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.


  1. I think he means those common, garden-variety, run-of-the-mill “elitists,” not those elitists who are actually part of an elite.

  2. John Thacker says

    I should think that a reference to the common usage of the elite is quite obvious. Plenty of people who claim to be descriptivists, or straddle the prescriptivist/descriptivist line, only choose to take as given the common usage of the educated.
    Where the elite have different usages, there may still be a most common usage of the elite. The “common usage of the elite == common elitist usage.” Doesn’t seem like much of an oxymoron to me.
    Martha’s Vineyard is a common elitist vacation spot, for example. It’s common for the elite to vacation there.

  3. the common usage of the educated
    That’s more or less how I read it, or at least “common usage of the conservative educated” – that is, prescriptivism based on relatively uniformed sources. X is wrong because I was taught so at school, whatever long-standing usage may be revealed by etymological research.

  4. “uniformed” -> “uninformed”!

  5. You’re not really an élitist if you spell it without an accent, I think.
    But it’s good to know that Safire could have told physicists not to worry about magnetic monopoles without having to, like, do any physics or anything. Who says mavens are a waste of space?

  6. As des points out, the physicists are happy not only with monopoles, but with quadrupoles, octopoles and so on. But if even Axes of Evil can be tripolar, why fret?

  7. John Thacker says

    Certainly for example you see the same sorts of things about the pronunciation of the word “nuclear,” for example. I know far, far more people who pronounce it “nyü-ky&-l&r” than “nü-klE-&r,” to use Merriam-Webster’s pronuciation symbols. (Since I can’t enter IPA.)
    Despite this, the latter pronunciation is the favored and common one among the educated elite, resulting in various disapproval towards the former one.

  8. Quite right. I’ve posted on the subject, and plan to do so at greater length.

  9. Interestingly, TNH links today to Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing. The last is:
    If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
    Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

  10. Theophylact: It certainly never stopped the original Axis from WW2, no? After all, an axis is a line (or more technically a segment of a line), and thus contains infinite points…

  11. Heh!

  12. The five most beautiful words in the English language.

    Now lost like tears in rain. It’s more fun to be allusive than to spell things out, but one’s clever allusions are so often lost to linkrot…

  13. And blocked at the Internet Archive by the robots.txt file. Eheu fugaces!

  14. I hate that later proprietors of a domain can erase its history even when the earlier ones allowed archiving.

  15. Yes, that is despicable.

  16. Let’s do it the old-fashioned way.

    Those who remember what was there, please tell us, and we will pass this wisdom to future generations.

  17. Now that the Internet Archive is no longer kowtowing to robots.txt files, anyone can find out that the five words are “William Safire is on vacation.”

    However, now that he is permanently on vacation, this remark falls with less force than it once did.

  18. Thanks!

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