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"Safire's Political Dictionary", William Safire

June 16th, 2009 · No Comments · Politics, Quotes, Unfinished

safirespoliticaldictionarySynopsis: A founding member of the US conservative intelligensia and former Nixon speech-writer pens a fastidiously researched, dry witted and very smart dictionary of political language. Why can’t Australian conservative intellectuals be as clever as this?

My Take: Safire is a member of that class of US conservatives whose ranks have been purged to the point of extinction under the ascendency of the Bushist crony/evangelical brand of Republicanism: the conservative intellectual. Today, Safire is a relic from another time. A dinosaur from a period during which conservative intellectuals like William F Buckley, Milton Freidman, Freidrich Hayek (and even Gore Vidal in many respects) roamed the terrain of the public discourse injecting rigour and principle and even glamour into conservative thinking. Today we’re left with Anne Coulter, Joe the Plumber, Sarah Palin and a well past his prime PJ O’Rourke to weild the conservative cudgels. It must be deeply depressing to be a young conservative today.

At any rate, this 1968 edition that I found in a second-hand book shop while studying in the US comes from a lost period during which conservatives could be unashamedly, in fact luxuriously, elistist intellectuals. While not quite Johnsonian in its breadth or erudition, Safire produces a hefty body of political/cultural/historical research on the etymology of political language (it pains me to think how much work this would have involved pre-internet) and presents it in a deliciously drull manner.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this Dictionary is that it is old enough that it includes theorigins of phrases that are now well and truly lost to obscurity. Similarly, the text offers many unintended insights into the political debate of the times for the modern reader. An interesting example in this regard is the origins of the phrase “better dead than red”. Safire traces the phrase to a quote from Bertrand Russell quote in 1958 providing that if :

“no alternative remains except communist domination or the extinction of the human race, the former alternative is the lesser of two evils”

This quote was then chrystalised by the anti-war movement into the phrase ‘Better red than dead’, which was subsequently inverted by anti-communist campaigners to become ‘Better dead than red’ (in fact this was the title of a book calling for a world crusade against the communists). I found it quite interesting that with the passage of time, this phrase became better remembered as an example of the extremism of anti-communists than its original, anti-war iteration. As I say, not an insight that Safire would have predicted at the time.

The book is full of little gems like this – if you can track down a copy snap it up straight away.


From the introduction:

“The new, old, and constantly changing language of politics is a lexicon of conflict and drama, of ridicule and reproach, of pleading and persuasion. Colour and bite permeate a language designed to rally many men, to destroy some, and to change the minds of others… This is a dictionary of the words and phrases that have misled millions, blackened reputations, held out false hopes, oversimplified ideas to appeal to the lowest common denominator, shouted down inquiry, and replaced searching debate with stereotypes that trigger approval or hatred.”

Another great tid-bit:

“(The word ‘candidate’) comes from the latin candidatus, wearer of the white toga, which the Roman office-seekers always wore as a symbol of their purity. The same root gave the language ‘candor’ and ‘incandescence,’ qualities that candidates occasionally have.”


  • ray perkins jr

    Thanks for the neat review of Safire’s new edition of his Political Dictionary, especially your notice of his entry “better red than dead”, which he rightly attributes to the British philosopher Bertrand Russell. Unfortunately he also perpetuates the myth that Russell advocated “preventive war” against Russia in a speech in 1948. What Russell actually said, regarding the question of war, was “there is only one course of action open to us. That is to strengthen the Western Alliance … and hope it may become obvious to the Russians that they can’t make war successfully.”


    Ray Perkins. Jr.
    Editor, _Yours Faithfully Bertrand Russell: A Lifelong Fight for Peace, Justice and Truth in Letters to the Editor_ (Open Court, 2002)
    Bertrand Russell Society, Vice President (2001- )