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The Maven, Nevermore

Ben Zimmer on William Safire in his role as the NYT’s “On Language” columnist:

For more than 30 years, in more than 1,300 crisp installments, Safire used this space to create a singular voice, that of the “Language Maven,” as he styled himself. We lost that voice last month, but we are left with a rich and varied legacy that shaped how Americans talk about talk.

When Safire died and I wrote that he was one of my favorite writers and columnists, I got a slew of complaints from left-leaning DF readers. How could I say such good things about a man who, among other things, so strongly supported George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq?

Here’s the thing. I didn’t read his op-ed column because I agreed with him; I read it because I didn’t agree with him. Though I seldom agreed with his politics (and when I did, it was in favor of individual privacy and liberty), Safire was always thoughtful and his writing always playful. I feel it’s important to read the opinions of those with whom you tend to disagree, politically or otherwise.

But even if your politics and constitution are such that you could not abide his op-ed column, I don’t see how anyone who loves U.S. English didn’t cherish his Sunday “On Language” column as the national treasure that it was. 30 years! And he kicked ass until the very end.

Saturday, 10 October 2009