Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Words of the wise

I can’t let the recent deaths of two wordsmiths who were hugely influential to me pass without a blog post.

William Safire, a long-time columnist for The New York Times and a speechwriter for former US president Richard Nixon, died this past weekend. In addition to his political commentary, he wrote a weekly column for the Times Magazine, “On Language”, in which, in a rollicking fashion, he examined trends in jargon and slang, researched changes in usage, and to quote the Times’ obituary, “gleefully pounced on gaffes, inexactitudes, neologisms, misnomers, solecisms and perversely peccant puns”. When I was a copyeditor at American Vogue, my boss Donna and I lived in fear of seeing editorial on which we had signed off appear in his column. (Happily we never did.)

He also coined a few wonderful phrases, most notably “nattering nabobs of negativism” for a speech by Nixon’s first vice president, Spiro Agnew. That phrase alone shows the power of words: I couldn’t tell you anything about the scandals that drove Agnew out of office, or indeed much else about the man, but I’ll always associate him with “nattering nabobs”.

Two weeks earlier a writer of a different ilk, Jim Carroll, died. He’s best known for the song “People Who Died”, recorded with his late-‘70s band, and his prose book The Basketball Diaries, in which he described life as an adolescent basketball star, smack addict, part-time hustler, and nascent poet.

I won’t wax lyrical about how The Basketball Diaries altered my views of writing and galvanised my own efforts, except to say that in both his prose and his poetry, Carroll made every word count, and he didn’t flaunt his vocabulary for the sake of it. His prose in particular favoured hard-working Anglo-Saxon words rather than fancier Latinate near-equivalents. He was able to communicate the beauty of the everyday by communicating with everyday language—which is why it’s difficult to get the full effect of his writing by quoting a random passage out of context.

In differing ways, both Safire and Carroll made me more conscious of how effective words can be when wielded properly, and how wasteful it is to use them unthinkingly or lazily. Words are tools, and whether we’re using them to sell a product or make a joke or set a mood, we need to make sure that we control them, rather than let them run amok.

I’ll let Jim Carroll have the last word, with a quote from an interview he gave some years back: “The best thing to do is to transform knowledge into wisdom, and to transform ideals into principles.”--SC

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