This collection of 75 articles and reader responses from the author's weekly magazine column sheds light on the usage of many English words and phrases
There are connoisseurs. There are virtuosos. And then there are mavens. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer William Safire is the maven's maven. In this new collection from his New York Times Magazine column, "On Language," Safire - using alliteration, puns, and other tricks of the writer's trade - offers a cornucopia of words, phrases, slang, and grammatical oddities, proving once again why Time calls him "the country's best practitioner of the art of columny."Safire probes the surprising origins of such expressions as "kiss and tell," "people of color," "stab in the back," "bonfire of the vanities," and the whole nine yards. He attempts to explain what a White House press secretary meant when he announced, "We can't winkle-picker this anymore." He even explores tricky new usages of the word "fax." Quoth the maven: "In work conducted at home or at the office, the only certainties are death and faxes."Was George Bush (or speechwriter Peggy Noonan) the first to put "kinder and gentler" together? No, quoth the maven, who calls attention to similar incantations by Clarence Darrow, Mario Cuomo, and William Shakespeare. Safire also traces the evolution of "read my lips" and exposes the proud (or embarrassed) coiners of such terms as "lunatic fringe" and "nattering nabobs of negativism" (his own creation, he admits - an update of Adlai Stevenson's "prophets of doom and gloom").Never one to shrink from a challenge, the maven boldly seeks a source for George Bush's inexplicable expression "like ugly on an ape." The best he can find is Margaret Mitchell's "ugly like a hairless monkey" in Gone with the Wind. Fortunately, Safire is not alone in such lexicographic quests. A faithful corps of would-be mavens - including Cuomo, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Phyllis Schlafly, and Alistair Cooke - supply Safire with their own research and opinions.Knowledgeable, witty, and impeccably grammatical, William Safire's essays on language are an important and entertaining reference for mavens everywhere.