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Heavy umbrage

Safire and style

So farewell then, William Safire. But oh, look, here comes Anna Shapiro at “Comment is free” with knives out for the newly deceased, seemingly angling for a spot in the Oliver Kamm Noted Obituarist pantheon. Not only does Shapiro find Safire’s political columns horrid, she goes on to claim that he was a bad writer.

Now, I hadn’t realized quite how wingnutty some of Safire’s political columns really were (I’d never actually read any), but his column “On Language” was a different matter, and I found it almost unfailingly engaging and mischievously serious, even before I got a mention in it. (His Political Dictionary, meanwhile, is excellent.) Even the professional linguists at Language Log, not renowned for any kneejerk adoration of popular writers on language, respected Safire. So to accuse Safire of not knowing what to do with words is really quite a strong “Look at me, I’m being controversial!” gambit. Sneers Shapiro:

There Safire is, praised as a wordsmith. Really? In one early column, he says someone “took heavy umbrage”. It is hard to see how heavy could possibly be the correct adjective here, or how any adjective could be.

Um, oops. Maybe it would have been worth Shapiro’s while to consult a dictionary. Here are some senses of “umbrage” from the OED:

1. Shade, shadow […]
2. Shade or shadow cast by trees or the like […]
2.c. The foliage of trees, etc, affording shade […]
8. Displeasure, annoyance, offence, resentment

Clearly “umbrage” in sense 2c, “foliage” (presumably deriving by metonymy from “shade”) can be more or less dense or “heavy”, affording more or less shade (and “heavy umbrage” has indeed been used since at least the early 19th century to mean “thick foliage”). No doubt Safire knew exactly what he was doing here, deliberately playing with both senses of “umbrage” — as both “foliage” and “offence” — in his phrase “took heavy umbrage”, which moreover has an instantly graspable meaning: took profound offence.

Yet Shapiro finds it “hard to see” how this works (I presume she is not making a sophisticated joke about it being harder to see in the shade), and so instead of thinking about it for a second she denounces it as not “correct”. For good measure, she proceeds to forbid the application of any adjective ever to “umbrage”, even though OED records the adjectives “painful” and (particularly) “great” already having been applied numerous times to umbrage-as-offence by various benighted writers in the history of English letters.

Just as unfortunately for Shapiro, it’s rather a hostage to fortune to accuse other people of being bad writers when you can gaily perpetrate a sentence as spectacularly clumsy as this one:

Another 1981 piece, just before Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration, refers to the imminent return of the hostages who’d been held for 15 months in Iran, as not a happy ending, even though it greatly reduced international tension, recovered 53 people to their own lives after considerable privation and was a collective sigh of relief to the millions who had followed their fate.

So the “imminent return of the hostages” “recovered 53 people to their own lives”, eh? And, what’s more, this “imminent return” “was a collective sigh of relief”? Oh dear.

What do you take heavy umbrage at, readers?

  1. 1  Gregor  October 1, 2009, 12:08 pm 

    ‘What do you take heavy umbrage at, readers?’

    Uh, as an obnoxious Socratic*, I suppose I take umbrage at practically everything concerning modern political culture and especially op ed columnists. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, I think that political writing is such a fraught area because the stakes are so low. And this gibbeting of political figures is a symptom of this (to use a term which that homme d’esprit Jonah Goldberg once used when musing on how entertaining it would be to dig up Edward Said and exhibit his corpse http://corner.nationalreview.c.....Q0NTE4MDI=).

    Still, the current political culture is just absurd. Especially the new award system where they invade the catacombs of dead over-achievers to give utter twassocks a reward with gravitas that they do not deserve. Hence ‘Melanie Phillips’ gets a Sappho award and an Orwell Prize. It reminds me of the ‘Golden Cleric’ award in Fr Ted. Except it is more ridiculous.

    For more about the cut-throat rivalry between people who really are not much different:

    ‘I am up against the pitiful racist hermit Richard Littlejohn – who admits he “rarely” leaves his house – for one. If I, or the other nominee, David Aaronovitch, beat him, it’ll be a victory for journalists everywhere who don’t respond to the murder of innocent women by calling them “disgusting drug-addled street whores” and “no great loss”, and don’t react to the systematic mass murder of black people by asking “who gives a monkey’s?”’

    Exactly, Johann. I’ll be chewing my nails in excitement to see who will get rewarded for their secular, anti-Islamic, Russophobic, anti-nationalisation, pro-liberal intervention, republican articles.

    *Not entirely certain what I mean by this, except political discourse in ancient Athens wasn’t quite so dismal as modern Western discourse.

  2. 2  Paul  October 1, 2009, 1:52 pm 

    Your subheading “Safire and style” alone is better than anything Anna Shapiro will ever write, i’d wager. Well done sir.

