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Safire: 'Change' and Other Old Political Phrases

William Safire has been chronicling the political lexicon in his Safire's Political Dictionary for 40 years. In the book, the New York Times "On Language" columnist not only defines words and phrases like "earmark," "trial balloon" and "zipper problem," but also where they came from.

For example, "change," one of the biggest words in this year's presidential race, was also flung around in the election of 1864.

"They took a famous phrase, 'Don't change horses in the middle of the stream,' to support Abe Lincoln against Gen. [George] McClellan," Safire tells Renee Montagne. "And the counter shot was 'change horses or drown.'"

Many of the phrases in Safire's dictionary, which has just been released with its first update in 15 years, contain an initial definition, and then its opposite. So, a "'fact-finding trip' leads to a 'truth squad' that usually shoots holes in a fact-finding trip," he says.

'A Hail of Dead Cats'

"What the political language looks for is word pictures," Safire says. "For example, when somebody leaves 'under a cloud'. That's been used so often that it lost its punch. But when you say someone leaves in 'a hail of dead cats,' all of a sudden that'll wake somebody up. A vivid metaphor can make a speech and also it can make a charge."

Alliteration can also be effective in the political arena, Safire says. President Eisenhower had used "prophets of gloom and doom," Safire notes. So when he was a speechwriter for Vice President Spiro Agnew, Safire created the phrase "nattering nabobs of negativism" to describe defeatists in the Vietnam War era. The phrase was later applied to the media.

Safire, who notes that he's been described as a "vituperative right-winger nut," prides himself on not taking sides when it comes to defining political language. So he doesn't hesitate to call waterboarding a form of torture.

"When I put on my lexicographic hat, the dictionary writer, I try to work it right down the middle. And I've been scrupulous about that. I think somebody who turns to a dictionary should get it straight and bipartisan."

'A Corrupt Bargain'

Words and phrases come and go, but some come back into use after fading into obscurity.

"We're all talking about, will there be a deal made at the Democratic convention?" Safire says. He notes that Jon Meacham of Newsweek said it could be a "corrupt bargain." That's a reference to the 1824 convention, "when Henry Clay got together with John Quincy Adams and they joined forces and they defeated Andrew Jackson," Safire says. "As a result, Clay became the secretary of state, in what was called then a 'corrupt bargain.'"

"So we've reached back in history, pulled that phrase out and, believe me, if they try to make a deal in Denver ... whatever deal is made will be denounced as a corrupt bargain," he says.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We've been hearing two words in this year's election: change and experience. You may not get both in the candidates, but you do in Safire's Political Dictionary. This guide to the uses and abuses of political language in America has gotten its first update in 15 years.

Of course, in his New York Times column "On Language," William Safire offers a weekly exegesis of emerging words and expressions. Many of them are rising from the world of politics. And we reached him at his office in Washington, D.C.

And thank you for joining us.

Mr. WILLIAM SAFIRE (New York Times): Greetings, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, let me put you on the spot. What is the best new word or phrase?

Mr. SAFIRE: Well, the trouble with that is that it takes a couple of months to get a book out. And as soon as you get a dictionary out, wham, new words come flying in. And I'm sitting here making notes already for the next edition.

MONTAGNE: Well, you could tell us the best new word that didn't get into the dictionary.

Mr. SAFIRE: All right. Well, you just mentioned the word change. That's a word that, it was used strongly in the Lincoln era when they took a famous phrase, don't change horses in the middle of the stream to support Abe Lincoln against General McClellan. And the counter shot was change horses or drown.

MONTAGNE: Well, you do actually have changing horses there. Although, what you say is, see: don't change horses. You actually do that throughout the book with certain words. For instance, I looked up the word oxymoron. You don't define it. You say, see: loyal opposition, splendid misery.

Mr. SAFIRE: Well, sometimes a good way to define something is to point out how it's used. When you say an oxymoron, which is the juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory words, I go for the use of some of them in politics, like, as you pointed out, loyal opposition.

