I’m sorry, I know we just did this last week, but dammit, I can’t let this stuff go uncorrected. In today’s column he discusses a certain negative prefix:

That got me wondering about ir- words, from irresponsible to irreverent, and irrespective to irrational. There’s no doubt about the meaning of the prefix ir-; it means “not.” Why, then, don’t we use the standard prefixes that turn around a word’s meaning, like in- or un-?
The reason is that language is created to fit the mouth. It is easier to pronounce irresolute than inresolute or unresolute, which is why those clunkier forms never got off the ground. Somewhere in the mist of early mouthings, English speakers found the n uncomfortable before words beginning with r. So – why not scrap the “inr,” with its two separate sounds, and go with a simple “ir-“? In most cases we dropped the n of in-, leaving only the i, pronounced “ih.” Then, because spelling is the handmaiden of pronunciation, when it came to writing down the way the word sounded, we decided to double the r.

I think I’ve already used the phrase “mindbogglingly stupid” to describe a Safire column, and I hate repeating myself, so let me ask him one simple question: if it’s a question of English phonology, how come we say inroads instead of irroads and unresolved instead of urresolved? Answer: because it’s not a question of English phonology, as he could have found out by looking at a dictionary, any dictionary. Let’s try irrational. What does Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate say? Why, it says “Middle English, from Latin irrationalis, from in– + rationalis rational.” So we’re talking about Latin phonology. Yes, Virginia, Latin did have an assimilation rule that changed n+r to rr (and n+l to ll, which is why we say illiberal and illiterate); that’s why only words derived from Latin show this assimilation. Now, was that so hard? Again I ask: does nobody at the Times dare question the man?


  1. You should do that column! Get on the phone and tell the NYTimes!

  2. I think if I had given his explanation in high-school (or for that matter, junior secondary school) Latin test, I’d have been marked down.
    (And then there’s n+p/b to mp/mb.)

  3. That is simply astounding. I always thought knowledge of Latin was a basic entry requirement to the old-school prescriptivists club.

  4. damn, I wish I hadn’t read that fume fume fume Steve you should definitely replace Safire. Maybe we could set up a resolution at the LSA next year.
    Let’s hope he never notices the -al/-ar dissimilation rule (familiar, labial, alveolar, etc).

  5. Huh. I never noticed that -alis/-aris business. But it seems that some roots with non-final l obey it (luminaris) and some don’t (legalis). Also, what about English “familial”? There is no *familialis in Latin, but the word must have come from somewhere. Was it a conscious coinage? AFAIK this -ar is not productive in English.

  6. The rule was quite productive in Latin and almost all the exceptions are later coinages in English (familiar was borrowed; familial is coined in English). There are a few blocking conditions in Latin, which I’m afraid I can’t remember, and can’t find in my quick search on my computer.

  7. What amazes me is that he’s related to a real actual linguist, who he could ask basic questions like this to — even a syntactician knows these things.
    (I was told that initially he asked his nephew questions, didn’t like or didn’t understand the answers, and stopped decades ago.)

  8. Those of us who only see this such Safire in the process of being furffued do tend to wonder why anyone ever reads his drivel in the first place. Surely the NYT has more than enough stuff to be selective. (Personally, we’d start by selecting a proper ‘bladet with proper cartoons, but that’s just us.)

  9. I could get more sense out of someone in any pub! 🙂

  10. And what about that last sentence? How does “spelling is the handmaiden of pronunciation” even pretend to explain the double “r”?

  11. I suspect that when Safire started the column he was genuinely enthusiastic about it, but over the years the gradual realization of how little he knew about the subject, plus the natural fading of interest produced by doing anything over and over for years, mean that he’s been phoning it in for some time now. Has the paper not noticed, or do they not care?

  12. I question the assumption that Safire even pens these pieces in the first place. Quite a few well-known columnists have been known to farm out the actual work to underpaid interns. At this point Safire probably does little more than peruse a final draft and suggest some edits.

  13. That has a horrid plausibility. Every time I think I’ve reached the depths of cynicism, the floor sinks a little farther.

  14. I now notice that he’s in the Interverynational Ex-Pat Huffenpuff Times, but I’ll ignore it.

  15. Alternative hypothesis: Any intern who could produce a column like Sunday’s ought to have a much better-paying job by now, as he or she has perfect pitch when it comes to imitating the boss. One senses the hand of the master in that one. (Unless the interns have been at it long enough to recycle their own nonsense as deftly as he recycles his.)
    Happy to join the Draft Hat in ’06 campaign!

  16. That is utterly bizarre. A local paper, a soft furnishings journal, a sudoku compendium, could get away with printing that without anyone noticing. But… Surely somewhere in the process of publishing these chip-wrappers in a national newspaper there is someone with the most rudimentary acquaintance with Latin?
    They must get so many letters pointing out what rubbish he talks. Doesn’t any underling even dare to spend one minute checking a dictionary?

  17. Richard Hershberger says

    “I suspect that…he’s been phoning it in for some time now.”
    He has published numerous collections of these essays over the years. They are the sort of book local libraries tend to have gathering dust. I haven’t looked at one in ages, but my recollection is that they were pretty uninteresting even early on. Steven Pinker wrote comparatively nice things about him, but that was in contrast to John Simon, so perhaps that isn’t saying much.
    I’ll have to take a look the next time I am at the library.

  18. I had a look at one of his compilations recently. He at least had the decency to include some letters and e-mails that he’d received, correcting him. His writing was quite jolly, but even I (complete amateur) could spot mistakes.

  19. On advice of my lawyer and in the interest of comity, I usually don’t do political ranting at LH, but I would like to warn people against assuming that he’s any better as a political writer.

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