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Safire's New Political Dictionary Rev Sub Edition

4.9 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0679420682
ISBN-10: 0679420681
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Legendary language guru, author of more than twenty-five books, and Pulitzer-prize winning political columnist, William Safire is perhaps best known for his weekly "On Language" column for the New York Times. From slang to spin, Safire has for nearly four decades, shown us how the English language is a living, breathing and ever-evolving organism, that should never, ever be taken at face value. This is particularly true of the political jargon cast out by politicians, pundits, and the press. When Safire catches these colorful and slippery specimens of "polingo" in his lexicographer's net, his probing reveals them to be as curious and revealing of our historical past as our present. Want to know what the politicians are really saying, or trying to say? Then check out the newly revised edition of Safire's Political Dictionary--a magnum opus of U.S. political terminology. In it, Safire shares with readers his expert dissection of politico-speak to uncover its deeper meanings and broader significance. This fully updated reference volume is essential and highly entertaining reading for voters of all persuasions and just about anyone interested in American political culture. --Lauren Nemroff

Questions for William Safire

Amazon.com: What was your purpose in writing Safire's Political Dictionary? What do you hope that readers will gain from exploring the shallows and depths of American political vocabulary?

Safire: This is a language that can inspire or inflame. Goal number one is to help anyone watching or listening to the cut and thrust of political debate to catch the hidden nuances--the code words and dog-whistle politics that manipulate emotions. Goal Two: to provide readers with accurate, anecdotal definitions of earmark, murder board, robo call, slow-walk. The deepest purpose of this longterm love of my literary life (see alliteration) is to allow the voter to experience and enjoy the historical resonance of the latest slogans, the roots of our awful smears, the thoughtful talking pointsand stirring hoopla.

Amazon.com: Striped-pants diplomacy, lame duck, salami tactics, stalking horse, bedsheet ballot, and hail of dead cats. Why does the sphere of politics seem to produce some of the most robust and colorful language? You've even added a new term to our lexicon for political language: "polingo". Or is there also something particular about American English that lends itself to inventive turns of phrase, neologisms and catchy clichés?

Safire: A would-be leader or political journalist has to seize our attention with word-pictures that uplift or infuriate. "Leaving under a cloud" can’t compare with the metaphor of "in a hail of dead cats". American English delights in the transfer of sports terms to politics: that stalking horse is brother to the party wheelhorse as pols engage in horse-trading--but that dark horse can bolt and the front-runner may not be a shoo-in. (I learned that last word from a racetrack cop: when a group of corrupt jockeys form a pool to wager on a long shot, they hold back their mounts and "shoo in" the nag they bet on, which is why the term in politics means "sure winner".)

American presidents and their writers reach for those memorable metaphors. Lincoln, the best presidential writer, took a militant phrase suggested to him on the eve of Civil War--"the guardian angel of our nation"--and seeking to conciliate the South, changed it to "the better angels of our nature". When you know that, as I discovered when researching this book, you better appreciate the subtlety and poetry of his First Inaugural.

Amazon.com: Do you think it possible to write a truly objective political dictionary? Or did you find yourself imposing checks and balances?

Safire: Of course it’s possible if you’re willing to knock yourself out to be bipartisan. Not nonpartisan, which is colorless, nor partisan, which is slanted, and not even postpartisan, which I slipped in at the last moment before the Oxford printer snatched my final draft--a nice coinage taking over from above politics and is being applied to the Obama campaign.

I was for three decades a lonely writer on the right on the op-ed page of the New York Times, and in this dictionary, whenever modesty afflicts me, I cite as a source "a vituperative right-wing scandalmonger", a sort of nom de plume. However, in this determinedly down-the-middle dictionary, for every bleeding heart, knee-jerk, double-domed liberal, there is a mossback, troglodyte, hidebound conservative, as well as a contingent of me-too, mainstream, opportunist centrists.

Even within some entries, the reader will find colorful antonyms: the scholarly etymology of moonbat, born as an epithet hooting at leftists in 1999 and popularized two years later on the libertarian website Samizdata, gets fair and balanced treatment by my straight-faced analysis of wingnut, an updating of the 1960s"right-wing nut" used in a 1999 interview with website muckraker Matt Drudge.

Amazon.com: Which politicians were the most enjoyable to research and write about for this new edition? Have any documents or speech recordings come to light that significantly changed your perception of a particular historical figure or period since you last revised the dictionary back in 1993?

