Once again, William Safire goes wandering through the vast countryside of the English language, stopping here to pluck a daisy and there to misidentify a tree. Today’s column begins with a thoroughly tedious mastication of the “Near East” vs. “Middle East” issue. Can there be anyone who hasn’t come across this before, either choosing one phrase or the other or deciding that it isn’t worth spending valuable brain cells on? But good W.S. can’t find anything else to maunder about, so he chews on this for awhile, citing uninteresting quotes and coming to unsurprising conclusions. There is, however, one novelty: after quoting several definitions of “Near/Middle East, now used interchangeably,” all variations on “the countries of Southwest Asia and Northeast Africa,” he delivers himself of the following thought: “I’d toss in Morocco and Tunisia.” Morocco and Tunisia? Does anybody reading this think they’re part of the Middle East? Bizarre, that’s what I call it.

On the other hand, he finishes up with an interesting examination of the phrase “walking on eggshells”; it turns out the earlier form is “walking on eggs,” which makes sense:

But the metaphoric meaning of the phrase is ”to walk with great care, lightly, tippy-toe, taking precaution not to offend.” In 1866, the abolitionist Wendell Phillips derided Senator Henry Wilson as ”of that cautious class who could walk upon eggs without breaking them.” In 1621, Robert Burton wrote in his ”Anatomy of Melancholy” of a man ”going as if he trod on eggs.” And around 1510, the Italian Ludovico Ariosto, in ”Orlando Furioso,” used the phrase ”calcar . . . l’uova”—”to tread on eggs.” Not shells, which are already broken, and you don’t have to be careful about breaking them. (Though I admit you have to be careful lest you cut your bare feet.)
The great old metaphor has been corrupted in current use, and I am pleased with this opportunity to set it right.

So Will goes 1 for 2, which definitely ups his batting average.


  1. Fraudian slip: the birds have walked away : ??

  2. Morocco?
    ….the Northern Africa Morocco? Or is there some other Morocco I don’t know about?
    I mean, I suck at geography (latitude? longitude? whutitude?) but I know where Morocco is. Christus.

  3. I had always assumed the shells were of eggs which had been blown.
    But really, should I take the word of someone whose basic general knowledge, and grasp of fact checking, is so lacking?
    He’s one grandmother who needs sucking lessons. Or not, as the case may be.

  4. I think Mr. Safire wants to use the term “Near/Middle East” to mean “majority Muslim countries plus Israel”. He did not mention that he also considers Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Indonesia to be part of the Middle East.

  5. I like it! “Indonesia: the Middle East that’s farther east than the Far East!” Sort of like “Krakatoa East of Java.”

  6. Well… On the up side, defining the “Middle East” as “all majority-Muslim countries, plus Israel” would have the positive effect of removing the Eurocentric geographical chauvenism of the term’s original sense. I guess.

  7. “Predominantly Muslim areas plus Israel”….Hmmmmm…..
    This all sounds like code to me, like “Urban”. I think Safire just means “Countries where there’s Ay-Rabs”. Not “Arabs” as a distinct cultural entity, but “Ay-Rabs”, as in “those really tan-looking burnoosey folk”. In other words “The Orient” all over again. Edward Said must be spinning in his office…..

  8. Mr. Safire clearly meant to “throw in” Monaco and Tuvalu rather than Morocco and Tunesia. He was thinking outside the box–rather audaciously, I’d say.
    Anyway, what ever happened to “Levant” and “Levantine”?

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