Monday, June 18, 2007

Language Maven gets a strike again

William Safire's On Language column yesterday decided to pay a tiny bit of attention to language. In the midst of a rambling and uninteresting survey of the use of tier regarding presidential candidates he decided to look at the etymology of the word.

Having asked "What’s a tier, anyway, and who arranged its rendezvous with this generation of Americans?" he tries to answer his own question.

Here goes: Tier, from tire, is of Old French origin, the noun meaning “rank, order,” surfacing first in 1569, leading to the verb tirer, “to draw, drag, elongate, pull” (maybe that’s where “to pull rank” comes from).

Then he jumps to its use in ranking those who aspire to political office.

He has obviously referenced the OED for much of this information. Except for that "pull rank" conjecture. Where did that come from? Just because tier might have origins meaning both words? How do we get from tire to pull rank? Other than that, Safire's information is very close to the entry, which reads in part

tier - [Orig. tire, a. F. tire, in OF. (c1210 in Godef.) ‘suite, sequence, range, rank, order’: cf. tire à tire in succession, one after another, f. tirer to draw, elongate.]

And as he has done before the pundit mistakes the OED early entry of 1569 for the date the word surfaced. OED early entries are not to be taken as earliest known usages of a word. It's not just common sense tells us that the words were around before the citations: it's documentation. The OED entries are often just early notable and exemplary usages.

*The noun tire is found in ME meaning a row of fur (1437) or gems ("Ye Ruby suld be ye fyrst in ye secund tir of ye xij stones": Lapidary in Bodleian MS Add. A.106 a1500). And Safire's claim that the noun (which we know surfaced and even made it into print at least 100 years before 1569) led to the verb tirer is hard to understand. The very OED entry that he has mistakenly trusted to provide an earliest date, claims that tire à tire came from the verb tirer.

And the ME verb tiren (f OF tirer) that most closely matches the meaning “to draw, drag, elongate, pull” is usually found in relation to a bird of prey tugging and tearing flesh. A similar verb (of identical form) tiren is a shortened form of atiren from OF atirier meaning to outfit, furnish, equip, prepare or adorn, and has many connections to martial and ceremonial contexts. This second verb seems a likely source of modern tier meaning "A row, rank, range, course" or "A row of guns or gun-ports in a man-of-war a fort." Either ME verb can be found as early as the fourteenth century. They certainly did not come from (or after) the 1569 "surfacing" of the noun.

Of course this much searching would have led Safire to make a connection with attire which certainly would have confused the surety of his findings and forced him to talk about an interesting tho unclear etymology. And Safire seems to enjoy stopping short of good (or any) scholarship, and ignoring it when he finds it.

*ME dates and citations from the excellent Middle English Dictionary.


  1. So does he get 81 strikes all to himself before the game is over, or is it a four game home series or does he get to be the sole batter for like a whole season, because even Roger Clemens' arm might tire after that?

  2. He makes it too easy. Part of me wants to turn every Monday post into a "Safire watch" tho I know it's not really worth it.

    Daniel: I was about to go with "Language Maven strikes out again" but then I thought there was too much of an implication of 3 mistakes...again. And I didn't want to set up that sort of count. But I think that would've been a better phrase.

    The post title also recalls bowling which then looks like Safire did well: "hit one out of the park" (to mix up references).

    But of course I married myself to the phrase because of his book Language Maven Strikes Again. Such a presumptuous self-appellation.

  3. I began reading that column yesterday and decided about halfway through that it contained nothing interesting, let alone any linguistics.

    How do such mediocre people get such nice column space in these prestigious magazines? They may as well rename the column "Misinterpreted Excerpts from the OED"

  4. My mom likes William Safire. I think you should start a whole nother blog dedicated to watching him...

    Or do a post on my favorite phrase in the world: "...a whole nother...."

  5. I also liked him a long time ago. Then I started finding that too many of his claims about words/language don't hold up.

    Perhaps she likes his perspective. His humor. His voice. His politics. Of course I'd never try to change her mind. I'm just concerned with bad facts getting out there.

    Unfortunately I don't have the reputation/platform
    /readership/popularity to be an equal and opposite reaction.


Thanks for reaching out.

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