  3. 3  hardindr  October 1, 2009, 3:33 pm 

    If I remember correctly, Safire’s most noted column was when he called HRC a “congenital liar” on the basis the flimsiest of evidence . In response to the outrage his column caused, he replied back mostly discussing, well, grammar and semantics, and not defending his charges . What a great guy…

  4. 4  Steven  October 1, 2009, 3:39 pm 

    he replied back mostly discussing, well, grammar and semantics

    Gosh, he discussed grammar and semantics in his “On Language” column? While speaking archly in the third person of his political alter ago thus: “he is evidently intent on keeping a firewall between linguistic and political worlds”? What a dastard!

    Anyway, sure, you might think he was not a “great guy”, but the equation “ungreat guy = bad writer” is of course refuted by innumerable historical examples?

    (Thanks Paul!)

  5. 5  hardindr  October 1, 2009, 3:55 pm 

    If you make shakey, unsupported charges against a major public figure, shouldn’t you have the common decency to try and defend them, instead of engaging in linguistic hand-waving? Isn’t a basic part of being a “good writer” getting things factually right?

  6. 6  Steven  October 1, 2009, 4:00 pm 

    I like the phrase “linguistic hand-waving”, and feel that “manual tongue-waving” ought to be available for certain occasions too.

  7. 7  richard  October 1, 2009, 4:12 pm 

    I think that was what landed George Michael in trouble with the law.

  8. 8  hardindr  October 1, 2009, 4:29 pm 

    You know what I meant, and I wasn’t writing about sign-language…

  9. 9  Steven  October 1, 2009, 5:00 pm 

    Gregor —

    For more about the cut-throat rivalry between people who really are not much different

    Just to be clear, you don’t mean that Hari and Littlejohn are “not much different”, do you? Because, for all that I have enjoyed mocking some of Hari’s stuff myself, that would be an absurdly egregious slur on him.

  10. 10  Gregor  October 1, 2009, 5:33 pm 

    ‘Just to be clear, you don’t mean that Hari and Littlejohn are “not much different”, do you’

    Maybe it is because of my own very, very weird beliefs about how the world should be run (Periclean Social Democratic Libertarianism… or something), but frankly I do not see their intellectual views as greatly different. As for what Hari is saying as background: that Littlejohn is a steaming pile of dog excrement, I don’t deny that nor do I see its relevance. Certainly I find Hari and Aaronovitch less offensive people, but I do not see why that should decide who gets this award. Nor should it hide what a narrow band of opinion there is in the British media.

    All three have been spectacularly wrong in terms of foreign policy. None really deserves any awards.

  11. 11  Steven  October 1, 2009, 5:40 pm 

    I do not see their intellectual views as greatly different

    Um. So even though Littlejohn is a tiny-brained chucklehead, a honkingly self-congratulatory racist, homophobic and misogynist bigot who almost certainly cannot change his trousers quickly enough to avoid their being permanently moist with his evil-smelling drool, and Hari, er, isn’t, you don’t see their views as being “greatly different”? That is, if you don’t mind my saying so, very strange.

  12. 12  Gregor  October 1, 2009, 5:48 pm 

    ‘That is, if you don’t mind my saying so, very strange.’

    I am very strange; don’t mind you saying so. Still, as I said, from a historical perspective, I cannot see any significant differences.

  13. 13  Steven  October 1, 2009, 5:51 pm 

    Ah, I see: from a historical perspective, trivial differences like hatred of gays and foreigners etc tend to disappear from view, is that it?

  14. 14  Gregor  October 1, 2009, 6:15 pm 

    ‘Ah, I see: from a historical perspective, trivial differences like hatred of gays and foreigners etc tend to disappear from view, is that it?’

    Littlejohn’s subjective dislike of gays and foreigners are not ideas. Has he advocated any anti-gay policies? Does he really ‘hate’ foreigners? All six billion or so? What measures is he advocating for the British state to make known its hatred of all things foreign? Or is it the American state?

    My point was that all three are major fans of liberal democratic capitalism and support using military intervention to impose Western values on other countries. As such I do not think that they are spectacularly different. Hari’s rant on their cosmetic differences proved how facile the award is.

    It is sad that choosing who’s the nicest bloke seems to be the main criteria for who should get an award.

  15. 15  wh00ps  October 2, 2009, 6:23 am 

    One of the things that makes me take heavy umbrage, and by no means am I the only one, I’m sure, is the overuse, or inappropriate use, of the comma, as shown in the article you quoted, where perhaps parentheses , or even a hyphen or two, might serve better to break up the text, and would certainly be more appropriate, this could even be considered a worse sin, especially by myself, than the overuse of exclamation marks!!!!!!!

  16. 16  roger migently  October 2, 2009, 9:03 am 

    I would, rather, take heavy umbrage to, in the newly (for me)-discovered sense of shaking heavy umbrage at, people who misuse apostrophe’s. But then I would never get any work done.

  17. 17  Alex  October 2, 2009, 9:17 am 

    Well, his paper did accuse the government of being controlled by a Gay Mafia, and the prime minister of being the Most Dangerous Man in Britain, and the deputy prime minister of plotting to have the country overrun by gypsies. It’s worth holding this in mind when people are talking about the Sun ending its support for Labour.

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