If he has any decency at all (and the evidence has been quite positive in recent years), William Safire should kneel down regularly and thank God for his readers. Anyone who earns a living by writing should do that once in a while, of course, but Safire's debt seems to be a specially large one. Not only are his readers an uncommonly well-informed and articulate group, but they are very generous with their words--the subject of Safire's book and the newspaper column on which it is based. The contributions, which are printed in italics, account for about half the bulk of the book and add considerably to its variety and value.
Even more important than their substantial help in writing the book, however, is their role in keeping the author in touch with reality. Safire writes about origins and usage, where our words and idioms come from and what we do with them. This may be a fairly cut-and-dried subject when we deal with material that has already found its way safely into the Oxford English dictionary, but when you are speculating on such words as "fungo" or "hassle," such expressions as "get off of my case" or "hang ten," you are in unexplored territory and there may be quicksand anywhere.
Dictums on the use of words can also have a strong emotional impact, as Safire discovered after he wrote a little piece advocating the continued use of "Oriental" to designate people who prefer to be called "Asians." It is "a beautiful word" with "delicious overtones of mystery and spice," he wrote. "I'll continue to use it; if I ever substitute 'Asian,' it will be by occident."
The responses printed in "What's the Good Word" are overwhelmingly negative, they come from Westerners as well as Asians, and they occupy nearly eight times the space taken by the few short, witty paragraphs in Safire's original statement.
The readers are also quick to correct, to amplify, to adumbrate Safire's efforts, to send him little jokes, anecdotes, scholarly references and even poems more or less related to his efforts--all of which enrich the book enormously. But their most useful function--and one that they obviously perform with special relish--is that of keeping his feet on the ground, of reminding him that he does not know everything and that he often makes mistakes. We all need that (not just writers), and it is particularly needed by those who have the quasi-professorial position of a columnist in a field with academic overtones.
People who read this kind of column probably have an unusually high incidence of what one might call the "gotcha complex." That is, quite simply, a strong urge to sit down and write a letter to the author of something you have seen in print, pointing out to him how wrong he is and how obvious his abysmal ignorance must be to anyone who has mastered basic reading skills. It is almost the strongest motivation shown (second only to the hope for free publicity) in letters sent to newspapers. And it abounds delightfully in Safire's pages, for his readers are not only articulate and erudite, they are also a pugnacious crew.
Some of them also show a touching faith in his powers--or perhaps they are showing a sly, satirical sense of humor; the evidence is ambiguous. At any rate, there is a certain peremptory charm in the mandate given to Safire by one of his readers: "I'm an old man now and have been learning English from the cradle through college and for decades thereafter. Nobody can master the language completely. It makes no sense as it stands. Change it please."
Safire knows better, of course, than to attempt any such sweeping project, or even to attempt very often to make definitive statements on his rather amorphous subject matter. Most of the time he is happy to spot a trend, launch a bon mot or two, spread a bit of erudition around or simply point out a particular curiosity of a language abounding in curiosities. He blends entertainment and enlightenment in pleasing proportions, and that is no mean accomplishment.
The book is arranged in the format of a dictionary or encyclopedia, with his little essays and his readers' repartee arranged under succinct headings placed in alphabetical order. The arrangement is less useful than in most standard reference works, however, because Safire has no pretensions to completeness and because his subject-headings are often arbitrary and capricious--chosen, it would seem, as much for cuteness as for usefulness. The discussion of "Oriental," for example, is placed under the heading, "heathen Chinee," adding insult to insult. A discussion of the use of "person" to avoid sexist overtones (as in "chairperson") is headed "missing persons," and a charming little essay on occupational nicknames is headed "molar mashers and sob sisters." This means simply that Safire's book functions as journalism (where the priority of a heading is to draw people into a story) rather than scholarship (where headings serve as guideposts for a search that has already been motivated). And the problem is alleviated somewhat by copious cross-references.
Still, the caprice of his headings allows Safire to do some clever maneuvering. I suspect, for example, that he chose the heading "adjective inflation" at least partly because it allowed him to make one of his best statements the first entry in the book.