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Curious Compound Adjective

While pursuing a story about equivocation in high office, I was told, “He gave an if-by-whiskey speech.” My source, asked about his curious compound adjective, said he thought it was a Florida political expression possibly borrowed from a Minnesota Congressman. That triggered a call to Richard B. Stone, now a Washington banker, but a former U.S. Senator from Florida familiar with that state’s political patois. He immediately recognized the phrase, meaning “calculated ambivalence,” and provided the following anecdote: Fuller Warren, Florida’s governor in the ’50s, was running for office in a year that counties were voting their local option on permitting the sale of liquor.

Asked for his position on wet-versus-dry, he would say: “If by whiskey you mean the water of life that cheers men’s souls, that smoothes out the tensions of the day, that gives gentle perspective to one’s view of life, then put my name on the list of the fervent wets. But if by whiskey you mean the devil’s brew that rends families, destroys careers and ruins one’s ability to work, then count me in the ranks of the dries.

William Safire in New York Times Magazine