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 January 2010 Vocabula

Book Review
Back to Top  To Know and Distinguish
by Mark Halpern

A review of H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, ed. David Crystal

This version of Fowler embodies two ideas on the part of Oxford University Press: first, that of republishing Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage exactly as it originally appeared in 1926; second, having it introduced and annotated by David Crystal. (The title page claims that it is "edited" by Crystal, but that is simply a misuse of the term — the whole point of this new version is that it is not edited at all, but an unmodified reprint of the original text. Curiously, Oxford also misused edited, but in another way, when they put out the Burchfield version in 1996. There they had the title page of early printings announce that the book was "first edited by H. W. Fowler," which is like claiming that Hamlet was first edited by Shakespeare; then, referring to the text that followed, they said that Burchfield was merely its editor when in fact he was to a great extent its author.) The idea of reprinting Fowler's text without the intervention of a Robert Burchfield or even an Ernest Gowers is a good one; that of having Crystal serve as its presenter and impresario is not. A brief note on the publishing history of Fowler will help to show why. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

Bog is one of those delightful words that can be used both as a noun and a verb. As a verb, it connotes weight and delay. Add gle and you'll "boggle" your mind. As a noun, the word is more interesting, at least in Ireland, where bog is not only another word for swamp, but slang for toilet.

I find it surprising that this latter, kickier usage has not caught on in the United States. I have heard it used only once on television, in an episode of that microcosm of popular American culture, "The Simpsons." In this particular episode Groundskeeper Willie (he of the airy kilt and the magnificent buttocks) gives Super Dude, the school's pet gerbil, a "daicent" burial in the school cellar rather than tossing him "in the bog, like me auld father." More ... 

by Richard Lederer

Welcome to two thousand ten, or is it two thousand and ten, or is it twenty ten?

I contend it's twenty ten, and here's why:

During most of our lives, we used the following formula to name years: nineteen forty one, nineteen eighty four, and nineteen ninety nine.

Then we reached the year two thousand, after which, when we tried to say twenty one, we realized that we would be ambiguous because twenty one could mean 21. So we started saying two thousand two, three, and so on. This new formula was probably influenced by Arthur C. Clarke's fantasy Two Thousand and One: A Space Odyssey, which preceded the year two thousand and one by thirty-three years. More ... 

Culture and Society
Back to Top  Michael Jackson and Mary Shelley
by John Kilgore

When Michael Jackson died last summer — so unexpectedly, to such worldwide outpourings of grief — I happened to be teaching a British Literature seminar in which the assigned reading was Frankenstein. Ever since then, foolishly perhaps, I have been dogged by a sense of connection between the two things: on the one hand Jackson's spectacular career, with all its prodigious ups and downs; on the other Mary Shelley's 1817 novel, most unlikely of classics, with its durable myth of unnatural creation.

In both cases, to begin with, it's fair to say that the excitement is not really about art. Among the aesthetic flaws of Frankenstein, written when Shelley was not yet nineteen, are tuneless language, cardboard characterization, over-the-top sentimentalism, and a nearly incoherent plot. If it were not a great book, it would not even be a good one. Still, there it is, a true colossus, the story everyone knows in some form, sacred birth site of science fiction and the modern Gothic. More ... 

by Paul Weidknecht

Some years ago, after returning from my first writers' conference — two weeks in New York's Adirondack Mountains dedicated to the creation of good writing — I realized I had taken a great step toward learning the skill of critiquing a short fiction manuscript (reviewing anywhere between sixty and ninety pages of work every other day will do that). The lit mag editors and MFAers must have rolled their eyes in boredom, but I found this new world of symbols, abbreviations, and jargon particular to editing strangely interesting, viewing each returned manuscript as a ciphered message in need of decoding. Odd, I know.

I learned much in those two weeks. I was taught the two things writers never want readers to experience: confusion or indifference. I learned it's not a good idea to begin a story with the focal character sitting and thinking, since this tends to slow down the story before it has a chance to get going. I came to realize that writers shouldn't get in the way of the yarn — people don't want to read someone's writing, they want to read a story. But I didn't learn everything because I'm still uncertain of what color pen to use when critiquing. More ... 

by Henry Ansgar Kelly

In general, medical practitioners are very good about following standard rules of pronouncing the myriad words from Latin and Greek that make up their professional vocabulary. The vocabulary was formulated by persons who knew not only both of the classical languages but also the protocols to be followed: namely, that Greek was not transliterated directly but rather recast in Latin spelling, and the resulting word, whether still completely in its Latin form (like "phalanx," plural "phalanges") or given an English form (like "phalangic"), are pronounced according to English conventions, not according to ancient sounds.

When the term gynaecology was first formulated, back in the middle of the nineteenth century, it fully conformed to the norms: it was pronounced with a soft G (i.e., a J sound), like all the other "gynaeco-" and "gyn-" words.

So, how did it turn into GUY-ni-KOL-i-JEE? (Note the internal inconsistency: the first "gy" is pronounced GUY and the second "gy" is JEE.) More ... 

Back to Top  Dear Jean
by Katherine Mullis

Dear Jean,

         Forgive me this letter. I imagine it too sanguine, too sentimental for someone such as you. I have just re-read your novel Two Ends Touching and found myself engrossed to the very end each time. Really, it is a novelette — a vignette, no? But the lovers, not the length, are what (whom) I wish to discuss. Their lives only briefly overlap, and then not even so. Does their love affair exist only in their imaginations, or is it really so precious, so finite, their time together? If the former, their imagination is infinite, and thus their love affair is also. But I dislike what you seem to say about love: its futility, its restlessness, its contrariness. If their love existed only in their minds, out of time, it really is cruel, is it not? Their love was all-consuming, then.