MONTAGNE: What then does distinguish political language from plain, ordinary language? I mean, some many of your words and phrases seem to contain an initial definition and then its opposite. For instance, fact-finding trip.

Mr. SAFIRE: Well, a fact-finding trip leads to a truth squad that usually shoots holes in the fact-finding trip.

What the political language looks for is word pictures. For example, when somebody leaves under a cloud. That's been used so often that it lost its punch. But when you say someone leaves in a hail of dead cats, all of a sudden, that'll wake somebody up. And a vivid metaphor can make a speech, and also it can make a charge.

MONTAGNE: Well, the word alliteration, you define that word as the careful culling of consonants to pack a punch in politics.

Mr. SAFIRE: I kind of like alliteration. And when I was a speech writer, I came up with one, because Dwight Eisenhower had used prophets of gloom and doom to attack defeatists. And so I came up with nattering nabobs of negativism.

MONTAGNE: Whoa. I was just thinking of that one. I didn't realize you originated that expression.

Mr. SAFIRE: Well, I did. And, of course, I did it for it Spiro T. Agnew.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, vice president under Nixon.

Mr. SAFIRE: Right. And the code of the speech writers is you never claim a phrase. But the vice president did say, I got that from Safire. And it was either that or the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history. And he went with the better one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Well, for those who might not have been around to have heard that -because it was a big phrase in its moment - it was back in the early '70s.

Mr. SAFIRE: I used it to describe defeatists in the Vietnam War days. Then it was applied after that to the press, to the media.

MONTAGNE: You were known - and I think you'd embrace this - as a conservative. With any number of words, you make what amounts to a political choice about how you define them. It doesn't seem to fall on either the liberal or the conservative end.

For example, the word waterboarding. You define it straightforwardly as a form of torture.

Mr. SAFIRE: Absolutely. Because one thing I knocked myself in this dictionary -and I've been writing it for 40 years - is to set aside the fact that I'm a vituperative right-winger and nut, as many have suggested. But when I put on my lexicographic hat, the dictionary writer, I try to work it right down the middle. And I've been scrupulous about that. I think somebody who turns to a dictionary should get it straight and bipartisan.

MONTAGNE: One word in this dictionary someone might look up, macaca, a word that a lot of people learned even existed just a couple of years ago when Republican Senator George Allen was transformed into former Republican senator after he used that word. You don't define macaca. You send us readers directly to the word blooper.

Mr. SAFIRE: Right. Because bloopers cover the whole field of toe-stubbings and misspeakings. Now there are minor bloopers, like slips of the tongue, when President Bush said I'm misunderestimaetd. That's obviously a redundancy. But he realized that that was being used to poke fun at him, so he's used it again occasionally in a kind of ironic, self-kidding way. And in the cut and thrust of politics, words are tossed out and invite us to say, hey, wait a minute. Now, exactly what does that mean? And that's the function of a dictionary.

MONTAGNE: Do you think our world has changed with the rise of cable TV and…

Mr. SAFIRE: That's a good point. The blogosphere has had a terrific impact on spreading hot new words. And it's difficult to tell sometimes whether it's a nonce term - one that comes and goes - or it clings, gets spread around, and before long it becomes part of the language. Or it comes back from a long time ago.

We're all talking about will there be a deal made at the Democratic convention. And I saw Jon Meacham of Newsweek saying it could be a corrupt bargain. And that immediately harkened you to the 1824 convention, when Henry Clay got together with John Quincy Adams and they joined forces and defeated Andrew Jackson. And, as a result, Clay became the secretary of state, in what was called then a corrupt bargain.

So we've reached back in history, pulled that phrase out, and, believe me, if they try to make a deal in Denver - or Minneapolis, if the Republicans ever want to compete there - whatever deal is made will be denounced as a corrupt bargain. And those who've read this dictionary will immediately smile knowledgeably and say, I know where that came from.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: William Safire, thank you for joining us.

Mr. SAFIRE: Great pleasure.

MONTAGNE: William Safire has just updated his Safire's Political Dictionary for the first time in 15 years, and just in time for election 2008.

And you can find out where spinmeister came from and more political expressions at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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