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Published: Sunday, 8/8/2004

Safire loses some of his zing in new work


THE RIGHT WORD IN THE RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME. By William Safire. Simon & Schuster. 436 pages. $27.

Maybe I've read too many of William Safire's "On Language" columns; maybe I'm getting old; maybe Safire's getting old. This latest collection of his columns from the New York Times Magazine just doesn't seem to have all that old pizzazz.

That's not to say that there are no zingers, for there are, but time was when virtually every column sparkled and a reader looked forward to the latest bon mot. There are not as many of those here. Even the title drags on too long.

Safire has a good thing with his Sunday columns. His correspondents, whom he calls the "Gotcha! Gang," send in letters correcting him or expanding on the adverbial, prepositional, or subjunctive subject of the week. His publisher gathers them all up and, Voila!, another book.

Enough of the carping. On to the brighter side of writing.

Safire finds "Left Coast" for West Coast in a 1977 Rolling Stone record review. He says politics didn't get involved until the 1990s. He notes that the Eastern Seaboard is never the Right Coast, nor the Left Coast ever the Western Seaboard. He recalls that in 1964 Sen. Barry Goldwater suggested, "We ought to saw off the Eastern Seaboard and float it out to sea."

Alliteration is a Safire pet. He quotes President Bush at a European conference: "I was very pleased to see how forward-leaning many nations were during our discussions," and comments, "That word-picture of a crouch of cooperation or a tilt toward tomorrow, appeals to him."

Column candidates appear anywhere. He discovered that the Patriot Act was named by Chris Cylke, a junior member of the House Judiciary Committee staff. It stands for (drum roll) Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001. You knew that.

That was combined with the Senate name of Uniting and Strengthening America by etc. and out comes USA Patriot Act, by which it is known. He adds, " with a label like that, hard to criticize in any way."

That led Safire into www, the wonderful world of Washington, in which everything is an acronym, and finally to the parodies. A cartoon in Punch shows marchers for COCOA-Council to Outlaw Contrived and Outrageous Acronyms. It was bested by a satire in the New York Times seeking an "Action Committee to Reform Our Nation's Youth Morals."

Justice Antonin Scalia dissented from the Supreme Court decision allowing a handicapped contestant to ride in a golf cart. He said the majority " opinion exercises a benevolent compassion " Safire wondered if "benevolent" was necessary, since it is already included in "compassion."

The justice answered, "We speak of 'admirable courage' (is courage ever not admirable?); a 'cold New England winter' (is a New England winter ever not cold?); the 'sweet, green spring' (is springtime ever not sweet and green?). Scalia added that he was "stressing the social-outreach, maternalistic, goo-goo character of the court's compassion."

So there are lots of nuggets, just not enough of them.

A witty column on words and grammar is not easy to write. My hat is off to Safire, but he should have pruned out the excess baggage. Then he could have named his book, "The Right Word."

Jules Wagman, a former book editor at the Cleveland Press, is a freelance writer living in Jacksonville, Fla.

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