William Lewis Safir (1929 – 2009)*

*better known as William Safire, was an American author, columnist, journalist, and presidential speechwriter. He was a long-time syndicated political columnist for The New York Times and wrote the “On Language” column in The New York Times Magazine about popular etymology, new or unusual usages, and other language-related topics.

From WordSense.eu:

” ▪ 1677 “Horace acknowledges that honest Homer nods sometimes” (Dryden, Preface to The State of Innocence)

▪ 1709. Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism (poem):

▪ Those oft are stratagems which errors seem, Nor is it Homer nods, but we that dream. (Essay on Criticism)”

On April 2, 2006, he wrote:

“In his Ars Poetica, written about eight years before the Common Era, Quintus Horatius Flaccus — we call him Horace for short — took a flaccid pop at a Greek poet who wrote a couple of best sellers eight centuries earlier (the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” grist for Hollywood screenwriters nearly three millennia later). Horace noticed the reappearance of a character whom the author killed off previously in the epic, and noted in Latin, “Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus,” translated as “Even good old Homer nods.”

Sometimes Homer not only nods but falls fast asleep and slips off his pedestal. Here are a few of my recent mistakes pointed out by members of the newly formed Horace Society, a group of correcting souls gentler than the Gotcha! Gang:

You Could Look It Up’

This is a useful admonition that I attributed to the master malapropist Casey Stengel, manager of four major-league baseball clubs, even using it as a title of a collection of these columns. He indeed said it. “In his old age,” reports Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes, “Stengel was asked how he was doing. He sighed and said: ‘Not bad. Most people my age are dead. You could look it up.”‘ However, a Horace Society member, Allan Silver, points out that a generation earlier, in 1941, James Thurber wrote a short story for The Saturday Evening Post (he wasn’t only at The New Yorker), which Stengel presumably read, about a desperate baseball team that used a midget as a pinch-hitter. Its title: “You Could Look It Up.” So thank Stengel for popularizing it, but attribute the minatory classic to Thurber.

Not for Attribution

Now about attribute, the noun. In a column about the use of the word Saddamists by President Bush in lieu of “Saddam loyalists,” I opined that the change was made “because loyalty, even to a tyrant, can be seen as an attribute.” No less a Horace Society member than Jacques Barzun wrote: “Of course it can, but that’s not what you mean. Red hair or second sight would also be attributes. You mean favorable attribute and must use some such adjective to make your point.”

Is an attribute a quality, positive or negative, ascribed to a person, as Jacques and several others insist? Or is it, as the O.E.D. reports as a second sense, “distinguished quality or character; honor, credit, reputation ascribed.” Shakespeare used it that way in “Hamlet”: “It takes from our achievements. . .the pith and marrow of our attribute.” I think that old, upbeat sense is overtaking today’s first, neutral one, but it’s not my job to hasten language change; for now, I pledge to treat attribute as a characteristic that can be either good or bad.

Pardon My French

In a column on the word cronyism, I wrote, “Compere, French for ‘godfather,’ is used in Britain to mean ‘master of ceremonies.”‘ No; as a legion of “Sopranos” watchers pointed out, the French word for “godfather” is parrain; that was the French title of the movie “The Godfather.” Compere has a sinister connotation as “accomplice,” a friendlier one as “comrade” or “crony.”

We Are All Phrasedicks Now

In an exegesis of the We are all. . .now construction, I credited coinage to the Nobel economist Milton Friedman, who startled his conservative colleagues in 1965 with “We are all Keynesians now,” a concession to a liberal economic thinker on a par with the transcendentalist Margaret Fuller’s “I accept the universe,” which drew the response “By God, she’d better!” from Ralph Waldo Emerson or Thomas Carlyle. (I don’t have a dog in that dispute.)

A bunch of Horaces pointed to the use by King Edward VII in 1895 of “We are all socialists now,” but Fred Shapiro, compiler of the Yale Dictionary of Quotations promised this fall, will credit coinage of that to the progressive Sir William Harcourt, leader of the Liberal Party, in the House of Commons on Aug. 12, 1887. A few putative Horacites pointed to Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to impose national unity on a fractious republic in his 1801 Inaugural Address: “We are all Republicans — we are all Federalists.” But it doesn’t count because he didn’t say now.

No Point in Poinsettias

Poinsettias, the pronunciation of which I pointed out pointedly did not start out with point nor dropped the ee (say “poyn-SET-ee-uhs”), drew hoots from fans of our eponymous diplomat in Mexico, J.R. Poinsett, as well as the poinsettia growers of Encinitas, Calif. That was because I defined the new emblem of the holiday season as “a hardy, inexpensive, red-leafed plant.” “Aha!” shouted Horace members. (Their battle cry is more triumphant than the Hooah! of the Gotcha! Gang, but friendlier than the nyahnyah of the Nitpickers’ League or its rump groups, the Nitpicker’s League and the Nitpickers League.)

Those seemingly red leaves are surely red, but they are not strictly leaves; red-faced botanists insist they are bracts, which seem like petals and surround the flower. The answer to “What color is a poinsettia flower?” is “Yellow.” The flower is blooming down there in the center of the bracts. You could look it up.”

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