Safire: In the past century, nobody tops the two Roosevelts for colorful and historic coinages. President Theodore Roosevelt minted bully pulpit and big stick, still in active use today, swung lunatic fringe from the fashion world to politics and borrowed boxing's hat in the ring; Teddy also popularized weasel words, pussyfooting, parlor pink and mollycoddle. FDR more than matched his cousin: arsenal of democracy, four freedoms, rendezvous with destiny (based on the poet Alan Seeger's "rendezvous with death") were only the beginning; because I had the chance to interview FDR speechwriters Samuel Rosenman and Raymond Moley forty years ago, readers today can get some insight into the origins of New Deal, nothing to fear but fear itself, and day of infamy. (Speechwriters, even those of us with a passion for anonymity, don’t always agree on credit.)

Say what you like about Nixon (silent majority, lift of a driving dream, workfare) but the Watergate scandal that ended his administration spawned the Golden Age of Political Coinage: cover-up, Deep Throat, deep-six, enemies list, firestorm, plumbers, smoking gun, twisting slowly, slowly in the wind--the list goes on and the phrases are in current use.

Reagan gave us evil empire, make my day, morning in America, there you go again and was slammed with sleaze factor and amiable dunce). The elder Bush had read my lips, line in the sand, thousand points of light, kinder and gentler nation and was hit with wimp factor, out of the loop and voodoo economics.

Bill Clinton had Comeback Kid, triangulation, war room and was attacked with Hillarycare, Whitewater, and the lingo of Monicagate. The younger Bush --- Dubya--started with compassionate conservative, faith-based, and the soft bigotry of low expectations but was soon embroiled in the war on terror, axis of evil, regime change, freedom agenda, misunderestimate, stay the course, and surge.

In answer to your question, I enjoyed it all.

Amazon.com: Out of nearly 550,000 words, do you have any particular favorites? Is there a word or phrase from the first edition, published forty years ago, that has regrettably fallen out of favor, but really merits resurrection?

Safire: I get a kick out of the proverbs of politics and present my collection of about fifty of them with pride. The older ones include Woodrow Wilson's Never murder a man who's committing suicide. And I found the origin to Fiorello LaGuardia's Ticker tape ain’t spaghetti. But here are a couple with follow-up kickers: Don't get mad, get even was attributed to the Kennedy clan, but its corollary is more profound: Don't get mad, don't get even, just get elected--THEN get even. Attributed to Harry Truman is the uncharacteristically cynical If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog. Its recent corollary, by Don Rumsfeld and revealed in this dictionary, is Better make it a small dog, because it may turn on you also.

Lost phrases? We live in an era of frenetic activity, which is too often is a substitute for steady action. In the 18th century, Sir James Mackintosh, famed for disciplined inaction, topped himself with masterly inactivity. In our time, George Shultz, Reagan’s Treasury Secretary, gave that a modern imperative: Don’t just do something, stand there..

Amazon.com: You call this dictionary your "labor of love." How do you feel about passing the baton off to a new editor when it comes time to work on the next edition?

Safire: A political lexicographer gets a secret thrill out of discovering the origin of a phrase that, but for his digging, might disappear into the mists of Newsweek. Sometimes you just stumble across it like one of the princes of Serendip: an example is selling candidates like soap, which never had a demonstrable printed "attestation". But looking for the origin of Oval Office, I stumbled across it in the Times archives: put forward by a supporter of a general for president in 1920. Col. William Proctor, scion of the Ivory Soap family, was the demonstrable coiner. A minor triumph, but mine own.

More important to this work was the result of a "fishhook"--a query placed in my Times Magazine "On Language" column for the coiner of "Social Security is the third rail of American politics--touch it and you die." Henry Hubbard of Newsweek and Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe agreed on the anonymous source: the late Kirk O'Donnell, an aide to Speaker Tip O'Neill, who used it to both journalists in 1984. Whew! The coiner's widow sent me a lovely, sentimental letter of thanks, which I suppose has no place in a dictionary, but I put it in anyway because my name is in this dictionary's title.

I hope the editor of the 2018 edition of this hefty volume is making notes about the election of '08, parsing Barack Obama's speeches ("Fired up! Ready to go!") and Hillary Clinton's debate ripostes and John McCain's adoption of FDR's warm my friends as his salutation. This work, like the language it covers, is great fun and never finished.

