The English language lost one of its most staunch (staunchest?) defenders this week when New York Times columnist William Safire died at age 79.
And the word choice question above is just the kind that Safire, a former speechwriter for President Richard Nixon, loved. His “On Language” column for The New York Times gave unerring guidance to readers about grammar, usage, punctuation and related issues. An “oracle of language,” the Times called him in the headline for its obituary.
He was also known for his commentary about politics, a staunch — that word again — conservative voice coming out of a bastion of liberalism. And the notices of his death portray him as that increasingly rare species in this polarized day and time, the conservative champion who had the near-universal respect of liberals. (He did, however, take some flak from the left in his final years for his columns which attempted to corroborate the link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden in the run-up to the Iraq war.)
But regardless of politics, it’s sad to note the passing of someone who loved the language as much as he did. In a time when 140-character tweets, texting (“idk, r u?”) and e-mails without a single capital letter chip away at its foundation (the kind of cliche Safire would’ve hated), our mother tongue needs all the back-up it can get.