Safire Sucks ("Hello, Sucker" column)

Grant Barrett gbarrett at WORLDNEWYORK.ORG
Sun Mar 4 13:38:39 UTC 2007


The main focus of questions from Safire's assistant about "sucker"
were whether or not it was originally vulgar. So, I offered what
comments I could from my own library and files, and from American
Speech, and I referred her to Jon Lighter and Ron Butters, giving
both their email addresses and links to their past comments in the
archives. I also referred her directly to a page (<
ynkpfk>) on your site where you talk about Barnum and sucker.

Having had a few pieces run through the New York Times editing
process myself and seeing how little of what I shoveled over to Bill
showed up in print, I suspect the outcome of his "sucker" column has
much to do with limited space, with whims of the magazine's editors,
and with the Times's reluctance to tread at all into the vulgar
territory of "suck."

Grant Barrett
gbarrett at

On Mar 3, 2007, at 22:35, Bapopik at AOL.COM wrote:

> William Safire's Sunday New York Times "On Language" column this
> week is
> titled "Hello, Sucker." Although I did research on "Hello, sucker"
> and "Sucker"
> (citizen of Illinois) and "Sucker born every minute" and more, he
> didn't
> contact me. I guess the rule here is to contact every ADS member
> BUT me,  the guy
> he screwed on "the Big Apple" business for a mere decade.
> ...
> Grant Barrett and ADS-L are mentioned:
> ...
> ...
> I ran this hidden concern past Grant Barrett, editor of Oxford’s
> excellent
> political etymology, “Hatchet Jobs and Hardball,” a host of the KPBS
> public-radio show “A Way With Words” and whose “Double-Tongued
> Dictionary” is
> available at _www.doubletongued.org_ (http://
> . “While it is
> debated regularly,” he  e-mails, “some linguists and lexicographers
> do think
> that sucks, as it is  currently used, such as ‘Algebra sucks,’
> without a
> direct object, is probably  not derived from longer forms.”
> Obviously, other
> language scholars disagree and  are free to send their always
> profound comments to
> one another on the American  Dialect Society listserv because I
> must use my
> remaining space to deal with this  question: Is there anything unduly
> suggestive or remotely lascivious about  Bush’s “I’m about to crank
> this sucker up?”
> ...
> ...
> This passage makes no sense:
> ...
> ...
> That sense of gullibility was exemplified in several famous
> American sayings,
>  like “Never give a sucker an even break,”  falsely ascribed in the
> 1880s to
> the showman Phineas T. Barnum by a rival  impresario. The Barnum
> biographer
> A. H. Saxton credits Paper Collar Joe  Bessimer, a notorious
> confidence man,
> with  “There’s a sucker born every minute, but none of them ever
> die.” (...)
> In the 1936 film “Poppy,” W. C. Fields first said, “Never give a
> sucker an
> even break,” which reinforced the  sense of a sucker being a born
> “loser.”
> ...
> ...
> "Never give a sucker and even break" was falsely ascribed in the
> 1880s to the
>  showman Phineas T. Barnum, but was _first said_ by W. C. Fields in
> the 1936
> film  "Poppy"? Safire could have checked the Yale Book of
> Quotations, where
> Fields is  credited from the 1923 stage musical "Poppy." Doesn't
> anyone
> proofread at The  New York Times?
> ...
> Again, don't think of writing to Safire, or sending a letter to the
> editor,
> or asking for a correction, or writing to the Public Editor.
> ...
> Why or why doesn't Safire retire? Is he in ill health? This stuff
> has  been
> bad for a decade and a half now, but a lifeless column like this is
> just a
> waste of newsprint.
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