It’s been a while since I last lambasted William Safire, so let’s take a look at his latest bout of lexicoskepsis, “Gifts o’ Gab”. This week he’s doing his annual Xmas-book column, and he begins by recommending the newly issued Volume IV of the Dictionary of American Regional English. Fine with me, I hope he sells people on it (though it’s hardly a “bargain at 90 bucks”)—but he refers to the dictionary as “the set that no library can afford to absquatulate.” Sorry, my lad, but absquatulate is an intransitive verb; to quote the American Heritage Dictionary,

INTRANSITIVE VERB: Midwestern & Western U.S. 1a. To depart in a hurry; abscond: “Your horse has absquatulated!” (Robert M. Bird). b. To die. 2. To argue.

It doesn’t mean anything like ‘do without,’ which is what you were trying, with your usual clumsy jocularity, to convey.
He goes on to recommend several other books, some of which (like the two by Fiske) sound like a rehash of the usual useless maxims (short words are better than long!—well, sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t) and some of which (Metcalf and Bryson) sound interesting. He likes the fact that Bryson corrects his use of “munch” (one of Safire’s winning characteristics is his willingness to acknowledge error), but he goes on:

Bryson and I part company on begging the question, which he accurately describes as presenting as proof something that itself needs proving, like the logical fallacy ”parallel lines will never meet because they are parallel.” He abandons the ramparts with ”I am inclined to think that insisting absolutely on the traditional sense is more a favor to pedantry than to clarity.”….In my book, if you mean ”raise the question” or ”pose the question,” say so; but if you mean ”that’s a phony argument that turns in on itself,” say ”beg the question.”

This is one of those issues that is catnip to the adolescent language-lover but which a sensible person grows out of. I too used to enjoy tormenting people with the “truth” about the phrase, but I eventually realized that, whatever its origins in philosophy and petitio principii, I had never seen or heard the phrase used “correctly” except by people making a point of doing so (cf. “hoi polloi”); in current English usage, “beg the question” means ‘raise the question,’ and that’s that. I got over it, and so should Safire. (An anguished appraisal by the earnest Michael Quinion of World Wide Words ends by saying the phrase is “better avoided altogether”; like Fowler’s similar recommendation concerning “hoi polloi,” this counsel of despair is a sign that the language has sailed on, leaving wistful archaists treading water and clutching at the stern.)


  1. Perhaps Mr. Safire was referring to a stubborn mind set holding that no library could afford to absq.?

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