We here at Casa Languagehat believe in fairness to the point of gritted teeth, yea, unto the uttering of small yips of pain. Having twice this month (1, 2) spifflicated William Safire, the oft-erring language columnist of the New York Times, I now find myself in the acutely uncomfortable position of defending him against his own copyeditors, who, according to Sunday’s column, not only exist but challenge him on mistaken grounds:
These thoughts are triggered by the copy desk’s (two words) objection to the spelling of a word in last week’s column, which dealt with irregardless as a jocular redundancy and therefore, in my judgment, “arrant nonsense.” Last year, I chose that very phrase as an example of “wedded words,” like unmitigated gall, congenital liar and blithering idiot.[…]
As a language columnist, I have a license to use almost any taboo word or misspelling as an object of study, but not as part of my own prose. The objection was not to its being a word-wedding, cliché or fixed phrase, but because the desk held that arrant should be spelled errant. You could look it up, it (the desk) said, in the Dodger and Yankee manager Casey Stengel’s classic phrase.
I looked it up, in Webster’s New World, and in Merriam-Webster’s, and in American Heritage, and cannot fault the desk: there it was in all three of the best sellers: “arrant, adjective, variant of errant.” That was the lexicographers’ way of saying that although some spelling deviants insisted on arrant with a beginning a, most sensible people agreed with the establishment and spelled errant with an e. The Times’s copy desk was going by the book.
Safire is unquestionably right; as he says, “We are not dealing here with one word with one meaning spelled two different ways, one preferred and one variant; in my view, we are dealing with a word whose meaning has split, and the resulting ‘variation’ in spelling signifies the difference in the two meanings.” If indeed the copyeditors wanted him to make the change (and I can’t suppress a small voice that suggests he might be making the whole exchange up as an excuse to discuss the two words), they were not only wrong but a disgrace to their (and my) profession.
But I’m not letting Bloviating Bill off the hook quite so easily. What’s this about “all three of the best sellers”? I can’t speak for Webster’s New World, which I don’t own, but M-W says arrant means “being notoriously without moderation : EXTREME (we are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us —Shakespeare)” and AHD says “Completely such; thoroughgoing: an arrant fool; the arrant luxury of the ocean liner.” So what’s Safire talking about? Presumably the etymologies, for which M-W has “alteration of errant” and AHD “Variant of errant.” Now, the man may be cheerfully amateurish in matters linguistic, but he knows the difference between a definition and an etymology; why he’s obscuring it in this instance is obscure to me, but it gives me a chance to get a bit of revenge for my gritted teeth. His final remark, “Let the dictionaries catch up with the living language,” is not just disingenuous, it’s downright mendacious. Bad Language Maven, bad!
Hmm, let me check the New Oxford American Dictionary… aha:
arrant adj. [attrib.] dated complete, utter: What arrant nonsense! [Middle English: variant of ERRANT, originally in phrases such as arrant thief (‘outlawed, roving thief’).]
Not only is there a nice detailed etymology showing the transition in meaning, they actually give “arrant nonsense” as an example. Come on, Times, spring for a copy for the copy desk and save them from themselves!