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BOOK REVIEW : Like Ugly on an Ape: Romping in a Lexicologist's World : QUOTH THE MAVEN: More on Language from William Safire; By William Safire ; Random House; $25; 309 pages

September 10, 1993|CHRIS GOODRICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are, as far as I can tell, two inviolable rules in book publishing. The first: You can never lose money publishing books about cats; the second: If you can't acquire a cat book, get a language book.

These two oversize categories are on almost opposite poles of the literary spectrum, for where the typical cat book contains little but fluff, the typical language book contains not only fluff but bogey , kibosh , lagniappe , mope , googie , muddle , ciao , hermaphrodite brig , and like ugly on an ape .

Those are, at least, some of the words and phrases you'll find in "Quoth the Maven," a collection of William Safire's recent "On Language" columns for the New York Times and his ninth book on English usage (not counting a few more written with his brother, Leonard Safir.

Like its predecessors, the book is a marvelous romp through the obscure, the abused and the misunderstood, Safire having great fun not only with language but with the Lexicographic Irregulars (as Safire calls them) who second-guess the columnist or--thrill of thrills--catch him in a mistake.

You can bet, by the by, that many of those mistakes are deliberate: the elephant guns blaze following the publication of every questionable or erroneous usage, no matter how insignificant, and Safire no doubt enjoys the firestorm because it demonstrates so vividly the squishiness of grammatical "rules." Whenever Safire breaks a guideline submitted--and frequently invented--by Fowler or Strunk & White, you know the mail carrier's bag will scrape the pavement.

It seems, indeed, that few "On Language" columns fail to draw letters. When Safire noted in a column on the word "androgynous" that a "hermaphrodite brig" is a vessel "square-rigged forward and schooner-rigged aft," a boating enthusiast wrote to say that the sentence should have read "square-rigged foreward and fore and aft rigged aft"; when Safire proposed that the journalist who characterized Michael Dukakis as an "eat-your-peas" figure should receive hosannas for the coinage, a Parisian reader replied he was "stunned" to find Safire ignorant of the fact that "hosanna" means "Oh, save our souls" and is thus "never a shout of joy or admiration."

Some letter writers, of course, simply pass on interesting information, like the news producer who points out that Spanish-speaking interviewees often suffer in the news-bite age because they display a "penchant for never-ending phrases rich in connectives, clauses and sub clauses." The producer, Latino himself, isn't complaining about the flattening effect of television, oddly enough: he goes on to say that some Latino leaders have "fortunately" learned to speak in sound-bites, thus making the producer's job easier--and his news show, no doubt, much more dull.

The interplay between Safire and the Irregulars is, I think, a major reason that the "On Language" column stands up well over time and actually improves in book form, where readers are given even greater room to sound off. Safire has turned the column into a small democracy; he not only abjures the columnist's typically authoritarian voice, but opens the door to any intelligent comment, regardless of source. The eminent scholar Jacques Barzun, for example, makes frequent appearances in this volume, but his two cents carries no more weight--in fact, usually less weight--than knowledge passed on by a pilot who happens to have personal experience of "pushing the envelope" in a plane, or a doctor who can explain the emergency room phrase "at the newsstand" (which describes, graphically if gruesomely, a patient who no longer needs a newspaper subscription).

Safire even gives a reader the book's best line--the Irregular who comments on the that/which distinction by saying, "I concluded that that that that that editor used, rather than which, was essentially stronger."

Still curious about some of the words in the first paragraph? OK: kibosh appears to derive from the Gaelic for "death cap," an item put over a corpse's face; ciao is Italian, of course, and means "slave," shortened from a phrase meaning "I am your slave"; like ugly on an ape is a simile appearing in printed form thanks to George Bush, who picked it up in the Texas oil fields--and not, as many readers suggested, from "Gunsmoke," where the phrase was often used by Festus, Marshal Dillon's deputy. As for the derivations of bogey , mope , googie , and muddle --well, those are lagniappes you'll have to get from Safire himself.

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