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So jump right in an encounter a "delicious dialectic discovery" or examples of grammatical corruption, or a masterpiece of obfuscation. Get ready to do some etymological detective work. Position yourself as a pop grammarian and word maven. Become a lexicographer, neologic Nellie, word nerd, phrasedick or amateur etymologist.
Join the Gotcha! Gang who are obsessed with accuracy and a lust for catching error in others. Push some grammatical envelopes, enjoy elegant locutions and give proper obeisance to sloppy usage that has reached the refuge of idiom.
The examples of misused or obscure words and creative grammar range from the mildly interesting to the hysterically funny. Have you ever analyzed the lexicon of layoff including the terms downsized, rightsized, cashier, discharge, sack, bounce, give the heave-ho, can, rif, ax, walking papers, restructure, re-engineer, work-force imbalance correction and just plain fired?
Have you ever contemplated the difference between a flap, a caper and a scandal? Find out the origin of noogies and wedgies. Learn about the Irish history of "shenanigans". Review the difference between prone and supine. No public figure is immune from criticism, including presidents, first ladies, actors and television personalities. Safire also includes plenty of letters from readers pointing out his errors. Too bad the book was compiled before "W's" ascension to the presidency. Surely Safire's collection of George's blunders and bloopies is growing day by day.
Safire's collection will remind you that our language is a living, evolving volatile organism representative of our culture and place in history. I highly recommend this book to anyone curious or interested about language trends.
The essays are arranged alphabetically by title, and not by date of publication (in fact the publication dates are nowhere to be seen) which makes the mixture all the more appealing. Thus the first one ("Adultery and Fraternization") is no closer chronologically to us than the last ("On Zeenes and Mags"). At least I don't think it is.
The title of the book derives from a column by the same name, which starts by analyzing "anomaly," checks in on the difference between "arcane" and "archaic," touches on "plunk," and finally tells us about Sen. Faircloth's colorful similes: "like eating ice cream with a knitting needle," "like skinning a hippopotamus with a letter opener," and "like teaching a kangaroo to do the limbo."
The comments made by his readers can be both profound and hilarious. Following a essay on Fowler's two revisions (of all things), F. J. Ortner took exception: "You stated that "tergiversation" comes from the Latin for "turning back." I think that should have been "turning the back." The word comes from "tergum," the back, and "versare" or "vertere," to turn. "Tourner le dos" instead of "reculer." Oh, my!
Following an essay on words and phrases used to describe nutsiness and madness, Nina Garfinkel of New York, pointed out a couple of expressions which Safire included in the book, and which I have appropriated for my own use: "He's out there where the buses don't run," and "the cheese fell of his cracker a long time ago."
This is a wonderful book to give to anyone with a love for words and thoughts and knowledge and humor. It is full of extraordinary flavors and textures, it is funny and serious, and a grand entertainment.
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Whether you're deciphering an archaic term from the first days of the Republic or reading today's headlines, Safire's dictionary is a valuable and entertaining resource. You'll be tempted, as I was, to read it through from A to Z like a novel. Even everyday words and phrases like 'perks,' gridlock,' and 'rhetoric' have interesting derivations, while obscurities like 'thumbsucker,' 'magnet issue,' and 'break all the china' illustrate the surprising (to anyone stuck watching TV news) richness of the American political landscape.
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What Safire does with this list is to quote generally agreed upon memorable speeches and list them by category, speeches of patriotism, revolution and war, tributes and elegies, debates, trials, gallows and farewell, sermons, inspirational, lectures, social responsibility, finally closing with speeches of media, politics, and commencement. Each category has some dozen examples, with a prefatory explanatory essay per. Some speeches have the added advantage of having been popularized in the media by recording or rehearsed performance. I can still hear Marlon Brando as Mark Antony in 'Julius Caesar' rousing the crowd to a killing frenzy: 'If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.' Shakespeare used every one of Safire's requirements. Getting Brando to say them was just a bonus. Who can forget Chief Joseph's closing words of the agony he felt over the destruction of his people by the white man: 'From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.' Then there is FDR's war declaration against Japan, replete with its sonorous cadences that begin with the critical phrase, 'day of infamy.'
Great speeches are often not great until after the fact. Lincoln felt that his speech at Gettysburg was a failure since it met only polite applause. Others generate the unmistakable cachet of greatness right away. Reading LEND ME YOUR EARS will not make you a great speaker, but it can give clues as to how and why the power of the spoken word can shake societies to their core.