My wife just told me that William Safire has died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 79, and I was shocked and saddened by the news. Long-time readers may be surprised by the elegiac tone of this post, because in the early years of LH I used to take great and unholy glee in ripping apart his language columns in the NY Times; it still annoys me that the Newspaper of Record handed such a potentially powerful educational tool over to someone with no qualifications other than a love of language and writing, who frequently made the kind of obvious errors that set my teeth on edge. But I came to realize that it was not, after all, his fault that he didn’t have the appropriate background; he did, after all, have a strong love of language and writing; and despite it all he did dig up plenty of interesting information. More importantly, from my own selfish perspective, two years ago Oxford University Press had me copyedit the latest edition of his Political Dictionary, and it was one of the best editing experiences I’ve had. He fully appreciated my pickiness about details and had no hesitation making changes I recommended, even occasionally adding chunks of text I provided; what’s more, he credited me by name in those entries and added this heartwarming text to the acknowledgments: “For this fifth edition, Stephen Dodson provided the kind of creative copy-editing and a lust for historical accuracy and semantic precision that a political slanguist expects in dealing with the Oxford University Press, world’s greatest lexicographic organization.” He took to calling me up and we were soon on a “Bill” and “Steve” basis, and the last time we talked he promised to buy me a beer if we were ever both in New York at the same time. I’m sorry we won’t get the chance to have that beer, Bill, and especially that we won’t get to work together on another book.
The NY Times obit is by one of my favorite Times reporters, Robert D. McFadden, who’s been with the paper since 1961 and covers disasters like nobody else; I winced, of course, at the phrase “a talented linguist,” but appreciated writing like this:
He was hardly the image of a buttoned-down Times man: The shoes needed a shine, the gray hair a trim. Back in the days of suits, his jacket was rumpled, the shirt collar open, the tie askew. He was tall but bent — a man walking into the wind. He slouched and banged a keyboard, talked as fast as any newyawka and looked a bit gloomy, like a man with a toothache coming on.
And I was delighted to learn that he was born Safir: “The ‘e’ was added to clarify pronunciation.” Goodbye, and thanks for the fun of both bashing you and editing you.