This week’s Safire column consists mainly of a labored trudge through the history of polar, bipolar, multipolar, and unipolar, the last two of which he considers “impossible in logic.” It wouldn’t be worth noting here except for the very odd second sentence in this paragraph:
When meaning is flouted by the powers that be, what’s a poor semanticist to do? I deal with the hand that common elitist usage deals and not the hand that politicians or strict etymologists insist I play. Today’s meaning of bipolar is ”characterized by two-power confrontation, as in the cold war.” Multipolar, its pivotal pole jerked around into an asterisk, means ”a world of many powers with not one dominant and no clear leadership.” And unipolar, the big stick that never ends—rightly rejected by Cheney and smoothly abandoned by Chirac—means ”who does that self-righteous, moralizing big shot think he is, anyway?”
“Common elitist usage”? What on earth does this mean? I can only think that, trapped between his automatic deference to prescriptive ukases and a cloudy realization that if everybody is using words in an illogical way usage must trump logic, he squares the circle by means of this oxymoron. I can’t decide whether I’m amused or impressed.
Update. For further Safire-lambasting, see Semantic Compositions. SC knows a lot more about poles than I (or, it goes without saying, Safire). And to those who would let Bloviating Bill off the hook, I’m aware that the phrase “common elitist usage” can be interpreted in such a way as to make sense (although the traditional way of putting that meaning is more along the lines of “the consensus of the best authorities”), but I feel that in context, it is a desperate flailing for justification from a man caught between the Scylla of superciliousness and the Charybdis of commonness. He’s not waving but drowning.