Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Disagreeable English

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

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 In the February 2010 Vocabula

Starting in 1910, boys grew up devouring the adventures of Tom Swift, a sterling hero and natural scientific genius created by Edward Stratemeyer. Many of Tom's inventions predated technological developments in real life — electric cars, seacopters, and houses on wheels. In fact, some say that the Tom Swift tales laid the groundwork for American science fiction.

In Stratemeyer's stories, Tom and his friends and enemies didn't always just say something. Occasionally, they said something excitedly, sadly, hurriedly, or grimly. That was enough to inspire the game called Tom Swifties. The object is to match the adverb with the quotation to produce, in each case, a high-flying pun. Here are my favorite Tom Swifties (says Lederer puntificatingly): More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by David Galef

"He's a real chauvinist," complained my friend Ilene about a colleague of hers.

"You mean 'male chauvinist,'" I responded automatically, the way I sometimes correct my ten-year-old nephew.

Ilene smiled crookedly. "Is there any other kind?"

Well, yes, there is. Or there used to be, before the term got co-opted by feminism in the 1970s. To be a chauvinist was simply to be prejudiced in favor of something, whether it was men or women. One could be a chauvinist for butter over margarine, if one was so inclined. More ... 

Over the last couple of years I have been engaged in co-compiling a book of unfamiliar quotations. In this time my co-author and I have amassed over 2,400 quotes. Unfortunately, the project is currently in abeyance, but rather than let the experience evaporate, I've decided to share with my readers what I learned in the process of ransacking English literature. Here, in no very organized manner, is some of what I found out. More ... 

by Heidi Huse

We Americans. We feminists. We Republicans (Democrats, Libertarians, Independents). We environmentalists. We language lovers. We the People. Really?

What collaborative spirit is imagined, created, or assumed when "we" choose to identify ourselves with others, or when we identify others with ourselves (with or without their knowledge or consent)? Who's included? Who's excluded? What universal beliefs, goals, lifestyle, or practices are assumed by a "we," seemingly unified, identity? What gets overlooked if not erased by this first-person-plural, corporate-identity creation? More ... 

It has been frequently observed that of making many books there is no end, but it is seldom if ever noted that one of the corollaries of this truth is that of making many reviews there is also no end, and the secondary avalanche of words that descends on us in the form of reviews is often as great as that caused by the subject books. In the interests of relieving both reviewers and readers of some of this burden, I propose a new time- and effort-saving tool, the Blind Review (BR): a review written by one who has not read the whole book under review; in some cases, has read none of it. The BR is in order whenever the reviewer finds, usually by reading a small part of it, that a particular book under consideration is just another example of a well-known genus, and need not be dealt with individually any more than a cook need deal with each potato individually. Given that finding, the reviewer simply produces a BR (noting that it is such, of course). Just sparing the reviewer the obligation to read the whole of the book makes the BR of some help, but when he can be spared the need to read any of it, the savings really amount to a breakthrough. (This calls as well for a revision in reviewing ethics: to review a book without having read it is traditionally a serious literary sin, but it must henceforward be understood that it is such only in the case of non-generic books; for the generic, the sin is to waste time reading it as if it were a unique creation.) More ... 

by Jeff Minick

Though a few adults happily achieve the dreams they entertained as children — doctor, nurse, fireman, soldier, sailor — most of us fortunate enough to match our desires with our lives do so by the hit-and-miss of accident and circumstance. We blaze trails through a wilderness of spirit and intellect, an arduous search for fulfillment that can consume years, even decades, of our lives. The biology student who longed for medical school finds herself at forty a mother of five whose passion for Girl Scouts, Little League, and Sunday school fiercely surpasses that fascination she once felt toward nematodes and monoploids. The boy who once dreamed of battlefield heroics awakes at thirty-five as a supermarket manager, a captain of butter and bananas who takes great delight in solving the problems wrought by a shipment of California lettuce left a day too long on a truck in Alabama. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  The Last Words
by Christopher Orlet

With few exceptions, the last words of history's great players have been about as interesting and uplifting as a phone book. We may expect pearls of profundity and motivational aphorism from our expiring artists, philosophers, and world leaders, but more often we are left with dry-as-dust clichés. But is it fair to expect deep insights into life's mysteries when the dying clearly have other things on their mind — hell, for instance, or unspeakable pain?

