` The Vocabula Review - January 2015 - Table of Contents

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  Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
January 2015, Vol. 17, No. 1 ISSN 1542-7080
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The Dictionary of Unendurable English


Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English

Today's popular dictionaries often fail to define words correctly or to distinguish between them; some dictionaries even maintain that one word means the same as another simply because people who do not know the correct meanings of the words confuse them. Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English — a supplement to whatever dictionary you own or use — is an attempt to combat this nonsense, to return meaning and distinction to the words we use.

You can order The Dictionary of Unendurable English from Simon & Schuster or Amazon or elsewhere.

To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing


To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing

To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing is the perfect reference book for anyone who wants to communicate more effectively through clear and beautiful prose. In this freshly updated edition that features hundreds of new entries, Robert Hartwell Fiske lays out multiple lines of attack against verbiage. He starts by training writers, new or experienced, to tackle wordy trends in their work. His "Dictionary of Concise Writing" helps them identify and correct — or delete — thousands of specific redundant phrases. In addition, writers can turn to the new "Guide to Obfuscation: A Reverse Dictionary" to build a more pithy vocabulary. Filled with real-world examples that provide clarity and context for Fiske's rules of concision, this is a writer's sharpest weapon against verbosity.

You can order To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing from Amazon or W. W. Norton.

Elegant English: Second Edition


Elegant English

This is a Vocabula Book. As the superfluity of uninspired, careless, grammatically incorrect, slang-ridden English makes plain, elegant English is English rarely heard, English seldom seen. Countless occasions where elegant English might have been used — indeed, ought to have been used — by a president or politician, an author or other notable, have passed with bland, if not bumbling, speech or writing. The point of this book is to show that the language can be spoken or written with grace and polish — qualities that much contemporary English is bereft of and could benefit from. Elegant English is exhilarating; it stirs our thoughts and feelings as ably as everyday English blurs them.

You can order Elegant English from Vocabula or Amazon.

The Dimwit's Dictionary: Fourth Edition


 The Dimwit's Dictionary

Whereas a witticism is a clever remark or phrase — indeed, the height of expression — a "dimwitticism" is the converse; it is a commonplace remark or phrase. Dimwitticisms are worn-out words and phrases; they are expressions that dull our reason and dim our insight, formulas that we rely on when we are too lazy to express what we think or even to discover how we feel. The more we use them, the more we conform — in thought and feeling — to everyone else who uses them.

You can order The Dimwit's Dictionary from Vocabula.




 In the January 2015 Vocabula
 The February 2015 issue is due online February 22.

In 2012, The Department of Education released "The Nation's Report Card," which stated that only 24 percent of twelfth graders were proficient in writing. The following year, CNBC's Kelley Holland caused a minor sensation with her article "Why Johnny Can't Write and Why Employers Are Mad," in which she addressed the poor writing skills of college graduates and the economic effects of this deficiency on corporate America. A quick Internet search of "the costs of poor writing" confirms Holland's thesis: thousands of sites detail the enormous financial losses caused by employees unable to write in clear, concise language those letters, reports, and memoranda their workplace demands.

As Holland points out, employers and researchers are divided regarding the cause of this problem. Some point to technology, claiming that the texting, Twittering, and online chatting are damaging the abilities of students to form coherent sentences. Others fault the schools, decrying the scant attention paid on spelling, grammar, syntax, and rhetoric.

Though I am too ignorant to support either side in this debate — I suspect both are correct in their analysis — I do know of a way to train proficient writers. This method is arduous, time-consuming, and painful, for student and for teacher, but it works. Let me explain.

