Regular readers of the Independent may wonder why we make certain language choices in editing the paper — for example, why we won’t permit the word “informational” to be used, or why we consistently refer to the “select board” in Wellfleet when that group calls itself the “selectboard,” one word instead of two. We have our reasons, but that’s a longer conversation.
The short answer is that we are fascinated by language and its relation to politics and history. I miss the old “On Language” column in the New York Times that until 2009 was written by the crotchety William Safire, whose conservative politics annoyed the hell out of me but whose wit and penchant for precision in the uses of words were exemplary.
I was reminded of Safire this week when I read this in the Times: “While Republican primary voters backed some of Mr. Trump’s favored candidates, particularly in Senate primaries, they rejected his picks in Georgia, Idaho, Nebraska and elsewhere. ‘There’s some evidence that some Republican voters are trying to slow-walk from Donald Trump,’ said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist.”
This use of “slow-walk,” the verb, was a first, to my knowledge. Merriam-Webster confirmed that the normal meaning of the term is “to delay or prevent the progress of (something) by acting in a deliberately slow manner.” Thus, the May 29, 2019 headline in the Times that said, “Pelosi Slow-Walks Trump’s New Nafta Deal,” or Terri Gerstein’s explanation in a story about Starbucks and its baristas in the American Prospect: “In fact, a company can give the appearance of good-faith bargaining while avoiding any real progress: giving the union skimpy, unserious counteroffers, or slow-walking the exchange of relevant documents—all without completely stonewalling.”
William Safire wrote about “slow-walking” in his language column back in 1998. He reported that the verb had two senses: the “Tennessee sense,” he wrote (because of a colorful use of the expression by Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee), “means ‘delay.’ … Then there’s the quite different Carolina sense,” Safire continued, meaning to chastise or punish. He cites a researcher for the Dictionary of American Regional English, who quoted a South Carolina mother telling her children, “I’m going to slow-walk you down” when she suspects that they are lying to her.
Mr. Jennings, the Republican strategist quoted in the Times, seems to have invented a third definition of the term “slow-walk.” I don’t imagine Jennings is a fan of William Safire, though he ought to be. There was a time when Republicans and Democrats could disagree passionately about politics but still find common ground in a shared devotion to fact-finding. If Safire were still with us, I feel sure he would not be slow-walking away from Donald Trump in the Jennings sense but slow-walking him down, in the Carolina sense.
As for our own language rules at the Independent, it may be time to air them in public — where to put commas, for instance. We’re going to schedule a comma conference at the newspaper office, and everyone is invited — including Republicans.