I’ve been trying to lay off William Safire—we all know his limitations and he’s frequently amusing and occasionally even informative, so why keep thumping him?—but sometimes he says something so mind-bogglingly ridiculous I can’t be satisfied simply muttering at my copy of the newspaper, I have to go public. In today’s On Language column, he begins by quoting an allegedly new usage of the word good (in the reply “I’m good”), then calls it “one of the basic words of the English language – originally used in the place of God to avoid irreverence.” Wha? He seems to be claiming the word good was first (“originally”) used as a substitute for the word God (what, they stuck in the extra -o- to avoid blasphemy?), but surely even he can’t believe that. The OED knows of only one such use (“The Good, that guides And blessed makes this realm which thou dost mount”), and that’s from Cary’s 1814 translation of Dante. The original meaning of good was, not surprisingly, ‘good’—or, to be more specific, “Of things: Having in adequate degree those properties which a thing of the kind ought to have… Of persons, as a term of indefinite commendation.” It’s from a different Indo-European root, *ghedh- ‘to unite, join, fit’ (god is from *gheuH- ‘to call, invoke’); the similarity of sound is rhetorically useful but otherwise irrelevant.
He follows this historical blunder with a religio-semantic one: “Early on, I’m good meant ‘I am without sin,’ but that is now seldom the meaning.” I search the OED entry in vain for any hint of sinlessness; I search my memory of Sunday school for any suggestion that it was possible for human beings (with an exception or two, who didn’t speak English) to be without sin. I can only conclude that our boy William dashed the column off before his first cup of coffee and (as usual) nobody at the Times bothered to even read it over before sending it to the printer.
Incidentally, the last half of the column is devoted to dedication pages in books. Don’t ask me why.


  1. You’re too kind to him. Not only is Safire the worst kind of prescriptivist — those who base their prescriptivism explicitly in snobbery — but columns such as this one repeatedly reveal his considerable ignorance. Snobbery and ignorance — how’s that for a combo? The bottom line is that by spreading misinformation and by misleading people into thinking that language is a minefield in which an ignorant, uncouth or lazy speaker is liable to misstep and lose a metaphorical linguistic limb, he is actively contributing to worldwide ignorance, which is just a shade better than intentionally hurting people. Thanks for calling him on it; he deserves it.

  2. kutsuwamushi says

    I’m curious about why he thinks this. Is it a myth (like “razbliuto”) that he came across in some book, or is he just drawing his own silly conclusions?

  3. Also, from the dedication pages section:
    Ben Jonson, the often-panned playwright who was Shakespeare’s contemporary
    Panned by whom?

  4. I don’t get it–if he has to do research, isn’t he well off enough to hire an assistant to at least look in the OED? Dang, hire me! I’ll do it! Or if he’s too busy or lazy to deal with the column, I’m sure LH or anyone else around here would do a much better job. Move over, let the yung-uns take over!

  5. I’d hate to miss a chance to take a few kicks at old Bill, even if he’s mostly up to his old tricks — inventing etymologies and finding ways to cite his own inept previous writings. (Does he _really_ not believe that “bad” = good predates 1983? Ohforgodsakes.)
    I’ll offer a halfhearted defense of the rim rats, though; I’d bet pretty heavily that several sets of eyes read the column before it went to press. But picking a fight with a name columnist isn’t the sort of dispute challengers win very often. Not unreasonable to guess that the desk editors either tested the defenses and thought better of it or just saved the ammunition against the certainty of a worse provocation in the future.
    Beautiful dissection, Hat. Seems like you were just getting started when you let him up.

  6. FWIW, Nathan Bierma wrote a much better piece on “I’m good” for the Chicago Tribune on Aug. 17, 2005. Unfortunately it’s now only in the Trib’s pay archive, and I don’t see it archived anywhere else on the Web.

  7. Now about the sense of “good” in the title of your post …
    You’re right to take issue with that column. I also wonder about the absence of a comma before the relative clause in “Ben Jonson, the often-panned playwright who was Shakespeare’s contemporary, …”: it sounds as if for every major playwright there was another much-criticised one. His usage of “nonce” is strange at best. And then there’s “Remember how those of us in the language dodge examined the slang sense of bad as an antonym of good?” Huh.
    He’s really got a problem with that particular adjective.

  8. You know, I long believed that “good” and “God” were related words. When I finally remembered to check, though, I saw that they came from two different IE roots and were only conincidentally similiar. Where did I get this insight from?! I didn’t even have to look at the frickin’ OED or some specialized etymological work!