For the last fifteen years, I have offered seminars in Latin, history, and literature to home-educated students here in Asheville, North Carolina. These students meet with me for two hours per week and then return home where, if they are diligent, they will work another four to seven hours on their assignments, depending on the seminar in which they are enrolled. The students range in age from eleven to eighteen, and the subjects studied run from middle school composition to Advanced Placement literature, history, and Latin. With the exception of the lower level Latin courses, writing the essay is at the heart of all these classes. More ... 

by Richard Lederer

The word balderdash reaches back to the time of William Shakespeare and originally meant "a hodge-podge of liquids," such as milk mixed with beer, beer with wine, and brandy with mineral water. Gradually, balderdash came to stand for "pretentious, bombastic, and senseless prose."

Words that describe words that befuddle and obfuscate possess some of the most fascinating etymologies in the English language:

• A cock-and-bull story is so called because, from the dawn of recorded history, certainly as far back as Aesop, we have created stories in which animals, including cocks and bulls, talk and walk and act like humans. The last lines of Laurence Sterne's wildly imaginative Tristram Shandy read: "What is all this story about? — A cock and bull, said Yorick — and one of the best of its kind I ever heard."

Double Dutch is a Briticism that denotes a meaningless jumble of sounds. We say, "It's Greek to me," but the English love to pick on the Dutch with such expressions as "Dutch treat" (no treat at all), "Dutch courage" (alcohol), and "in Dutch" (in trouble).

Flapdoodle is an American southernism. When you cook and then remove a bunch of pancakes ("flaps") from a cast-iron skillet that has not been properly seasoned, the designs ("doodles") are left at the bottom of the pan. Thus the complaint from Confederate troops: "If it wasn't for those damn Yankees making such a flapdoodle out of nothing, we'd be eating honey and homemade biscuits right now."

• In Julius Caesar (1604), Shakespeare wrote, "The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead / Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets." As the sound of "gibber" indicates, the verb means "to utter incomprehensible prattle." From to gibber we get the verb to jabber (whence Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky") and the noun gibberish.

Gobbledygook describes inflated and abstract bureaucratic verbiage. The word was cobbled by one-time Texas congressman Maury Maverick, who compared the forbidding prose of Washington bureaucrats to the senseless gobbling of turkeys that echoes in the public mindspace. Gobbledygook doesn't call a spade a spade. Gobbledygook calls a spade "a manual excavation device." That's why the one-syllable, three-letter word now has been replaced by the five-word, seventeen-letter "at this point in time." Lest we forget, it is language that separates the human beings from the bureaucrats.

• By a process of elimination, poppycock flows from the Dutch pappekak, "soft food or dung." Please don't sue me for defecation of character for that one.

Let's shine the spotlight on three rhyming reduplications that signify meaningless prattle:

folderol. Picture a medieval minstrel singing a ballad. He makes it up as he goes along, but every now and then his inspiration fails him. Rather than commit the faux pas of silence, he sings something like "fol-de-rol," the medieval equivalent of "la-la-la." In the late seventeenth century, folderol, a nonsense word, came to mean "nonsense words."

Mumbo-jumbo was originally a word in Mandingo that denoted a magician who made the troubled spirits of ancestors go away.

Hocus-pocus is said to issue from the Latin hoc est corpus meum — "this is my body" — from the Roman Catholic mass. From hocus have issued the words hoax, "a mischievous trick," and hokum, "nonsense." More ... 



Once upon a dune, inland due-east from the California city of San Diego, solitary I walked into the Anza-Borrego desert. On that late spring morning long ago, the scrub lay quiet, subdued as Eden after the fall. A sonic minimum hummed among humble cacti, over mesquite, tarbush, and paloverde. Dry wind shushed across pebbled desert. Then I heard sharp, vivid clacks! Startling, as when the devil snaps a whip over his mule team. This noise of dry ocotillo sticks clattered thwock-thwock. The octotillo, also called the coach-whip plant, stands up in a spiky nest of long, dead-looking, slender branches often eight to fifteen feet tall, as if someone stuck ten tall brittle branches in the sand. The desert wind knocks ocotillo stems against one another and they clack, frequently providing the sole sonority on a desert walk.

