Coming to Terms

Ever wonder where your brother-in-law obtained his impressively obscure knowledge about the origin of the term “juddering"? Or how your accountant, who generally prefers numbers to words, can correct your usage of “begging the question” with such alacrity? Their common source may be William Safire’s “On Language,” a regular feature in THE NEW YORK TIMES and more than three hundred other newspapers for twelve years. In this latest collection of columns, Safire enlightens us on proper usage, correct pronunciation, and the history of words. In his sometimes charmingly crotchety way, he gets to the bottom of idioms, appoints himself gatekeeper for foreign words seeking entrance into English, and investigates the all-too-familiar practice of verbal obfuscation, frequently drawing inspiration and examples from the political arena.

Not everyone will find this kind of information fascinating, of course, and even those who do are unlikely to read the volume from cover to cover. But the satisfaction on deftly slipping even one bit of lexographic minutia into a conversation may be enough to send you back to Safire for more. A colleague uses the term “CEO,” for example, and you casually tag it an initialism, not an acronym. You are able to inform a friend that “glamour” and “grammar” are etymologically the same word. Or you meet a fisherman from the deep South desperately searching for “wigglers” in the Northeast, and kindly suggest that, in that part of the country, he should be looking for “nightcrawlers” instead. Readers who want neither to impress friends nor assist visitors may still gain a sense of inner satisfaction from the information Safire offers. Imagine the thrill of knowing, when you hear “et cetera” mispronounced as “ek-setera,” that the error is an example of sound substitution rather than intrusive consonant. Such an experience may even inspire you to join the ranks of the Lexicographic Irregulars: Safire correspondents who offer him constructive criticism and polite indignation as well as further examples, but always with a sense of deep commitment to language and delight in its combinations and permutations.