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William Safire, the conservative columnist and word warrior who feared no politician or corner of the English language, died Sunday at age 79.

The Pulitzer Prize winner died in Maryland, his assistant Rosemary Shields said. He had been diagnosed with cancer, but she declined to say when that had happened or what type of cancer he had.

Safire, a staunch defender of Israel, spent more than 30 years writing on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. In his "On Language" column in The New York Times Magazine and more than a dozen books, Safire traced the origins of words and everyday phrases such as "straw-man," "under the bus" and "the proof is in the pudding."

New York Times Co. Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said in a statement: "For decades, Bill's columns on The Times's Op-Ed Page and in our Sunday Magazine delighted our readers with his insightful political commentary, his thoughtful analysis of our national discourse and, of course, his wonderful sermons on the use and abuse of language. Bill will be greatly missed."

Michael Oreskes, senior managing editor of The Associated Press, who served as a correspondent and Washington bureau chief of the Times during Safire's years as a columnist, said the conservative writer was a mentor and friend to a generation of Washington journalists of all political persuasions.