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Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
December 2015, Vol. 17, No. 12 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 December 2015 Vocabula
The January 2016 issue is due online January 17 .
Mark Halpern

I. "I don't like quotas, but I like what they do"

It seems that most Americans agree that the idea of quotas is to be rejected; it is unenlightened to think that X% of whatever prize is at our disposal should be given to Fredonians, regardless of their merit, just because they constitute X% of the general population. But many of us also seem to think that it is unacceptable for Fredonians, who after all make up X% of the general population, to be severely "underrepresented" among recipients of that prize – that is, to form much less than X% of that number. When asked just how many Fredonians must be granted the prize if we are to avoid "underrepresentation", the one fact always pointed to is their percentage of the general population. Of course, attempts to award prizes so as to achieve acceptable "representation" yield exactly the same result as the imposition of a quota, but this is rarely acknowledged. The popular position seems to be "No, we don't want quotas, we want merit to be the criterion – but the result of using merit had better be close to — what quotas would have accomplished!"

There are two falsehoods behind this notion of under–representation (and the related term "disproportionate"). One is that if prizes were distributed with perfect fairness, everyone would get the same share; after all, aren't we agreed that all men are created equal? (There are of course people — commonly called politicians — who do not labor under this false idea, but speak and act as if they did because they believe doing so will bring them more votes than any attempt to be rational; I disregard them here.) And as a corollary, if prizes are not being awarded with near–perfect equality, doesn't that give us at least a prima facie case for believing that some bias, some illegitimate prejudice, is at work? If, for example, there are very few great women mathematicians, isn't that clear evidence that women are being discriminated against by departments of mathematics everyhere? And likewise if there are very few Chinese quarterbacks, isn't that a condemnation of the NFL and its Sinophobia?

Richard Lederer

November 26 marked the sesquicentennial of the publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

All in the golden afternoon
Full leisurely we glide;
For both our oars, with little skill,
By little arms are plied,
While little hands make vain pretense
Our wanderings to guide.
* * *
Thus grew the tale of Wonderland:
Thus slowly, one by one,
Its quaint events were hammered out –
And now the tale is done,
And home we steer, a merry crew,
Beneath the setting sun.

On the fourth of July, 1862, a young Oxford don dressed in white flannels and a straw boater took the day off to go a-rowing and go on a picnic with a Rev. Robinson Duckworth and three small girls. The don was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who was then, and for more than twenty-five years would remain, a mathematical lecturer at Christ Church. The girls were the daughters of Henry George Liddell, dean of the college.

Richard Lederer

Last month, Peter Gold, a 25-year-old medical student at Tulane University in New Orleans, stopped his car when he saw a man forcibly dragging a woman to another car. When Gold got out of his automobile and tried to help the victim, the criminal shot him in the stomach. The media immediately dubbed Gold, who is recovering from his wound, a Good Samaritan.

Good Samaritan is a reference to a parable of Jesus found in the Gospel of Luke 10:30—37. In the story, a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho was attacked by thieves and left by the side of the road half dead. A Samaritan came upon the victim and pitied him, binding up his wounds and taking him to an inn to recover.

The word bible derives from the Greek biblical, which means "books." Indeed, the Bible is a whole library of books that contain many different kinds of literature — history, narrative, short stories, poetry, philosophy, riddles, fables, allegories, letters and drama.

John Kilgore

We are not at war. Not. Say it slowly with me: Not. At. War.

The point needs extra buttressing just now, evidently. In the most recent Republican presidential primary debate, devoted to the suddenly fraught issue of national security, several of the nine contenders – that gang of yapping, half-trained poodles – strove to out-do one another in insisting that we are at war, by gum, and need to realize it and begin acting like it, soon, lest something or other bad happens: much as the denizens of an asylum, having trussed and stowed the guards, might gather in the light of musty lanterns to avow that a flea was a brontosaurus, a pimple a heart attack, and the common room in which they conferred really the hold of a gigantic spaceship bound for Mars.

First place, hands down, went to Governor Chris Christy, saucer-eyed and audibly salivating (IKYN: watch the tape) as he proclaimed his eagerness to shoot down a Russian jet, should the bad bears dream of violating the no-fly zone he means to declare in Syria, there in the Russkies' backyard, because after all a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, and in Jersey we say what we mean. Undaunted by the mild disconfirmation of his own Pillsbury Doughboy physique, Christy pronounced the lithe President a "feckless weakling" and treated the cameras to his best Stormin' Norman: "Not only would I say I'd do it, I would do it. That's what a no-fly zone means." The next day he doubled down, informing Charlie Rose, "We're already in World War III." When Rose interjected, "But not with Russia," Christie shrugged and did not quite say, "Hey, guy, what's the dif?" – but the message was there in the manly twist of his eyebrows.

Julian Burnside

Samuel Johnson defined fart as meaning "to break wind behind." He illustrated the usage with a quotation from Swift:

As when we do a gun discharge, Although the bore be ne'er so large, Before the flames from muzzle burst, Just at the breech it flashes first; So from my Lord his passions broke, He farted first, and then he spoke.

I have not been able to find out who was the object of Swift's attention. Probably Lord Chesterfield, who was much despised by Johnson. Johnson described Chesterfield's letters to his son as "teaching the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing-master." However that may be, it is apparent that fart was not treated in the eighteenth century with the reserve now accorded it. The OED2 says fart is "not now in decent use," which is about a 6 on the lexicographer's Richter scale of naughtiness. Compare damn: (no caution, but best not said to Duchesses or in Court, say, 2 on the Richter scale); bum, turd: "not in polite use" (say, 3); wank: "slang" (4); bugger: "low language" (5); fuck and cunt: "for centuries, and still by the great majority, regarded as a taboo-word; until recent times not often recorded in print but frequent in coarse speech" (off the scale). Bloody gets a "foul language" rating in the OED2, which is about 7, but in Australian usage, it is about a 3. Arse is noted as obsolete in polite use, which puts it with bum: appropriate anatomically, but in my view it rates a 5. Oddly, there is not much naughty language available above 6 unless you want to go off the scale.

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