Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Edwin Newman, R.I.P.

When Steve emailed me earlier today with the news that Edwin Newman had died, he added the comment that "they don't make 'em like that anymore."  Yes, Steve remains the master of understatement.

Edwin Newman was a gifted writer and broadcaster: elegant and droll, pointed and opinionated, funny and witty.  Moreover, he understood not just that there is a difference between humor and wit, but that one could be both.  I didn't always agree with him, especially politically, but I always enjoyed him.  But if I was limited to one word with which I could describe him, the word would be literate.

I suppose there aren't many people out there who remember Ed Newman anymore - at least not if you're younger than me.  For those of us who do, our memories will surely differ.  Newman was with NBC television and radio for 32 years, and played himself in several movies and television shows. There was Newman as an interviewer on the Today show and Meet the Press, Newman as moderator of presidential debates, Newman covering the assassination of JFK on NBC Radio, Newman as the newsman on David Letterman's short-lived morning chatfest, Newman as the host of Saturday Night Live.  Although all of those stick in my consciousness, I think first of Newman the wordsmith.

Newman was a man who wrote the way he talked, and one of the great things about reading his words on the page was that one could easily imagine those words being spoken by him as well, which gave them an added sense of pleasure.  (Reminiscent of David Brinkley in that regard, I'd say.)  He wrote four books, all of which are on our bookshelves here at Chez Hadley:  Strictly Speaking, I Must Say and A Civil Tongue were books on language, while Sunday Punch was a comic novel about boxing (which included characters with wonderful names such as Aubrey Philpott-Grimes, Simco Savory, and Fredda Plantagenet). 

Yes, Newman did have a way with names: he once suggested, in the era of movie stars with names such as Rock and Tab and plots with psychological overtones, that the perfect name for a western star would be Id Libido.  On the subject of the British penchant for hyphenated names, he concluded that his own name, were it so rendered, would be Edwin Hyphen-Newman. 

He eschewed needless verbiage, preferring understatement to hyperbole.  Speaking of the oft-married Zsa Zsa Gabor, whom he was observing at the 1960 Democratic Convention (don't ask), he said: "She had met the governor of a southwestern state, and she was telling him that she had a soft spot for that state because she had once been married there.  That did not make the state exactly unique, bu the governor seemed grateful."

He loved puns:  his year-end poem for Today would conclude "Happy Noo Year to Yoose from Edwin Newman NBC Noose."  He enjoyed thinking about a British seafood cookbook entitled What Hath Cod Wrought, or the western movie with the Old Testament background called Armageddon for the Last Roundup, not to mention the man who refused to work for the acetates division of a chemical company because "he who acetates is lost."

He relished the doublespeak of athletes and announcers, devoting an entire chapter of Strictly Speaking to their hackneyed clich├ęs, such as boxers who were evenly matched because "They both only got two hands," or baseball players batting .189 who "have a way of coming through with timely hits.  When you're batting .189," Newman countered, "any hit you get is likely to be timely."   (On Howard Cosell: "There is every reason to believe that when he says 'relative paucity' and 'veritable plethora' he is not kidding: he means it.")

For those of us who retched at the garbage language of corporations, human resources departments, bureaucrats, politicians, and all those who tried to sound smarter than they actually were, Edwin Newman was a hero - as Dave Rosenthal of the Baltimore Sun put it, a "friend and protector of the English language."   Rosenthal also has what is probably the best and most fitting legacy to Newman, in Newman's own words: 

"A civil tongue ... means to me a language that is not bogged down in jargon, not puffed up with false dignity, not studded with trick phrases that have lost their meaning," he wrote.

"It is direct, specific, concrete, vigorous, colorful, subtle and imaginative when it should be, and as lucid and eloquent as we are able to make it. It is something to revel in and enjoy."
That is always how I have tried to conduct myself as a writer and speaker, and to associate myself with others who feel the same way.  It is why I have always chosen to refer to this blog as a "Journal of Cultured Opinion,"  because (and here is where so many bloggers, I fear, get it wrong) many times how you say it matters just as much as what you say. (I actually rewrote that last sentence and managed to shave a half-dozen needless words from it, which suggests there may be hope for me yet.)   And although I fear I've often fallen short, it never hurts to shoot for the stars; and Newman's linguistic star is a pretty good one to shoot for.  Here's a toast to Edwin Newman, who died on August 13 but whose death was announced only today.  
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