Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Disagreeable English

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Good Words   Calendar Vocabula for the First Time Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher

 1999   2000   2001   2002   2003   2004   2005   2006   2007   2008   2009   2010 

 In the April 2010 Vocabula

by Mikita Brottman

What a complex set of emotions are attached to that small, inky polliwog, the apostrophe.

If you are anything like me, you may feel an irritating stab low down in the abdomen at the sight of a so-called greengrocer's apostrophe, the common term for an apostrophe erroneously inserted before the final s in the plural of a word (like pancake's). These errant apostrophes are found all the time in my student papers, where, at least, I can circle them, amend them, and have done with them. Not so when they appear in public places, on shop signs or billboards, or in officially published documents, such as a friend's recently obtained identity card that refers to legislation published under the "American's with Disabilities Act." More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest
The 2010 Contest Ends May 31.
Enter Today.

by Richard Lederer

The smashing success of the Tim Burton–Johnny Depp film Alice in Wonderland is vivid evidence of our fascination with Lewis Carroll's work for almost a century and a half.

        All in a golden afternoon
          Full leisurely we glide;
        For both our oars, with little skill,
          By little arms are plied,
        While little hands make vain pretence
          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 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, mathematical lecturer of Christ Church, and the girls were the daughters of Henry George Liddell, dean of the college. More ... 

One of the widest and most observable shifts in language is the three-thousand-year migration of ancient Greek vocabulary into modern English. The prestige that ancient Greek has held during this time has preserved the Greek antecedents, so we may witness language change over the eons (from Greek aion). Rather than create a list of words that would seduce only a hard-core philologist (if they still exist), we can observe the shift in context by examining how the vocabulary of ancient Greek literary criticism of drama has come into our language in more general, particular, and unexpected ways.

After the sporadic comments in Plato's Dialogues and Aristophanes' The Frogs, the first formal piece of literary criticism is Aristotle's Poetics. Because it is a treatise on drama, the Poetics began the dialogue of literary criticism with a discussion of drama that influences criticism even to this day: What is the value of spectacle? Aristotle thought little of special effects. Which is more important, plot or character? Aristotle thought the mere summary of a tragic plot should arouse pity and fear in the listener. More ... 

Book Excerpt
Back to Top  The Eternal Cliché
by Robert M. Knight

Words get tired. Or people get tired of words and expressions that have lost their meaning because they are worn out — some were empty of meaning to begin with. When writers, especially journalists, find themselves becoming rhapsodic, searching for that one modifier that will send the audience into a swoon, they are approaching danger. Soon any originality will be released into the air.

When William Shakespeare wrote "parting is such sweet sorrow," the words were as fresh as the play from which they came. More ... 

by Mark P. Painter

Recently I was on a "working vacation" in Florida, where my hotel furnished the Wall Street Journal to its guests. I am a former long-term subscriber to the WSJ. I read it for many years, but I no longer do.

Since Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. bought the WSJ, it has become part of what I call the Murdochization of news. This process seems to have two parts. The first is to cause controversy by employing (formerly) low-paid dunderheads to appear on Fox TV and say ridiculous things. The level of discourse is staggeringly puerile. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Knowing Words
by Robert McHenry

I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.
I thought I could. I thought I could. I thought I could. — Watty Piper [emphasis added]

As a kind of limbering-up exercise, may we take a moment to savor the ambiguity of the title of this essay? What do you take it to mean? On paper, it's hard to know what meaning is intended, though if I were to speak it to you, you would soon guess. If, for example, I gave each word almost equal stress and spoke "words" at a pitch the same as or just slightly lower than "knowing," you would infer that I am talking about the act or state of being familiar with words. If, on the other hand, I gave distinctly heavier stress to "knowing" and let "words" drop to a much lower pitch, you might be a little puzzled as to what I have in mind but you might guess that I am thinking about words that have to do with knowing. It is the latter that I mean to convey. We need not pursue this line of thought further here. But if we consider pitch and stress as elements of the information conveyed by the title phrase, we may begin to appreciate how wide the gap may be between simple information and knowledge. More ... 

by Jeff Minick

Sometimes it is enough merely to breathe,
To wake, to dress, to take one step, to feel
The fingerings of sun or snow upon your face:
Sometimes the wind is all we know of God,
         When prayer is but a fledgling sparrow trapped,
         A pair of frantic wings against our hearts. More ... 

