Book Review: Safire’s Let A Simile Be Your Umbrella

William Safire is perhaps the most widely read commentator on the English language writing today. His weekly On Language column appears in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. Safire’s column runs the gamut of language issues, covering etymology, usage, and grammar. It focuses on words and phrases that are in vogue or recently used by key political and media figures.

Let a Simile Be Your Umbrella is the 12th in the series of compilations of Safire’s column. Safire has been writing the On Language column since 1979 and turning out these compilation volumes on the average of once every two years since then.

Safire’s column is witty and topical. The wit survives in the compiled volumes, but some of the topicality is lost with the lag between the columns’ appearance in the Times and the publication of the book. Bill Clinton was still president when these columns were written, and the political asides appear a bit dated. The first column in the book for example, addresses language issues surrounding the 1997 Kelly Flinn scandal—the female B-52 pilot who got in trouble over an adulterous affair with an enlisted man. Other columns address verbiage used in the 1996 Clinton-Dole election campaigns. But language changes more slowly than politics and the basic points Safire makes about language remain topical.

The columns are short, quick reads. Most will only need a few minutes for each one. This makes the book ideal for bathroom reading, commuters, or any situation where one’s reading is apt to be interrupted.

Safire is definitely in the prescriptivist camp. He is not shy about rendering judgments about proper grammar and usage. For example, he takes a flight attendant to task for saying “we will be landing momentarily” when she means “we will be landing in a moment,” or better yet “we will be landing soon.” In another case he chides a CEO for discussing a “robust product cycle.” Sales can be robust, but cycles can’t. In most cases his distinctions are more a question of style than correctness, but you have to admire his tenacity in a battle that he will never win.

Safire rarely addresses etymology as a main topic, but often includes etymological comments alongside his usage recommendations. His column on the disappearing “New” in “New Jersey” includes several paragraphs on the origin of the state’s name (most know it comes from the Channel Island of Jersey, but probably don’t know that Jers is a corruption of Caesar and –ey is a suffix denoting an island. So Jersey is Caesar’s island.

In another case he traces the origin of “thinking outside the box” to a 1984 brain teaser created by a group of management consultants to demonstrate how preconceptions can inhibit creativity.

Since it’s a compilation, regular readers of the column will find little new here. One feature that regular readers will appreciate though is the inclusion of reader feedback in the form of letters. Safire includes reader commentary that he received after the column in question appeared in The Times. Often readers contribute additional information and examples of odd usages.

The collection of Safire’s books is a valuable resource for language research. While not intended as reference works, the sheer volume of words and phrases Safire has addressed over the years makes these volumes useful. If you have the earlier volumes, most of which are now out of print and available only through used-book outlets, you’ll want to acquire this one to keep the collection complete. One feature that would be nice would the publication of a consolidated index of all the volumes. Each volume contains its own index, and Simile is no exception, but checking twelve different indices each time you want to look up a word or phrase is a daunting task.

The book is a fun read that covers an eclectic array of tangential topics. It’s exceptional in that it is also very well researched and accurate. Safire seldom makes errors of fact (although you might choose to dispute some of his usage judgments), and these have been corrected in the interim between publication in the newspaper and in the book.

Hardcover. 368 pages. November 2001. Crown Publishers. ISBN: 0609609475. $25.00.

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