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Safire serves up a 12th verbal feast

Stephen Tanner, a BYU English professor, maintains that slang or fad words, such as "cool, dude and totally awesome," add a freshness to the language. "They can be the Tabasco sauce on the scrambled eggs." Yet like other characteristics of a mass-produced society, he says they may not last long.

"Expect clearance sales and blue-light specials on `awesome' any time now. A word like `cool,' which can be applied to anything from ragged jeans to President Gordon B. Hinckley's conference talk, is the linguistic equivalent of a McDonald's hamburger - nutritionally doubtful and served up uniformly to all tastes. It's the American way: one hamburger, indistinguishable, with mustard and ketchup for all."Which gives Pulitzer Prize winner and prominent wordsmith William Safire a lot of ammunition for his latest collection of essays - his 12th on language. Anyone who has enjoyed Safire's Sunday New York Times columns about language will relish this collection, and others will be pleased and surprised by an entire volume that analyzes with wit all the hot catch-phrases and the syntactical controversies of our day.

Among other words, he examines the newest additions, such as "e-mail" and offers intriguing explanations of their origins.

For example, "e-mail," which is short for electronic mail, naturally balances an older phrase, "snail mail."

As Safire says, "The snail, for a thousand years a symbol of slow movement, was immortalized in simile by Shakespeare in his description of `the whining schoolboy' in one of man's seven stages, creeping like snail unwillingly to school."'

He also looks at the feminist motto, "You just don't get it." When Clarence Thomas' controversial nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court was held up because of accusations of sexual harassment, Rep. Patricia Shroeder, D-Colo., stood up in the Senate and recalled a 1964 song by Bob Dylan. She said, "The times they are a-changin', and the boys here don't get it on this issue."

Safire says the phrase was first used in America by Mark Twain in his 1892 "American Claimant," in which a character says, "I don't know that I quite get the bearings of your position." But Safire finds evidence of it in the Bible as well, and "not getting it" means "beyond mere lack of understanding; a total missing of the point."

He questions why we say "tossing our cookies." (Some say "vomit," but most prefer one of the many slang phrases, including "blowing your doughnuts," "losing your lunch," or "talk to Ralph on the big white phone.")

Why do we talk about "the seven-year itch?" Although the phrase is traceable, according to Safire, to Henry David Thoreau, and was used to describe an irritating medical condition, it has taken on a different meaning for the 20th century, namely, "marital wander-lust."

Safire traced the modern meaning to George Axelrod, who wrote the 1952 Broadway play, "The Seven Year Itch," which became a movie three years later, starring Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell.

At first, Axelrod called his play "The Ten Year Itch," mostly because that was how long he had been married, but seven just sounded better. The usage caught on almost immediately and is still very much with us. What about "politically correct," which originated with the "correct thinking" ideas of China's Mao Zedong? Even in the United States, it came to mean "reflecting the opinions of the group."

When the right wing gained a foothold on college campuses in the 1980s, "politically correct" suggested the correct way to speak about political issues.

"Not!"is a recent term in which a person expresses a negative thought by making an affirmative statement, followed by a brief pause, which is then punctuated by

the word "Not!" Today, even political conservatives like George Will use it, as in "George Bush will kill that program . . . not."

Safire says the usage may be rooted in the French "ne . . . pas," which forms a negative around a verb: "Je sais, `I know,' becomes je ne sais pas, `I know not.' The heavy emphasis on the pas could be the source of the American nonce term. Or not.

But, says Safire, it was not Wayne and Garth (Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey in the "Wayne's World" segment of TV's "Saturday Night Live") who first used "not" as we use it today. It was Steve Martin, who appeared on the same program in 1978 and said to Gilda Radner, whose character had developed a dial-a-toaster, "That's a fabulous science fair project." He then paused and sneered, "Not!"

This book is great stuff for any language buff who would like to keep the way we speak "on the straight and narrow" or any savvy reader who enjoys tracking down a trendy phrase or a literary allusion with the Safire expertise at the ready.