If you happen upon spindly spines of ocotillo after a spring or summer rain, you are rewarded by flashy red flowers exploding from the tips of the seemingly dead branches. Hummingbirds and carpenter bees pollinate the bright, arterial-red ocotillo flowers. Locally, in their native bajada landscape, ocotillo twigs are stuck in the ground to make a fence and the sprigs may sprout to make a living fence. Because they bristle with nasty spines, ocotillo fences exclude all manner of fauna from a southwestern garden.

The apt-sounding Mexican-Spanish word harks all the way back to the Aztecs. The conquistadores named the plant with a diminutive version of the Mexican word for a kind of pine tree, acote, Mexican Spanish “pine“ but literally “torch tree“ < ocotl Nahuatl “torch“+ -illo diminutive suffix inherited by the embryonic Spanish language as it grew out of and evolved from Roman soldiers' street Latin.

Montezeuma himself proceeded along Aztec palace corridors as slaves held high ocotl torches to light his way toward the treacherous Spanish soldiers awaiting him in the court of welcome. Acote is a Mexican pine so rich in resin that its tree limbs were burned as torches by the Aztecs and other peoples of ancient Central America. Acote's botanical name recalls the Aztec king, having the scientific moniker of Pinus montezumae. Or it may have been dubbed "the little torch tree" because of its red flowers.

Nahuatl is the name of the language spoken by the Aztecs and still used by their descendants. Through the medium of American Spanish, English has borrowed important words from Nahuatl, including tomato, chili, cacao, chocolate, coyote, ocelot, and avocado.

Casselman of Arabia? I Don't Think So. More ... 


by Louis Gallo

Of the countless things I have now forgotten, arguably the most irrelevant, inconsequential and downright small is that musty grammatical construct, the ablative absolute. I recall a year of mild suffering during which I studied it — first and second semesters, sophomore rank, Tulane University — the class (Latin 101), the teacher (an authentic Italian with the lugubrious name of Mr. Cassanova, ABD, who was short and burdened with heavy bluish Nixon-like beard when freshly shaved — he used Canoe, my brand back then — the room (Newcomb Hall 406), the faces and names of my fellow students on all four sides, which I won't bother to record here, although I understand two are already dead, one blown up in Viet Nam long ago, the other a victim of some gruesome disease that petrifies the entrails ... I even remember the color of the walls (Dannon coffee yogurt), the hour (one p.m., right after lunch), my next class (Greek Mythology with Dr. Regenos, surely the most cantankerous, pedantic and old human being alive at the time, a smoldering Tithonus), the girl I strained to sit next to (Joyce Bergen from Troy, New York, who, despite her miraculous, creamy body, I was convinced had a wooden leg). I remember everything except the wretched ablative absolute. It is as if, alone among a myriad of closely related mnemonic tidbits, it chose self-extinction for the sole purpose of vexing me decades later. It cannot be argued that I have forgotten, in this case, what is not worth remembering; if so, I should have forgotten the coffee yogurt colored walls as well. Nor have I forgotten because of the suffering I endured, which, as I recall, would confirm the psychoanalytic voo doo of hysterical repression. I agonized far more in Introduction to Physics, yet I recall with pristine clarity the formula for the caloric disintegration (i.e., melting) of an accelerating snowball of x mass which collides with a brick wall at y degrees Celsius. So neither irrelevance nor hysteria can account for my inability to remember the purpose, structure and significance of the ablative absolute. Hence I take my forgetting as portentous, a worrisome sign indeed, a good old-fashioned fray in the rope.