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From Library Journal

This first revision of New York Times columnist Safire's dictionary since 1978 ( LJ 10/1/78) includes many new popular phrases and jargon from the Reagan ( Teflon-coated President , Star Wars ), Bush ( Velco Presidency , new world order , thousand points of light , family values ), and even the Clinton ( weasel words ) administrations, bringing the total to 1800 in more than 1100 lengthy entries. Many older terms have been revised and updated (e.g., peace with honor ) or even added ( junta ). The classics ( dark horse , Dixiecoat ) remain. Not much official government language is found here, nor historical events or documents--for those, the user can go to Jay Shafritz's HarperCollins Dictionary of American Government and Politics ( LJ 6/1/92) or Milton Greenberg and Jack Piano's American Political Dictionary (Harcourt College Pub., 1989. 8th ed.). Paul Dickson and Paul Clancy's The Congress Dictionary ( LJ 9/15/93) confines itself mainly to the terminology of Capitol Hill. Here, Safire informs us in his own style about the unique terminology that has sprung up in our country's political climate. Highly recommended.
- Louise Stwalley, Univ. of Colorado at Denver Lib.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 930 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Reference; Rev Sub edition (October 19, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679420681
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679420682
  • Product Dimensions: 2.2 x 6.5 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,998,765 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

William Safire began his writing career as a reporter, became a speechwriter in the Nixon White House, and re-crossed the street to write an Op-Ed column in the New York Times for the next three decades. He also wrote the weekly "On Language" column in the New York Times Magazine. He was a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for commentary and the Medal of Freedom.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
You will love this whopper of a book - all 896pp! William Safire belongs to the delightfully patrician generation of political insiders alongside the likes of radio columnist Alistair Cooke Alistair Cooke's America and Ted Sorenson, speechwriter and adviser to JFK. Safire, who has contributed his own fair share of speeches on the Republican side, (it was he who added alliterative relief to Spiro Agnew's barren verbal landscape through phrases such as "nattering nabobs of negativism") has a keen ear for political language and he rises above partisanship simply because he is fascinated by the provenance and meaning of political language. As he points out, a political dictionary is fascinating because the language has been chosen to either inspire or inflame - it is rich, sometimes explosive emotive fuel.

- This very complete dictionary, fully updated, provides a rich journey and explains where so many of our commonly used and extremely colorful phrases really come from.
- It is comprehensive: reaching back to historic phrases, that go back beyond the original era of pork-barrel politics, and coming right up to the present to include the words of McCain, Clinton and Obama.
- It highlights the hidden agendas behind the language we hear: the phrases designed to make headlines, the sayings that are used to bring a folksiness to our sometimes aloof politicians.
- The dictionary does this with real panache. Safire is part wit, part journalist and part investigator - and he makes great company for the reader. It is a treat to dip into.
Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
What is the significance of a president's 'First Hundred Days'? What is a 'spoiler,' and is it good or bad? And what the heck was a mugwump, anyway?
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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Format: Paperback
While this is a handy book to have around when you forget what "New Federalism" means, it's also much more than that. I read a portion of The Political Dictionary each day, and so you could say that this book functioned as an "intellectual devotional."

This edition of the Dictionary is fascinating, funny, and impressively up-to-date, with references to both McCain and Obama. (No "hockey moms," however.)

Speaking of presidential candidates, I want to emphasize that Safire has done a very good job of officiating his material and staying neutral. Yes, Safire is, of course, a Republican; his most recent column was "The Audacity of Hype," and referred to how unimpressed Safire was with Obama's nomination acceptance speech. (Hard to believe that this former speechwriter couldn't appreciate it, but anyway.) Having just gone through this superlative book with an attentive eye, I feel Safire treats his material fairly and with a penchant for the trenchant anecdote that illustrates his point brilliantly.

Highly recommended.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
If you are a political junkie like I am, some of the language used is a little out there. I haven't read this cover to cover, but what I had to look up explained things very well to me. I keep this with whatever political book I'm reading at the time and it make things a little more understandable. I would recommend this.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
How can one peruse the entries in this collection and marvel at the amount of research that must have gone into it? How can one not admire the style of writing that maintains a clear flow of thought through an immense diversity of topics? The word "Political" used in the title is broadly inclusive, definitions incisive. Safire's remarks on seemingly random topics reflect a mix of common sense and humor. Did you know that the expression 'Egg Heads" was used by Carl Sandburg at the beginning of the twentieth century, that the Monroe Doctrine was NOT a doctrine when it was formulated, that there is a paraphrasing of the Gettysburg address, as President Eisenhower might have composed it? Some of these entries may be familiar stuff, but I doubt lay readers (those who are not specialists in the field) can claim that they knew it all!

The collection could be a goldmine for those who need new material for after dinner speeches. In the classroom, the entries could change an ordinary coverage of a topic in history into an eye-opener. Those actively engaged in politics would find many examples to emulate or to avoid, as times might demand. As a presidential speech writer at the beginning of his career, William Safire had the training to recognize how public opinion is molded. Safire's awareness of what worked and what did not work, how individuals rose and fell in the public eye, is stimulating reading, to share with friends or enjoy at bedtime. You chuckle with him, and deplore that he is no longer there to share his insights.
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