Barry Popik and William Safire

Gerald Cohen gcohen at UMR.EDU
Sun Oct 1 17:19:46 UTC 2000

        First, might I clarify that Barry Popik is one of the most
extraordinary researchers of words I have encountered in my career and
certainly the most remarkable independent scholar.  In the short span of
his activity in this area (10 years) he has produced a treasure trove of
material that can be developed into formal publications.  I have already
made a start on this project (and it is only a start), writing up Barry¹s
material on such items as ³hot dog,² ³The Big Apple,² ³dude,² ³I¹m from
Missouri, you¹ve got to show me,² ³yegg² (safecracker, burglar), and ³rush
the growler.²

        I look with a mixture of surprise and delight that a young man, not
even in academia, could turn out to be one of the very influential people
in my career.  I am gradually rearranging my time schedule to develop the
enormous amount of raw material he is producing (selecting, of course, the
material deserving of development).  Last year we co-authored a book
(_Studies in Slang, VI_; Frankfurt a.M.: Pe
am devoting much space in my _Comments on Etymology_ to his work.  And a
major project I have embarked on (origin of the term ³jazz,² plus extensive
research into the baseball columns of the 1913 _S.F. Bulletin_) was
stimulated by a few of his ADS-L messages on ³jazz² (only partially
accurate but an important catalyst nevertheless).

        With all this said, I must now add that a sense of basic justice
causes me to urge him to ³cool it² with respect to William Safire.
Safire¹s column made some mistakes in treating ³The Big Apple,² and the NY
Times does not seem in a hurry to correct them. Still, there is no need to
inject bitterness into the discussion.  Mistakes are an integral part of
etymological work (I have made more than my share of them); and although a
prompt correction would be helpful, there is no point repeating this
suggestion once it has been made.

        This episode will stimulate me to produce a small overall treatment
of ³The Big Apple,² to be made readily available to anyone in the media who
prefers such a summary treatment to the detailed treatments already
available (the book I wrote and several articles either written by Barry or
based on his research).

        Ron Butters already pointed out that William Safire has provided
far more publicity for the American Dialect Society and our work than we
could ever get on our own.  Dr. Butters also points out the wisdom he
acquired many years ago that ³you can catch more flies with honey than with
vinegar.² We would do well to appreciate Mr. Safire for the benefit he has
provided our field. And if an occasional mistake in his column remains
uncorrected there, the best strategic response is patience. I reiterate my
offer to Mr. Safire and his assistant to provide whatever assistance they
would like whenever they would like it.

-----Gerald Cohen

gcohen at

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