This weekend brought New York Times "On Language" columnist William Safire's 31st article since 1983 that has used the term "phrasedick":
I put a fishhook in this column two months ago about third rail and awaited a nibble. Ordinarily, this brings out the best in the Phrasedick Brigade, with my e-mail box bulging with hot leads and cool citations.
Yes. Safire's wondering why the world's phrasedicks haven't been hotly bulging in his box. "Phrasedick" is also most likely the speechwriter and pundit's least successful coinage in a remarkable career of coinaging.
After all this time, "phrasedick" still hasn't made it into the O.E.D. Until right now, Google returns a paltry 334 hits, all of them related to Mr. Safire himself. The term has no Wikipedia entry.
It turns out that the columnist's proclivity for 'dick has of late been a topic of some discussion over at alt.usage.english (yes, news groups are still around). User tinwhistler notes that "William Safire has used it, in combination with 'Brigade,' in three different columns in the last six months." The amateur language hounds in the group have mostly concluded that "dick" is meant in its early-last-century sense of "detective"; a phrasedick is someone who tracks down early appearances of now-idiomatic phrases.
But the situation runs deeper and is apparently more longstanding than any of us could have imagined. Back in 2002, an obscure e-mail list edited by a guy named Peter Martin featured an item that began as follows:
New language term here: From last weekend's William Safire column in NYTimes: "But the key task of the phrasedick is to find earliest uses of the current sense of 'a course that leads inexorably to disaster."
Your editor, deep in language for a long time, had never heard of a 'phrasedick.' I queried Safire. Stony silence from the master maven as usual.
A LexisNexis search yielded 72 results for "phrasedick," all of them original citations for or reprints of Safire's column. Not perhaps since the Michiko Kakutani limn brouhaha has a Times writer so completely owned a word. Clearly, he is welcome to it.