A bit belated, but last Sunday’s Safire column is still online, so I’ll make a couple of comments. First off, the column is called “Janus Strikes Again” because he is under the impression that the phrase “stay the course” is, like sanction (‘approval’ or ‘punishment’) and oversight (“either ‘watchful care’ or ‘silly mistake’,” to use his glosses), capable of being its own antonym. He begins with its fashionable current use:

“I was able to assure them,” President Bush said after his Thanksgiving visit to the U.S. troops at Baghdad airport, ”that we were going to stay the course and get the job done.” A few weeks before, Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, told the press that those attacking our forces were ”trying to sow fear and chaos so that we do not stay the course.” (Tony Blair, the British prime minister, prefers ”see through to the end” and ”stick with it.”)

He traces this back to the 1870s (The Times of London, 1879: ”Jockeys who have ridden him think he cannot stay the course”; an 1873 New York Times account about Dartmouth’s crew: ”All question as to their staying the course was set at rest”), then springs his trap:

But wait—are we going off the semantic track? Zimmer notes that ”before this period, citations for stay the course invariably have the countervailing sense of ‘to stop or check the course (of something).”’ He offers up Edgar Allan Poe, in his 1835 ”Arabesque” tale ”King Pest the First”: ”But it lay not in the power of images, or sensations . . . to stay the course of men.”
From then on back, it’s arresting all the way. The meaning of stay when associated with course meant ”stop.” John Baker, a lawyer in Washington, sent in an 1802 citation from a South Carolina case insisting that ”the suspending acts operated only to interrupt and stay the course of the act of limitations.” The English dramatist and poet Christopher Marlowe noted in 1588 how his tragic character Dr. Faustus turned back: ”Hee stayed his course, and so returned home.”

What he’s missing here is that the two uses can never be confused, even without semantic context, because they are different grammatical constructions. The older sense always occurs with an explicit reference to the person or thing whose course is being stayed: stay his course, or the course of the act of limitations. The modern sense, by contrast, cannot so occur; it is always “stay the course” tout court. You can call these twin usages, but not a single two-faced one.
And one more thing. Regular readers will know that I deplore picking on people for violating so-called “rules of grammar” trumped up by frustrated Latinists and based not on the facts of English usage but on some imagined logic or consistency. Violating the true rules of English is another, and rarer, matter; it’s not common simply because those rules are ingrained in us long before we pick up a grammar book, and we follow them automatically. Thus it is of some interest that William Safire, the Grammar Guru, blatantly violates the English verbal system in this sentence:

Even before 1591, when William Lambarde complained that his client had been ”baited, and bitten with libels and slanders that be not actionable,” that word has meant ”subject to an action at law,” legalese for ”you have just furnished me grounds for a lawsuit.”

The basic fact about the “present perfect” tense (has meant) is that it must be tied, explicitly or implicitly, to the present moment, whereas the simple past is tied to the past. You can say either “I went to Paris” or “I have been to Paris,” but in the former case you’re setting the trip at some past time, unmentioned but none the less definite; in the latter you’re positing it as a fact about your present state: it doesn’t matter when you went, the point is that you are someone who has been there. If this all sounds unclear, there is a very simple test—if the time of the event is mentioned, the simple past must be used. You can only say “In 1995 I went to Paris,” not “have been.” This is a very common mistake among those who learn English as a second language, but the distinction is second nature to English speakers, the vast majority of whom would be unable to explain to you why they use one form or the other. In this case, the phrase “before 1591” cuts the tie to the present and requires the use of the simple past: before 1591 the word meant ”subject to an action at law.” Now, I am not chastising Safire for making a mistake in verb use; precisely because it is a mistake almost impossible for an English speaker to make spontaneously, I am certain that it is the result of sloppy editing (he started, perhaps, with “Since before 1591… that word has meant,” then decided “since before” was awkward and changed it to “even before” without reading the sentence over to make sure it still worked). (Another, more banal, example of poor editing is the earlier sentence “The meaning of stay when associated with course meant ‘stop’ [bold added].) What I find interesting is that he would probably be less embarrassed about breaking this, a real rule of the language, than about breaking one of the factitious ones his Gotcha Gang is always rubbing his nose in, precisely because he can’t explain why this is wrong, whereas the fake ones have clear reasons (which is why people make them up and believe them). There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

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