Scarcely Used Words

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Calendar    July 2015, Vol. 17, No. 7 Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher     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 July 2015 Vocabula
 The August 2015 issue is due online August 23.

Simply put, a malapropism is impropaganda. — The Wordspinner

The first time I telephoned Sue, she, suspecting an interior motive, said, "I'm not interesting." But, of course, she was. And so was her mother, a person of gender, who told me once that New York needs a way to purge the effluent from their den of inequity. And when I asked Sue's father what he did for a living, he said he mounted bugs in the NYU etymology lab.

My German-American parents were similarly afflicted with what the Germans call Zungensalat or "tongue salad." Mother was forever yelling at me to shut the scream door, and Father worried I wasn't getting enough Arabic exercise. For the most part, our mixed greens left us congenially dysfunctional. But when the Katz family, our Jewish neighbors, overheard mother say, "It's time to Judenize the Katze," they accused us of being "rabbit racists." As Mother said, "With neighbors like these, who needs anemones?" Eventually, we were forced to leave the Lower East Side, naked as jaywalkers, and like Walt Whitman, take a fairy to Brooklyn. More ... 

To enhance your Independence Day, witness this fractured chronicle of American history composed entirely of certified, genuine, authentic, unretouched student fabrications. Read carefully, and you will learn a lot.

Christopher Columbus discovered America while cursing about the Atlantic Ocean on the Nina, the Pinta Colada and the Santa Fe. Columbus knelt, thanked God and put the American flag in the ground.

Later, Jamestown was discovered by King James the One. The Pilgrims crossed the ocean in hardships. The men wore pants that only came a little ways past their knees, and the girls wore funny bonnets. The winter of 1620 was a hard one for the settlers. Many people died, and many babies were born. Captain John Smith was responsible for all this.

One of the causes of the Revolutionary War was the English put tacks in their tea. When General Burgundy surrendered to Sara’s Toga, the colonists won the war and no longer had to pay for taxis.

America was founded by four fathers. Delegates from the original 13 states formed the Contented Congress. Thomas Jefferson, a Virgin, and Benjamin Franklin were two singers of the Decoration of Independence, which says that all men are cremated equal and are well endowed by their creator.

George Washington led the United States to what it is today, while Ben and Dick Arnold were terrible traitors. Washington crossed the Delaware River, married Martha Custis and in due time became the Father of Our Country.

Soon the Constitution of the United States was adopted to secure domestic hostility. Under the Constitution, the people have the right to bare arms.

The two greatest marshals of the Old West were Wyatt Burp and Wild Bill Hiccup. General George Custer extinguished himself at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. More ... 

A prominent Silicon Valley high-tech company recently found itself the target of public criticism because it had adopted a rule against hiring ex-felons for a construction project. The critics were shocked by the company's position, and all of them made the same point: these ex-felons, they cried, had paid their debt to society, and were now entitled to consideration for employment on the same basis as anyone else. I call this idea the Market Theory of Criminal Rehabilitation (MTCR)1 — the idea, that is, not just that someone committing a crime has thereby incurred a debt to society, but that the debt in question is one that he can discharge by spending a specified time in prison, and that, once he so discharges it, he is left without any stain on his character or other disadvantage. (Note that I'm talking about felonies, not of misdemeanors or the like.)

I do not subscribe to MTCR, nor do the great majority of American citizens, I think. When I learn that someone has committed a murder or other heinous crime, I do not feel that he owes society anything; I think, if the idea of debt is relevant at all, that society is in debt to me and its other members — it has failed to honor the debt it incurred when it justified taxing us by promising it would keep us safe. If the criminal goes to prison, I feel marginally safer — while incarcerated, he cannot do me or any other peaceful citizen any further harm, although he may do his fellow convicts some harm. And when he is released from prison, I feel marginally less safe; his stint in prison is not likely to have rehabilitated him; it has quite possibly increased his dangerousness, and taught him new ways to harm us. But to believers in the MTCR, he has now been washed free of sin, and must be accepted in polite society without prejudice. More ... 

Politics, the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott claimed, "is an uninteresting form of activity to anyone who has no desire to rule others. "Difficult — make that impossible — to imagine a candidate coming before voters to announce that he really enjoys ruling: It turns him on, he announces, because he craves power. He would be written off straightaway as an egomaniac, a danger, a potential tyrant. Politicians therefore need clichés more than the rest of us do, if only to hide their simple brute motives. Much better for them to say that they just want to move the country forward — in fact, they have been saying it over and over — or themselves to go forward.

"Going forward has been the political cliché du jour for many jours now, maybe even for an année or two. My sense is that the phrase was popularized not by politicians but by athletes accused of various crimes, from using illegal steroids to wife beating. Ignoring the charges against them, these sports stars, with emphatic though less than believable earnestness, would say something like: "It's time to put all that behind me and just go forward. "What they were actually saying, of course, was: "Stop bringing up that stuff, bug off, and let me get on earning my astonishing salary, Schmuckowitz." More ... 

David Williams

Epicenter

One good thing about the disastrous earthquakes in Nepal is that now, for a brief period, journalists will actually use the word epicenter correctly; at least some of them will. Americans have this weird tendency to think that any prefix means "very"; hence, epicenter is used to mean "the very center." In the same way, errant writers use penultimate to mean "the very most ultimate." But epi is from the Greek, referring to the surface. Think of the epidermis of our skin; epi is not a prefix meaning "the very very center" but "on the surface above the center."

Thus, in geology, epicenter has a specific meaning; it is "the spot on the land above the point where the quake took place," which itself is called the focus. Covering the quake in Japan last year, the Washington Post ran a graphic that clearly named the epicenter on the ground and the focus 30 miles below it. But the reporter writing the accompanying text referred to the "epicenter thirty miles down." The illustrator knew the language better than the reporter did.

This is a mistake spreading like ebola and in need of eradication, if it is not already too late. More ... 

We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

That was Sir Winston Churchill to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940. It's called his Speech on Dunkirk, and in it, Churchill said, "We shall fight" seven times.

Notice all the synonyms that he could have used, but didn't:

    battle [as a verb]
    give battle
    do battle
    go to battle
    war [as a verb]
    war against
    go to war
    wage war
    make war
    take the field

    take up arms
    attack
    assault
    assail
    beset
    repel
    repulse
    resist
    withstand
    stand ground

Only one phrase comes close to a synonym for "fight": "defend." Churchill wasn't scared of repetition, but many people are. More ... 

Love a word? Tell us what it is and perhaps we'll add it to our list of Best Words. There need not be any well-reasoned analysis of your high regard for a word; emotional reactions to the sound or meaning of words are welcome. If a word you love is already listed, you are welcome to tell us why you, too, love the word. The Best Words have an aura of fun or majesty.

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Hate a word? Tell us what it is and perhaps we'll add it to our list of Worst Words. There need not be any well-reasoned analysis of your distaste for a word; visceral reactions to the sound or meaning of words are welcome. If a word you hate is already listed, you are welcome to tell us why you, too, hate the word. The Worst Words have an aura of foolishness or odium.

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The Aberdeen Academy course is a free way to test your vocabulary skills among other high school subjects. See how you score at High School Diploma.

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