I have forgotten much else, true — human demographics during the Age of Constantine, the specifics of the Mexican-American War, most of the periodic table, the horror of logarithms, and so on — but it is always the ablative absolute that returns to haunt me at the oddest moments, ay, when comparing prices of toilet tissue in Kroger or spreading Plastic Wood into cracks in my worn, woeful weatherboards. Most recently the forgetting seized me as I drove home after an abortive foray to the shoe store. Back then I had spent hours, days, weeks studying the ablative absolute because I knew it would be something I would forget, because it defied reason and therefore required arduous concentration, because I had no interest in it whatever except to pass my language requirement courses. You could say I pounded the ablative absolute into my soul with a sledge hammer, yet still ... This bodes no good for memory, does it, or intellect or reason or that sine qua non of human evolution, the neo-cortex? If we forget what we pound into our souls, can we expect any less, or more, from that which we acquire casually, say, from CNN factoids or Time magazine Milestones? Might we not also forget our greatest moments of triumph, our darkest nights of grief and loss? Indeed, if we forget the ablative absolute, I maintain that we can forget our own mothers, our names, our very personalities and birthrights. In the end mere amorphous existence would prevail, dimly conscious of itself, mollusk-like and gaseous at once. We would be no better off than mist, which, of course, assumes that we are in fact better off than mist, a position I endorse but refuse to pursue. Thus have I undertaken to retrieve the ablative absolute from the intricate curlicues of memory-fold in which it has undoubtedly enshrouded itself. Everything else goes on hold until I remember. I have spent four days and three nights literally locked in my study, straying out only to eat and go to the bathroom. I am not one of those ascetic mystics who can function when deprived of food and water; I have no interest in visions or hallucinations, the cotton-candy of tender minds; I reject all consolation. It is the ablative absolute or nothing. As for the ablative relative, should such a monstrosity exist, feed it to the buzzards. I curse compromise, always a ruse for the sake of practicality, as Abel cursed Cain, if he cursed Cain; and if he didn't, he should have. Absolutely.

I have accumulated enough sick days to make even a two- or three-week stint at remembrance possible. I have left a message on my answering machine suggesting (only suggesting, to thwart thieves) that I am in the bathroom. I've informed my fiance, Isidore, that I need a vacation, some, as they say, "personal space," to clear my head. So all is well, and I can concentrate. The problem is I'm getting nowhere — nearly four full days of acute, intense recall, and not a shred on insight into the ablative absolute. Other interesting residues have returned — my earliest memory is not, as I'd previously thought, excreting upon myself while in a stroller on North Miro Street in New Orleans pushed my god-mother Aunt Sylvia, but rather watching my little sister excrete upon herself in her stroller. The sight itself is not even the memory; my overwhelming feeling of revulsion is the memory. I am beginning to think that individual, discreet memories, rank secondary to the primary gut-work of overall sensation. That is, perhaps a Kodak moment, whether prolonged or merely a flash in the night, merely to cue us in to something more fundamental, like feelings, appetites, fears, desires, pain, pleasure. If this is the case, my quest for the ablative absolute, and any other pure byte of information, will abort before it begins. Could it be that I, one of the few remaining Platonists in the universe, have discovered the truth of nostalgia and reminiscence in a single false maneuver by remembering not my sister but my own gagging over her sweet, acrid, blossoming, fetid caca? And if so, the caca may as well have been mine as hers, may as well been anybody's. Absolute caca.

So we're in this bind, you see: the thing itself, quiddity, or the recoiling from the thing? I may well have to terminate my quest if this sort of mental mayhem persists. Meanwhile, I won't budge, except for necessities as I've mentioned — I'm no martyr — until the ablative absolute re-reveals and reconstitutes itself to me exactly as I memorized it nearly three decades ago. Because I know it's there, taunting, teasing, aching to be grasped, like a naughty cheerleader in the distance. And if it's not there, screw nostalgia and all the rest of it, for it would mean that nothing matters, that we should seize the moment as the insufferable hedonists whom I detest preach, that time and memory are gigantic hoaxes perpetrated by hopelessness. At least that's what I think it would mean. That's what it would mean for me. The destruction of one single atom of experience or sensation, like a black hole in our being, would suck our very plenum into itself eventually. And then where would we be but mired in fatal gravity? Hence I labor for all mankind, for the universe itself. My work is precarious. I have roughly thirteen days, before sick leave runs out, to reach El Dorado. After that, one way or another, we can go our merriest of ways, catch Frisbees with our teeth.

by Valerie Collins

For months I have managed to ignore the hook carefully placed on the Merriam-Webster Online home page:

"Pleather" — The New Word in Fashion The latest version of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate® Dictionary, Eleventh Edition has hit the runway in style! Ogle a sampling of our 2004 Collection of new words and senses (including "pleather") here!

