Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Disagreeable English

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Good Words   Calendar Vocabula On Call Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher

 1999   2000   2001   2002   2003   2004   2005   2006   2007   2008   2009 

 In the December 2009 Vocabula

by Skip Eisiminger

Surely most Sunday school graduates know that Genesis begins in wordplay: Adam introduces himself to the creature bloodlessly excised from his flank saying, "Madam, I'm Adam," and his quivering mate shyly replies, "Eve." (I should say that I'm using a very rare edition of the Bible that's long out of print.) From this brief introduction, the complexity multiplies. The serpent, the embodiment of evil, is live. Get it? Some call such an odd pair a semordnilap. Get it? When Jehovah sends the first two humans out of Eden, he utters the shortest sentence possible in English, "Go!" He might have palindromically added, "Am I as stupid and impetuous as you are?" but Jehovah is not a deity to renege on his word, so the sentence went uncommuted. More ... 

Back to Top  To Wit
by Tina Bennett

"The Englishman is funny; he makes you laugh. The Irishman is witty; he makes you think." So goes an early line in the 2004 film Blind Flight, about an Englishman and an Irishman. No, they don't walk into a bar, but they do find themselves held hostage together for several years in Beirut in the 1980s. The line highlights the subtle but essential distinction between wit and general humor, and aligns wit, as it should, with a kind of cognition that humor may not require. More ... 

by Richard Lederer

What's the difference between a one-winged angel and a two-winged angel?

It's a matter of a pinion.

It's a matter of my opinion that Yule love the game you're about to play. In each sentence below, fill in the blank or blanks with an expression commonly used at Christmastide or with an outrageous holiday pun. Answers repose at the end of this page, but don't sneak a peek until you've tried your hardest. More ... 

by Mark Halpern

Starting in the last quarter of 2007, articles — and recently, books — about the ethical implications of military robots have been appearing with increasing frequency. Although their numbers are significant, it is not so much the quantity of these pieces as the remarkable variety of publications in which they've been appearing that shows that interest is in the subject is both deep and broad. In the month of November 2007 alone, almost an entire issue of Armed Forces Journal was devoted to the subject of robots as war weapons, with emphasis on how to control them now that they seemed to be on the verge of acting autonomously. And evidently by pure coincidence the November 16, 2007, issue of Science, the foremost scientific journal published in America, and perhaps the world, was also devoted to the ethical issues supposedly raised by robots in civilian and military affairs. It's not clear whether the specter that some of these pieces raise of robots "taking over" or "getting away from us" actually frightens the writers, or is just the kind of hyperbole that they feel they have to indulge in to catch readers, but there is indeed something frightening in these warnings: they show that there are some widespread misconceptions about the kinds of machines we call robots that are going to cause serious problems for us unless corrected very soon. As someone who has been working with computers for many years, and hopes for American economic and military success, I was alarmed by these misconceptions and want to see the process of correction begin right now. More ... 

Specialty Dictionary
Back to Top  Glossary of Detective-Story Slang
by William Denton

Alderman — A man's pot belly.

Ameche — A telephone.

Ankle — (n) A woman. (v) To walk.

Babe — A woman.

Baby — A person, can be said to either a man or a woman.

Bangtails — Racehorses.

Barber — Talk.

Baumes rush — Senator Caleb H. Baumes sponsored a New York law (the Baumes law) that called for automatic life imprisonment of any criminal convicted more than three times. Some criminals would move to a state that didn't have this law in order to avoid its penalty should they be caught again, and this was known as a "Baumes rush," because of the similarity to "bum's rush." More ... 

by S. Subramanian

George Orwell, in his "Politics and the English Language," presented a brilliant example of how the beauty and clarity of words can, with a bit of determined effort, be metamorphosed into ugly, dense obfuscation. He translated, with devastating effect, a passage from Ecclesiastes into modern "politicalese." The result is a marvel of truth-telling through parody. Orwell's thesis of the willful destruction of good language and its transformation into gobbledygook remains valid for our own times, although it must be remarked that the agents of destruction have now changed. In today's world, it would be hardly fair to designate the politician as the principal villain of the piece. Blessed by illiteracy, he has little use for language, good or bad, preferring as he does to let his actions speak louder than mere words — actions that, more often than not, are of the type that land him in jail, whence he contests (and wins) elections. Orwell's politicians have now been superseded by academicians, and they — take it from me — will require some dislodging from their seat of eminence. More ... 

Decades — maybe centuries — ago, a gap began to develop between how journalists look at the language and how English academics look at it. The separation might have begun as long ago as the eighteenth century, about the time that Joseph Addison and Richard Steele began to experiment with the periodical and separate themselves from poets like Alexander Pope and scholars like Samuel Johnson. English has been the poorer ever since.

At least two stereotypes get in the way of a possible reunification. Certainly since the turn of the twentieth century, the stereotypical journalist has had the reputation of a practitioner of hackneyed prose, a bad imitator of Ernest Hemingway. For longer than that, the stereotypical teacher or writer of "higher" forms of English has personified a fuzzy romantic who shuns any concept so crass as writing with skill. More ... 

by Derek Richards

i slept for weeks beside the cannons of stage fort park.
drinking myself into the lobster boats
motoring through the harbor, barely moving just like me.
another lost cousin moment
of the perfect storm,
the gloucester ugly addicts bruised beneath the eyes,
tourist bled and somehow blinking. More ... 

by Maryann Corbett

She wonders how she'll manage to be civil.
Metallic glitz and fake cheer make her nervous,
but yes, she should get out. She doesn't cavil
but wonders how she'll manage to be civil,
please these friends, endure this sonic drivel—
they panned her own idea, the midnight service.
She wonders why. She'll manage to be civil,
though crowds and glitz and fake cheer make her nervous. More ... 

