in the fast lane' "
Now our linguistic train begins to leave the station, and we
3. Follow the usage trail.
The fast lane comes from auto racing. The trusty Oxford English Dictionary, supplemented and on CD-ROM, has a 1966 citation from Thomas Henry Wisdom's High Performance Driving: "One is frustrated on a motorway by the driver ahead in the fast lane (if only he understood it is the overtaking lane)."
How did the term get popularized in its metaphorically broadened form A 1972 novel by Douglas Rutherford was titled Clear the Fast Lane, but that was still about auto racing. Then, in 1976, a rock group named the Eagles put out an album, Hotel California, that included the single "Life in the Fast Lane" by Joe Walsh, Don Henley and Glenn Frey.
"They knew all the right people/They took all the right pills/They threw outrageous parties/They paid heavenly bills/There were lines on the mirror, lines on her face/She pretended not to notice she was caught up in the race...." The chorus: "Life in the fast lane/Surely make you lose your mind...."
Since that song, the fast lane has had overtones of the drug culture and impending disaster, a speeded-up, sinister, modern version of Shakespeare's "primrose path of dalliance."