Bullet-riddled Francisco "Pancho" Villa doubtless had other things on his mind when he told a comrade, "Don't let it end this way. Tell them I said something." Likewise Thomas Jefferson believed the day on which he died to be of greater significance than any final declaration. "Is it the fourth?" he asked, shortly before expiring on July 4, 1826. More ... 

Two Poems
Back to Top  On Winter Afternoons
by Kathleen Goldbach

Black branches etched the leaden sky
in the after-school time, the dirty-snow,
rubber-boot, iced-mitten, chapped-cheek, nose-dripping, toe-
numbing time. Between school's "Stand in your lines!" cry
and home's "Don't sing at the dinner table" reply
we were free to let our teacher's voice flow More ... 

Shibboleths
Back to Top  Welcome to Country Music
by John Kilgore

Throw away the illusions of youth. Lose the belief in eternal love, the faith that you and your friends will save the world, the flowers, the bubble-gum. These belong to teenagers and to Rock. You are older now, and not wiser exactly, but more bruised and bitter. This is the land of later, the country of Country.

Your home and natural habitat, now, is this "honky-tonk," a term never recorded in actual use by American linguists, but insisted upon by all lyricists of Country. Yes, we know that the place seems old-fashioned; we have deliberately changed almost nothing since the thirties. That is a real jukebox there in the corner, weighing six hundred pounds, stocked with approximately one percent of the music (most of it seems to be Hank Williams) that now fits onto an iPod. On the walls are two American flags, a poster for John Deere tractors, another for Cox Feeds & Seeds, and trophies of a buck and a largemouth bass. A plaque behind the cash register says God Bless This Mess. More ... 

Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973) fashion designer extraordinaire, born in Rome in 1890, arrived at her flamboyant peak in avant-garde Paris during the 1920s and 30s. Her exotic imagination did not jibe with the glum and austere aftermath of World War Two, and the high-fashion world soured on her designs. Through the 1940s she sold perfumes and finally closed her atelier in 1954. She introduced several iconic ideas of twentieth-century fashion. It was Schiaparelli who first put Marlene Dietrich in men's suits, one of the most copied of her ideas. And she popularized the shocking pink color. The actress Marisa Berenson, she of luminous fragility and skin of unkissed translucent pearl in Kubrick's film Barry Lyndon (1975), is Schiaparelli's granddaughter.

Schiaparelli is one of the most mispronounced surnames in the history of clothing design. It's ska-pa-RELLI. The initial consonant cluster Schia is a hard c sound in Italian. Secondary stress on pa and full stress on relli. She said her first name as "elza," a modest zedding of the s in Elsa. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back to Top  Nation Out to Lunch
by Carey Harrison

J'accuse! I accuse the teachers of this country of willful mismanagement of its future, that's to say mismanagement of the children of this country. My wife, bless her, teaches Latin at a private high school whose children of the elite, the children of entitlement, are more or less incapable of learning, after they have passed through the hands of several dozen teachers on the way to being 15, or 16, years old. The problem exists at a succession of levels. Think of them archaeologically, as if we were Schliemann digging at Troy. (No, not Schliemann, who simply bulldozed vertically downwards in search of the most ancient level, and in doing so destroyed much of Homeric Troy along the way. Bless him, too.) The site we are excavating is the classroom mind in the tenth grade at a private American school. The first problem we encounter, in seeking to teach these students a foreign language, is that they possess no knowledge of the forms of their own language; they cannot tell the subject of the verb from the object of the verb; they do not know what the words subject and object mean. Have they never been told? Have they simply forgotten? The terms first-person singular and third-person plural are as opaque to them as phrases in the language they are seeking to learn. Unfortunately, since these terms are some of the tools they will need in order to learn a foreign language, they are like people trying to learn one foreign language in another foreign language. As a college teacher, the ubiquitous courses in "English as a Foreign Language" always bring a smile to my face, since I always think this is not something my native-born students need to be taught; it is already a foreign language to them. More ... 