The Elder Statesman
Back to Top  Anatomy of a Word (and an Obsession)
by Clark Elder Morrow

I have a confession to make: I am oddly — almost pathologically — obsessed with the notion of coziness. And I have no idea why this should be. I had a perfectly comfortable, mostly normal upbringing; my childhood was largely peaceful and rewarding, and though things were tight when I was about ten or eleven, my family never experienced any real deprivation. My earliest memories (and I think this goes to the heart of the matter) are of playing with a toy stagecoach and horses on the floor behind the furniture in my grandparents' comfy home. I recall being warm and happy and comfortable, but what I remember most distinctly is the feeling of heavenly snugness behind the sofa, or under the end-table, mingled with the thought that no one really knew where I was. Not that there was any threat in the wider room — there was, of course, none at all. But maybe we come into the world with an innate appreciation of anything that seems to afford us shelter, in what we intuit to be a hostile theater of action. It's as though we sense at once that the place we've been born into is a dangerous one, and any tucked-away smaller place (reminiscent of the womb) is a good thing. As always, the key to understanding any phenomenon is to trace the history of the word that denotes it. More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back to Top  Bastard!
by Bill Casselman

The late French linguist Albert Dauzat came up with the most picturesque origin of the word bastard. Dauzat's notion was that the insult derived from an Old French word bast, meaning "packsaddle for a mule" or "saddlebag slung over a mule's back" + the negative French suffix -ard. Thus a bastard was probably the love child of a man who herded mules and one night enjoyed a carnal connection with some highway hussy using his saddlebag as a pillow during their sex. No kidding! Was this a particularly weird way to name an illegitimate offspring in medieval European languages? Too bizarre to have ever accounted for the word's accurate origin? No, not at all. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back to Top  Dangerous Men
by Carey Harrison

I open my newspaper (what a dear old-fashioned fellow I am, you are thinking — but fear not, gentle reader, I opened it online, and "for free," as the ugly locution has it), to read about a handful of young American Muslim men who had disappeared from Washington and were newly "detained" in Pakistan, and in politically dubious company. Of these young fellows, as of serial murderers, neighbors and fellow-students were quoted as reporting how quiet-living, kind, and moral they were. (Will there ever be a class of person who reports that the neighbor in whose basement and garden numerous body parts have just been found was an evident monster, rowdy, unkind, and blatantly suspicious?) "He would never date women," commented a female fellow-student about one of the Washington Five. Is that "would" to be taken as meaning, "it is unimaginable that he would do it," or simply that he customarily did not do so? And, either way, does, "He would not date women" imply, then, that he dated men, boys, or assorted quadrupeds? What's happened to, "He never dated"? Is the intransitive ailing? Or would, "He never dated" imply, "With him it was hardcore or nothing"? Ah, these codes! No wonder there's a living in sociology. More ... 

Letter of the Law
Back to Top  Criminal Slanguage
by Adam Freedman

If you've recently been arrested, or if you like to watch Law & Order reruns, you may already have a sense of how heavily the criminal justice system relies on slang. No self-respecting prosecutor (or actor who plays one) would ever say "manslaughter in the first degree." That crime invariably gets shortened to the punchy "Man One."

Perhaps the conveyer-belt rapidity of criminal justice demands a looser way of speaking. Criminal law slang is very much a local invention; it changes from country to country, and even from city to city. Thus, a British prosecutor might offer a witness immunity in return for Q.E. or "turning Queen's evidence"; in New York, such an arrangement would be known as a queen-for-a-day agreement (the two queens are not related); while in Washington, D.C., it is called an immunity bath. In some American states, if a prosecutor wants to chat with a suspected criminal, but isn't ready to commit to an immunity deal, he'll send a Mae West Letter, as in "come up and see me sometime." More ... 

The underlying theme of these Language Modules is communication — actually, miscommunication — since most of the LMs deal with how badly we can deliver the wrong message because of typos, misspellings, solecisms, and the like. But sometimes we can mess up a message even with all the right words and letters. More ... 

Although few people can complain of another's grammatical mistakes with impunity, that is, without revealing their own, we are hopeful that "Disagreeable English" will encourage us all to pay more heed to how the language is used — by ourselves as well as by others — while bettering our ability to speak and write it. More ... 

Words often ill serve their purpose. When they do their work badly, words militate against us. Poor grammar, sloppy syntax, misused words, misspelled words, and other infelicities of style impede communication and advance only misunderstanding. But there is another, perhaps less well-known, obstacle to effective communication: too many words. More ... 

Inadequate though they may be, words distinguish us from all other living things. Indeed, our worth is partly in our words. Effective use of language — clear writing and speaking — is a measure of our humanness. What's more, the more words we know and can correctly use, the broader will be our understanding of self, the keener our acquaintance with humankind. More ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back to Top  Gotcha GrammarTM

Here are quotations from well-known, and less well-known, people, all of whom have used words ungrammatically or unstylistically. These are unnotable quotes, a collection of solecisms. More ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back to Top  Vocabula Poll

It's startling to hear someone use the word as (or as if or as though) when all around us people say like. More ... 


Words as Keys to Locks — Skip Eisiminger

To Wit — Tina Bennett

A Punderful Christmas Game — Richard Lederer

Culture and Society: Military Robots and the Redefinition of "Autonomy" — Mark Halpern

Glossary of Detective-Story Slang — William Denton

Bad Language: Post-Modern Bull ... — S. Subramanian

Vocabula Revisited: The Gap That Shouldn't Be: Journalistic Writing Versus Academic Writing — Robert M. Knight

A Poem — Derek Richards

A Poem — Maryann Corbett


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Anatomy of a Word (and an Obsession)

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Bastard!

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Dangerous Men

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — Criminal Slanguage


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