A couple days ago, a signed copy of Safire’s Political Dictionary , the fifth edition of the popular tome by the linguistic and political columnist William Safire, arrived on my desk. I’d seen it in a catalogue and, thinking it would follow in the footsteps of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, requested it for review. For the most part, it gives Dr. Johnson a run for his money; Safire gives us straightforward definitions and fascinating etymologies for the common and uncommon political terms of American history. But sometimes the model is not so much Dr. Johnson’s work as it is Ambrose Bierce’s classic The Devil’s Dictionary.
So, for instance, the real joy of Safire’s dictionary comes at moments such as the end of the two-page entry on human rights , where he writes of Vladimir Putin: “At a meeting with Western journalists, he rejected human rights criticisms, criticized Britain for giving refuge to scoundrels, and added sarcastically, ‘I am an absolutely pure democrat. The real tragedy is that I am the only one. Since Mahatma Gandhi died, there’s just nobody left to talk to.’”
Safire obviously enjoys including humorous anecdotes, especially if the anecdotes come with a phrase that can go in the dictionary as an entry by itself. I came across One Glass of Water Doctrine . It said, “See doctrine ,” so I dutifully turned to the entry on doctrine, where I found the following: “In the Communist world, the One Glass of Water Doctrine was long remembered, but more in the breach than in the observance. This held that good Communists regard sexual desire as being ‘no more important than a glass of water.’ Lenin revoked this doctrine after the Bolsheviks took power, but it remained for many years as gospel to Chinese Communists under the name bei-shui-zhuyi . It was the cause of some dissatisfaction among the Viet Cong in South Vietnam.”
Another entry was grandpa’s pants won’t fit Benny , for which I was instructed to turn to dynasty . If you thought that presidential campaign music couldn’t get worse than the “Yes, We Can” song, know that yes , it can: “The dynasty charge, sometimes called the nepotism issue , was an important part of the election of Benjamin Harrison, grandson of President William Henry Harrison. In 1888, the Democratic song was ‘Grandpa’s pants won’t fit Benny,’ and the Republican refrain went ‘Yes, Grandfather’s hat fits Ben¯fits Ben.’”
In the comical reference department, we also find George W. Bush’s neologism misunderestimate under blooper and Kumbaya moment under bipartisan . The entry on the College of Cardinals instructs us to “see powerhouse ,” but there’s no direct mention of the Sacred College there. The reader is, however, reminded that, “in New York City, ‘The Powerhouse’ was a nickname of the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, in recognition of the political and economic power inherent in the Church.” Sadly, no Jesuitical trickery is mentioned.
In addition to humorous references, Safire teaches us new acronyms. When next at a cocktail party, one can refer to the President of the United States and the First Lady as POTUS and FLOTUS (Poe-tus and Flow-tus). If listeners are not dazzled, one can remark on whether PO and FLO are CONUS (in the continental United States) or OCONUS (outside them). More fun vocabulary terms include dead cat bounce , which is not a dance from the 1920s but “an aborted economic recovery,” and a Redheaded Eskimo bill , “an extremely limited focus in legislation; a bill narrowly targeted to benefit an individual or corporation.”
Sometimes Safire enlists the help of another esteemed thinker to pin down the differences between similar terms. He cites Billy Carter, brother of President Jimmy, on the difference between the complimentary good ole boy and the derogatory redneck : “Well, a good ole boy . . . is somebody that rides around in a pick-up truck¯which I do¯and drinks beer and puts em in a litter bag. A redneck’s one that rides around in a truck and drinks beer and throws em out the window.”
Continuing on the topic of derogation, Safire clarifies the differences between the moonbat and the wing nut , the former being “a knee-jerk liberal, short for barking moonbat ; a derogation by knee-jerk conservatives¯or wing nuts , as they, in turn, are derided by moonbats .” The etymology of moonbat comes from the longstanding association of the moon “with insanity in general, and with the ‘loony left’ in particular.”
Definitions of funny words are all well and good, but Safire is most useful when it comes to simple things, such as the meaning of the word is . But is is so simple? Under the heading is is, meaning of , the reader is brought back to the good old days of 1998 and reminded of the “profound semantic question that became emblematic of President Bill Clinton’s supple, subtle, and sometimes evasive use of language.” Fortunately, Safire’s skills as a language maven guide us through the semantics of being:
Is is the present tense of the verb be , the past tense of which is was . Clinton, trained in the law’s fine language distinctions, explained, “Now, if someone had asked me on that day, ‘are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky?’¯that is, asked me a question in the present tense¯I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.” As it happened, when asked under oath and later by interviewers if he had (past tense, not was having ) a sexual relationship, Clinton replied, “there’s no sexual relationship,” with his elided s capable of being construed as either is or was. Because no questioner thought to clarify whether his “there’s” meant “there is” or “there was,” he could truthfully claim he had told the literal truth¯that no sexual relationship was being carried on between them at that moment.”
Clearly Safire’s Political Dictionary has many uses, and not just as a tool for looking up moonbat and dead cat bounce . It provides definitions, etymologies, and examples of usage for any political word or phrase in the American vocabulary, and always with a dash of class and humor. And on one occasion, in the definition of cookie pusher , William Safire even gives some sartorial advice: “A foreign-service Pharisee; an effete, or striped-pants, diplomat, one concerned with form rather than substance; opposite of shirtsleeve diplomat . . . . The phrase is closely associated with the compound adjective striped-pants , a symbol or stereotype of false formality (although grey striped pants go well with a black morning coat in winter).”
Nathaniel Peters is a junior fellow at First Things .
Safire’s Political Dictionary by William Safire