Lost on language

28 Sep

I’m feeling quite lost today, linguistically speaking. For those of us obsessed by words, their origin, and their proper usage, yesterday was a sad day. Our favorite language maven, William Safire, passed away from pancreatic cancer.

I’m not sure I can summon the words that best capture how I feel. So, please, forgive me if my words are dull, without verve, and minus any clever alliterations. Frankly, I’m not up to it. Not that I ever expected to be up to his standards, but I’m disappointed that I can’t coax something more profound from my lexicon to memorialise him.

But I can share a few simple stories.

There was a deliberate pattern to my Saturday morning. Gym, coffee, New York Times (newsprint edition). Real estate section, the Lives column, the Ethicist, On Language, then random articles throughout the Saturday and Sunday editions. In essence, I saved Safire for last, so that I could savor the anticipation of his column.

Once, we were having breakfast at the diner, and I began exclaiming, “oh my god,” over and over.  I can’t fault my husband for looking alarmed. But it was only Safire, who had mentioned that my company, Factiva, “sometimes outgoogled Google.” I headed up PR for Factiva at the time and really felt that this time, he’d chosen the wrong word. Always would have been more accurate.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve noticed other bylines adorning On Language, but I was busy with the end of vacation, the beginning of a new season of work and a new year of school. I assumed Safire was on vacation (wasn’t he always off for a couple of weeks in August?). I didn’t know he was battling cancer. The news made me feel guilty.  I should’ve known. Friends pay attention, right?

Isn’t it funny that a writer can make you feel this way? I felt as close to him as any friend, a regular in the bar, a colleague at work. I’m convinced I knew him because I read his columns. Of course, I didn’t; but like his friends, I’ll now need to learn how to move on without him. Saturday mornings will be different.

It seems appropriate to let him have the last word, even in this blog post. Here’s the farewell column he wrote when he retired from the NYT Op-Ed pages. Watch out for the traps.


2 Responses to “Lost on language”


  1. Who’s On the Language Beat Now? | Flack Me - September 29, 2009

    […] Thieke’s remembrances of William Safire on her Words and Context blog – and others – raise the question, with Mr. Safire’s passing, of who has the language […]

  2. May I have a word? « Words and Context - March 14, 2010

    […] the New York Times. He follows in William Safire’s footsteps. And if you remember, I wrote a blog post following Safire’s death in […]

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