Back to Top  768 Words
by Catherine Underhill Fitzpatrick

         Steve grabs the banister and glares at the upward sweep of steps, his features set with the stony determination of a mountaineer about to test the mend of a shattered bone, which he is not.

         Steven A. Barnes III, the most handsome of Madeleine's four handsome children, the easy one, she often remarked, beaming at him, the radiant mother, the winsome boy. That was some time ago, a lifetime ago, when Steven A. Barnes III resided with his family. More ... 

The Elder Statesman
Back to Top  Me and Mr. Junkhead
by Clark Elder Morrow
Science fiction sometimes depicts robot soldiers as killing machines without conscience or remorse. But at least one robotics expert today says that someday machines may make the best and most humane decisions on the battlefield. Guided by virtual emotions, robots could not only make better decisions about their own actions but also act as ethical advisers to human soldiers or even as observers who report back on the battlefield conduct of humans and whether they followed international law. — George Lamb, ABC News, February 21, 2010

Oh, really? Robots are going to make ethical decisions for human beings? Let me rephrase that: Robots are going to make ethical decisions? Now, let me rephrase that: Robots are going to make decisions? More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back to Top  It's Wrong, Deer. Quite Wrong!
by Bill Casselman

Today, class, we must chastise bumptious scientists charged with the coining of new Latinate generic and specific names for animals and plants. Today we examine the zoological name for that airy jumper of summer woodlands, the whitetail deer.

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Cervidae
Subfamily: Capreolinae
Genus: Odocoileus
Species: Odocoileus virginianus

The genus name is ugly and wrong. Odocoileus is New Scientific Latin, from the Greek noun odous odontis, "tooth" + Greek adjective koilos, "hollow," to mean "hollow-toothed." But the word Odocoileus is wrongly formed. It is illiterate. Yet it is totally accepted in all zoological literature. But that does not make it correct.

It is — and I'll use words comprehensible by naturalists — ka-ka, doo-doo, scat-scat. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back to Top  Name That Tree
by Carey Harrison

True story: gazing out at our blossoming quad, blossoming with jeunes filles en fleur as well as with botanical wonders, I asked my undergraduate class to direct their attention to a whitely blooming tree, opposite us. A white magnolia, I asked, or a dogwood? In truth they're not very similar, the height of the magnolia and its larger, stiffer, and more formidable petals and leaves giving the game away. But no one in the class could tell, or would even guess. They'd barely heard of dogwood, and magnolia puzzled them: several students had their computers open but were unable to google "magnolia," they confessed, because they couldn't figure out how to spell it.

Our range of campus flora, much of it planted eighty years ago by the seedsmen of a world-famous botanical gardens, is exceptional. We have some of the finest lindens I've ever seen, their perfume sometime choking in its intensity. I asked my class to name one tree (we also have spectacular flowering cherries, and dogwoods galore) to be found on campus. They gazed at me as if I were asking them to name the mountains of the moon. Could any of them even tell a pine from an oak? A robin from a crow? They could see how different they are, these inhabitants of earth; they have seen them; their names are, of course, familiar. But which word attaches to which? Their labels have fallen off. More ... 

