Saturday, October 15, 2005

Safire on Bugs Bunny: Geez, What a Maroon

In tomorrow's "On Language" column in the Times Magazine, Bill Safire does his usual etymological roundup, this time focusing on words and phrases related to baseball (it's playoff time). The last two paragraphs deal with what he calls his "favorite" piece of baseball slang, the expression Bugs Bunny change-up, which describes a pitch that looks like a fastball as it leaves the pitcher's hand but ends up being much slower--pretty much like any good change-up.

Safire naturally asks, "Why name the pitch after Bugs Bunny?" Here's his answer:

Because, to take a fanciful leap, in the tale of the tortoise and the hare, the rabbit starts out fast and then, exhausted, falls behind the steadily plodding turtle.

Note how the columnist's reference to "a fanciful leap" gives the game away. Safire has no idea where the expression comes from and is just making something up, hoping against hope that he might guess right.

As any Bugs Bunny aficionado would know, the phrase is clearly a reference to the classic 1946 cartoon "Baseball Bugs," whose plot is summarized this way on Earth's Biggest Movie Database: "At a baseball game between the Gashouse Gorillas and the Tea-Totallers, a heckling Bugs Bunny is forced to play all positions against the brutish Gorillas. Naturally, their muscle is no match for Bugs' wit and pitching skill."

In the crucial scene, Bugs throws a tantalizing change-up so slow that, as the ball floats towards the plate, no fewer than three Gorilla sluggers each swing futilely at it three times in succession, accompanied by the umpire's rapid-fire call, "One, two, three strikes, you're out! One, two, three strikes, you're out! One, two, three strikes, you're out!" Thus Bugs records three outs with a single pitch.

Does this sound like an obscure source for an evidently widely-used phrase? No way. Those old Warner Brothers cartoons are in constant rotation on TV (nowadays on cable). As a kid in the 1960s I must have seen "Baseball Bugs" at least a dozen times.

Sad to think that William Safire hasn't seen it even once. All these years he must have been wasting his time reading Roll Call and thumbing through dictionaries looking for words that he hoped would make his political columns sound more like William F. Buckley, Jr.

* * *

Seriously, what a wasted opportunity Safire's "On Language" has always been. Think about it--a column in the Times where a Washington reporter could analyze the myriad ways in which language is used and abused in politics, culture, and the media; the prevalence of question-begging, distortion, deception, logical fallacies, and misleading emotional appeals disguised as rational discourse; the reduction of political debate to sound-bites, image-mongering, and sloganeering derived from advertising; and the ways in which linguistic choices made by writers, editors, reporters, TV anchors, advocates, and politicians influence and limit the national agenda.

It could be a fascinating and important column. But instead, Safire prefers to recount the latest theories about who first used the word gerrymander. Fun stuff, but ultimately trivial.

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