cover image Watching My Language:: Adventures in the Word Trade

Watching My Language:: Adventures in the Word Trade

William Safire. Random House (NY), $27.5 (416pp) ISBN 978-0-679-42387-4

You needn't have pondered the difference between formalists and notionalists or stayed awake wondering why English speakers often substitute a periphrastic modal phrase for the simple subjunctive to appreciate Safire's latest collection of ""On Language"" columns from the New York Times. Watching My Language is as much a chronicle of the terms and topics that marked the early 1990s as it is a treat for language and grammar fanatics. Safire examines virtual reality, e-mail versus voice mail versus snail mail and the growing preference for forest over jungle (the latter's ""fearsome,"" while ""forest has a nice ring to it""). He also looks into the origins of politically correct and the debate over ""hyphenated Americans."" Inspired by Anita Hill, he delves into harass (its roots are in the Middle French harer, which means ""to excite hunting dogs"") and dong, which has been around since the 1920s and appeared in The Grapes of Wrath. Safire has a faithful following, as evidenced by the many letters he includes in his 281-page book. His correspondents argue, correct him and often offer information. Not everyone is equally helpful, however. When Safire queries Martha Stewart, the Queen of Home and Hearth helps him with the distinction between restoration and renovation. But when he asks about rehabilitation, remodeling and refurbishment, she responds, ""You're going to have to work those out for yourself."" (Sept.)