The Common Reader
Back to Top  Bound for the Orient
by Kevin Mims

Earlier this year I spent a few days traveling the Orient in the company of an unknown woman. What brought us together was her travel journal, which I purchased in January at an antique paper and postcard show in Sacramento. My companion — I'll call her Hattie, for the sake of convenience — appears to have been the unmarried adult daughter of a fairly wealthy Honolulu couple. She spent the summer of 1922 traveling throughout the Orient and writing about her experiences in a journal. My guess is that she was well into her twenties at the time, maybe even her thirties, and that her parents sent her on the trip to broaden her education, or to get her out of their hair for a while, or in the hope that she might find a husband — perhaps all three. She was a somewhat sad creature, given to occasional snobbery, and she didn't make any close friends on her three-month voyage. She seems to have had plenty of money available to her and also to have been no stranger to traveling on ocean liners. She began her journal on Monday, June 26, 1922. Her first entry reads, "On board the Korea Maru, bound for the Orient. Left Honolulu in the afternoon, 5:30, after waving a final goodbye to Ruth & Harry & Mother & Father. I went to my stateroom, unpacked my suitcase there with the little lady that shares my stateroom. We went down to dinner. Met a Mrs. Dodge at the table, a friend of the Whites. She has asked the purser to assign me to her table. I did not enjoy the dinner as it was not very good. Only four at our table, and two waiters. Scarcely had I finished what was on the plate when it, the plate, disappeared. Do not appear to be many 1st Class passengers. Lot of 2nd. Nice boat but doesn't compare with the Maui." More ... 

Letter of the Law
Back to Top  Taxonomy and Spend
by Adam Freedman

People and corporations have "legal names," but not diseases. Remember that pandemic everyone was so worried about? You know, the swine flu? Or was it the Mexican flu? Or the H1N1?

Actually, public health officials in the United States generally referred to the disease as the "A(H1N1)," a name that follows scientific convention but is not legally required. In the case of a pandemic (which crosses international borders), nobody is empowered to bestow a name on the disease. More ... 

Last month's language module highlighted a few of the more common figures of speech: the metaphor, hyperbole, and euphemism. Another FOS that we see and hear every day is personification, a rhetorical device especially popular in brand name marketing where inanimate objects are endowed with personalities or human attributes. For example, you might have heard, or read, of the demise of the Pillsbury Doughboy. He is rumored to have died as the result of a severe yeast infection, compounded by too many pokes in the gut. Forget that. A quick check with Internet rumor debunkers turned up only one story involving a Pillsbury dough product. It concerned a woman sitting in her car when a Pillsbury biscuit can in her grocery bag on the back seat exploded and a chunk of dough smacked the back of her head. The frightening sound of the explosion and the sensation of something hitting her head shocked her into thinking she'd been shot. When she felt the dough stuck in her hair, she thought it was part of her brain bulging out and she instinctively tried to hold her gray matter in for over an hour until help arrived. Fascinating story but just another urban legend, as is the purported passing of the Pillsbury Doughboy. Not only is he still alive and giggling, he is a prime example of a growing number of brand name personifications associated with food and household products. There are so many, in fact, that if you were to throw a dinner party, you might consider hiring a personificatering team. 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 ... 

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. 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

"My bad." My what a clever and concise way of expressing regret or sorrow or acknowledging having made a mistake. More ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back to Top  Newly Coined Words

Have you recently coined a word? If so, tell us what it is and we may add it to our list of Newly Coined Words. For your neologism to qualify, it must be useful and not found on Google before we list it here. More ... 


Apostrophe Epiphany — Mikita Brottman

The Word Magic of Lewis Carroll — Richard Lederer

The Vocabulary of Ancient Greek Tragedy in Modern English — Francis Blessington

Book Excerpt: The Eternal Cliché — Robert M. Knight

The Murdochization of News — Mark P. Painter

Vocabula Revisited: Knowing Words — Robert McHenry

Two Poems — Jeff Minick

Fiction: 768 Words — Catherine Underhill Fitzpatrick


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Me and Mr. Junkhead

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — It's Wrong, Deer. Quite Wrong!

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Name That Tree

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — Bound for the Orient

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — Taxonomy and Spend


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Poem, Revised
54 Poems, Revisions, Discussions

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