The Common Reader
Back to Top  Letters to Rudi
by Kevin Mims

The found writings of non-literary people are a subject of great interest to this columnist. In January, I purchased a trove of such writings at an antiquarian paper and postcard sale in Sacramento. The collection comprises about thirty letters written in 1943 by an Anchorage, Alaska, woman named Vera Downing to her boyfriend Rudi Becker, who was then living in Cordova, Alaska. Vera was 23 when she wrote the first of these letters, which means that she would now be about 90 — if she were still alive. Vera worked for the U.S. Department of Engineering. When the letters begin, in early 1943, she is a stenographer. Later she is promoted to the head of the steno department. Rudi, who appears to be roughly the same age as Vera, is a salmon fisherman. The Alaskan salmon trade was considered a vital industry during World War II, and therefore the fishermen were exempted from military service. The war separated Vera and Rudi but not in the way that it separated so many other couples. They were living a mere 145 miles apart. The letters are a record of both their friendship and their on- again/off-again courtship. Rudi and Vera appear to have met in Cordova a year or two before the letters begin. At one point during 1943, Vera was briefly engaged to another man. But that didn't last. Throughout her letters, she discusses the possibility of marriage to Rudi. She addresses him as Honey and Punkin and Darling, and sometimes closes her letters with the word Love. But she also sometimes teases him with her tales of going out on the town with other young people and drinking and dancing until late at night. More ... 

Letter of the Law
Back to Top  Boilerplate Special
by Adam Freedman

Think about the last time a landlord or benefits administrator asked you to sign a lengthy contract. He or she probably told you not to bother reading the document because "it's only boilerplate." That sort of advice is, I need hardly tell you, sheer poppycock.

Legal language that gets copied from document to document is known as "boilerplate" and is, for some inexplicable reason, always assumed to be harmless. But it's not harmless — every word in a contract has some legal significance, even boilerplate. More ... 

As a research chemist, I found the study of molecules and atoms infinitely fascinating. As a wordaholic, I find the study of words and letters endlessly interesting as well. You'd have to look hard, but there is a far-fetched parallel between the two avocations. Just as atoms bond in unique combinations to form molelcules, so do letters link in specific ways to create words. Change one atom, and the result is an entirely different molecule with radically different properties. Water, for example, is composed of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen (H2O) and is a life-sustaining substance essential to all forms of life. Substitute one atom — sulfur for oxygen, say — and the molecule is now hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a toxic, flammable compound with an odor of flatulence. Likewise, a misplaced or missing letter can result in an entirely different word and a sentence with a drastically different meaning. Recently, a local newspaper announcement urged pregnant women to protect themselves against the swine flu by getting shot. The missing S at the end of the sentence catalyzed the disintegration of the entire sentence — atom smashed it — causing plenty of fallout. A missing S can get you on somebody's hit list, or a worse list. Given the critical composition of words, this Language Module looks inside their outer shell and focuses on one particular nucleus, the S, the nineteenth letter of the English alphabet. 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

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

 Features

"It's My Centennial!" said Tom Swiftly — Richard Lederer

Lost Qualifiers — David Galef

"May I Quote You?" On Compiling a Book of Quotations — Clark Elder Morrow

Singin' the "We" Blues — Heidi Huse

The Blind Review: A Literary Breakthrough — Mark Halpern

Life Tales: Bumbling into Bliss: My Life as a Teacher — Jeff Minick

Vocabula Revisited: The Last Words — Christopher Orlet

Two Poems — Kathleen Goldbach

 Columnists


John Kilgore: Shibboleths — Welcome to Country Music

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Schiaparelli: A Renowned Coutourière’s Italian Surname Traced to Its Origins

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Nation Out to Lunch

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — Letters to Rudi

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — Boilerplate Special

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