Today, propelled by some mysterious linguistic force, I decided to investigate.

The entry is: "Pleather (noun) 1982 : a plastic fabric made to look like leather." I surfed a bit — even though the ever-so-friendly-and-concerned engines insisted that surely I meant leather. Pleather, I discovered, is faux leather, imitation leather, artificial leather. "Synthetic PU leather made to look like leather." And what is PU? Polyurethane film. Pamela Anderson calls it "the wild kingdom of synthetic leather." "It's breathable, pliable, and inexpensive. It's easy to clean. It's a cruelty-free [what?] coated fabric, as versatile as tofu." "It can be soft, hard, vividly colored, or ultra-conservative and made into everything from luxury car seats that don't stick to your rump like leather to shoes, sandals, purses, handbags, basketballs, footballs, sporting gear." Pleather is a fashion statement, allowing you to be high-end trendy while not alienating the animal rights activists. Again like tofu (as we shall see), pleather saves animals' lives.

So that's that shiny-is-it-really-leather stuff in all those bright nonleather colors that I have still not managed to acquire a single garment in. Maybe I didn't know the word (apart from the fact that I am not into fashion) because I live in Spain. I swear I have never seen words other than "piel" in the shops here. I clicked back to the surprisingly coherent article ("Whether to Pleather") and told Google to translate it into Spanish. The poor machine left pleather as it was. It also left a lot of other words in English and mistranslated half of the rest — but that will have to be the subject of another column. I've already had about 20,000 false starts on this one. More ... 

Before we discuss the phrase "just deserts," let's discuss "desert," the sandy wilderness; and "dessert," a treat, usually sweet, ending a meal.

Desert, a sandy wilderness, has one "s." I have two mnemonics (memory devices) for you. Mnemonic 1: Think "Sahara desert." Each word has one "s." Mnemonic 2: Think "sandy desert." Each word has one "s."

Dessert, a treat ending a meal, has two "s's." Mnemonic: Imagine a restaurant with a sign, "Desserts Stressed." That phrase is a palindrome; it reads the same forward and back.

Now for just deserts: "Just deserts" are what someone justly deserves.

The phrase has one "s." It is related to "deserve," not the "desert" that is a sandy wilderness. It is not related to "dessert," the last course of a meal — although "just deserts" is pronounced like "desserts."

Mnemonic: "Just deserts" has one "s" in the middle, just as "deserve" has one "s."

Here's the U.S. Supreme Court using "just deserts" correctly: "Putting Enmund to death to avenge two killings that he did not commit and had no intention of committing or causing does not measurably contribute to the retributive end of ensuring that the criminal gets his just deserts." (The case was Enmund v. Floridai, 458 U.S. 782, 801 (1982).)

Here's a federal appeals court getting it wrong: "That a plaintiff may derive satisfaction from the fact that a wrongdoer gets his just desserts does not constitute an acceptable Article III remedy." (The case: Plotkin v. Ryani, 239 F.3d 882, 885 (7th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted).)

Here's the Nevada Supreme Court getting it wrong: "[A] criminal offender may be punished because he deserves it. Retribution or just desserts as a response to criminal law violation is thought by many jurists and social theorists to be archaic and inappropriate." (That was Scott L. v. State, 760 P.2d 134, 136 (Nev. S. Ct. 1988) (italics in original).)

Although the court italicized "deserves," the court missed the connection between "deserves" and "deserts."

Just remember "deserves." More ... 

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