  9. I’ve heard the Good-god connection as a conflation in the case of “Good Friday” and “goodbye” but not as the origin of “good” itself.

  10. Richard Hershberger says

    I too considered writing about Safire’s column this week, as it is bad even by his normal low standards. But he is such a slow-moving target… About the only easier targets nowadays are Robert Hartwell Fiske and the LSSU Banished Words list. (Does anybody miss John Simon’s language commentaries? No? I didn’t think so.)
    But in any case, I dispute the characterization of Safire as “frequently amusing”. Occasionally informative I’ll buy. His columns will be a gold mine for some future graduate student working on late 20th century political terms. But amusing? I skim his pieces to see if he has anything interesting to say. Most of the time he doesn’t.
    As always, I’m putting in a plug for Jan Freeman’s language column in the Boston Globe. She is interesting, informative, thoughtful, and actually checks her work before sending it to the printers.

  11. I seem to recall hearing small children use the form “I’m good” to mean “I’m a good girl” or “I didn’t do it” or “Don’t punish me.” Usually the accompanying affect would be fear or anxiety.
    Not that Safire was thinking of this, but it did ring a bell with me.

  12. Safire does have assistants, or at least he once did, since one of them once emailed me for information on something or another.
    Well, I guess all I really know is that someone claiming to be one of Safire’s assistants emailed me. And as I recall, the topic I was asked about never made it into a column.

  13. dungbeetle says

    I be guessing that the NY Times be without the funds to have a copy of OED on house call. I wonder, does it just rely on MS spell Check ? Using an OED, would that be considered plagarism, to quote from known Quality sources, or be even be considered to being a traitor, to even think of using the Word, Oxford, Just asking.

  14. Ian Myles Slater says

    Perhaps William Safire is describing an invented language, superficially identical to English in appearance, but differing in history, with its own grammatical rules and etymologies, offering different shades of meaning in every sentence.
    The collected results would no doubt be a tome worthy of Borges.
    The real question then would be why Mr. Safire is trying to pass off this extrordinary effort of imagination as merely a series of not-very-good columns on the correct use of English.

  15. I can think of three ways he might have made this up.
    One is misanalysing/misremembering the etymology of gospel. It comes from godspel (there should be a macron over the o but I don’t have my IPA typing cheat sheet here and I can’t find it), i.e. ‘good news’, ultimately a calque from Greek. If he took it as godspel without the macron and made up a compound of God-news he might have made a connection that way.
    Or, maybe he’s remembered the Irish-English euphemism “the Dear knows” (for “God knows”) and has equated ‘dear’ with other warm and fuzzy adjectives.
    Or maybe he’s heard of lengthened grades and ablaut and doesn’t know what they mean.
    But I like Ian’s solution better.

  16. Aside from the fact that all major rags let MS Spell Check determine their orthographic style (I speak as a former Time Inc. proofreader, unjobbed by machines in ’91), note that the Times house style automatically changes any use of “such as” to “like.” Oh, and the fact that they capitalize “champagne” really irks me, for some reason. The paper is of course blameless in every other respect.

  17. Daniel 11:32: And [such as >] like do wickedly against the covenant shall he pervert by flatteries…
    I hate stupid automatic changes, and I agree with you about champagne. Caps for the region, l.c. for the drink.

  18. Safire’s ‘On Language” columns are not proof-read but sent to the printer exactly as Safire wrote them. Safire insisted on this as a condition for writing the column.

  19. Wow. If that’s true, the Times should be ashamed of itself. That’s a real abdication of their responsibility.

  20. Hmm. A dig in the archives (I’m not insisting on a medal for this, tho I consider it distinctly above and beyond the call of duty) finds Safire referring fairly often to the process of being copyedited — most recently Nov, 20:
    “”Cover version still hasn’t quite transcended its purloinious (is that a word?) roots,” says Rob Hoerburger, a former music critic at Rolling Stone. (Rob, who has since risen to chief copy editor at The New York Times Magazine, has saved me from countless embarrassments, and you can blame him for any mistakes in today’s column. ”
    I’d guess that Safire has something pretty near absolute veto power over queries and suggested changes. We don’t see the crap that gets caught — just the mountain of stuff that gets through.
    I do wish they’d ease the Safire column out the door (or just tell it its poetry smells and kick it downstairs). It’s sort of like having an astrologer write your weekly science column.

  21. Ah, that makes more sense. You are hereby awarded the LH Above and Beyond Medal. And your final analogy is extremely apposite.

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