         But forgive me. These are the ramblings of an old man. I have already made a nuisance of myself — to address you so informally, to presume to write at all. But my name is Jean also, and I hope you will take pity on someone who shares your name, if not your literary prowess.

Affectionately yours,
         Jean More ... 

The Elder Statesman
Back to Top  Some Tools of Our Trade
by Clark Elder Morrow

In the classical period of Western European history, the ability to speak well and convincingly was prized, taught, and rewarded. This ability was an absolute requirement for public office and the law courts. There were many teachers who made a living doing little besides teaching young men how to organize their thoughts and express them aloud in such a way as to win arguments and sway opinion. This field of intellectual inquiry was known as Rhetoric. As happens with anything that is studied exhaustively and minutely, a vast body of technical terms grew up around it, and grammarians like Priscian and Quintilian produced works that detailed its glossary of technical words. These precise linguistic terms have been preserved and passed down to us, though they're now admittedly recondite. Nevertheless we have at our disposal a large assortment of tags for the most refined and subtle exercises of oratorical or written skill. There is no trick of the pen, no turn of phrase, no device of verbal composition that is not covered by some ancient term, which — with frightening exactitude — nails down the idea and classifies it for future use. More ... 

by Amalia Gnanadesikan

"Klingon is the official language of the Klingon Empire," begins Marc Okrand's Klingon Dictionary, an extension of his work for Paramount Pictures on Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. "The best way to learn to pronounce Klingon with no trace of a Terran or other accent," Okrand admonishes us, "is to become friends with a group of Klingons and spend a great deal of time socializing with them." Fat chance, though in general it's good language-learning advice. Not surprisingly, "[v]ery few non-Klingons speak Klingon without an accent."

I received a copy of The Klingon Dictionary as a birthday gift during my senior year of college. My friends seem to have thought it would do me good to study a really foreign language. The dictionary contains an outline of the grammar of Klingon, a word list, and a handy phrase list at the back. The latter contains expressions ranging from the peremptory, "Activate the transport beam! (jol ylchu'), to the wistful, "Will you read my manuscript?" (ghItlh vIghItlhta'bogh DalaD'a'), to the essential, "Where do you keep the chocolate?" (nuqDaq yuch Dapol). More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back to Top  Obscure Verbs of Leaping
by Bill Casselman

The rodeo corral of leaping verbs in English is of modest girth but encloses lively word broncos. To pronk, to stott, to caracole, and to saltate have a prancing splendour worth enjoying.

Pronk stems from an Afrikaans verb, borrowed from the South African riding vocabulary of Boers. It began leaping into English sentences at the end of the nineteenth century. The Dutch verb pronken means "to show off, to strut one's stuff." In Dutch, a pronker is a braggart or stuck-up jerk. Also, in Afrikaans, the Boer plural noun of pronk is pronken. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back to Top  Todo es Nada
by Carey Harrison

The other day I was comparing tattoos — mine include a lengthy passage of German philosophy, as befits a person of turgid literary tastes like mine — with a young man, one of whose tattoos proclaimed the motto, Todo Es Nada, All Is Nothing (or Everything Is Nothing or, perhaps, All Is Naught or All Is Nothingness), a motto not easily deciphered on his biceps because it is written there in Sanskrit (don't ask), when I realized that "Todo" is a word that tortures me. Accustomed to American demotic, my mind turns the word into the neologism "to-do," as in "to-do list." This misalignment of contemporary words may strike a chord with readers who appreciated my sidebar on the word "coworkers," which I habitually read as cow-orkers, a species of agricultural laborer presumably akin to chicken- and pig-orkers, all of them members of a common union, the International Orkers Of The World. Of course it's the steady disappearance of the hyphen, in this case from co-worker, that derails my brain, just as "todo list," which suggests "a condition demanding," as T. S. Eliot puts it in the Four Quartets, "not less than everything," is steadily replacing the perfectly self-evident (to me) phrase, "to-do list." More ... 

Letter of the Law
Back to Top  Is Washington Filibusted?
by Adam Freedman

Conventional wisdom has it that nothing can be done in Washington without the consent of 60 Senators. The reason — insiders will tell you — is because of the dreaded filibuster.

As serious as government is, we should not shrink from conceding that "filibuster" is a preposterous word. And a preposterous tactic, too. What it refers to, in short, is the Senate tradition that allows members to extend debate on any matter indefinitely, thus effectively killing legislation.

I had always assumed that "filibuster" derived from American slang related to "horse-breaking," the traditional term for taming a wild horse. After all, "breaking" a horse sounds a lot like "busting" a filly (a young horse). "That Jed," I imagined some cowboy saying, "he's one fine filly-buster." But I was wrong. More ... 

Twice last year I received a scrambled email message that looked like this:

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer inwaht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae.

Reading the jumbled words was surprisingly easy, and the effect was called typoglycemia. This strange phenomenon was new to me so I Googled it to see how cyberactive it was. It resulted in 148,000 hits, indicating that lots of people already know about this "glycemic" condition and convincing me to do a little "medical" research. It was worth the effort. 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 ... 


Book Review: To Know and Distinguish — Mark Halpern

Bog This! A Misadventure in Etymology — Bonnie Furlong

It's About Time — Richard Lederer

Culture and Society: Michael Jackson and Mary Shelley — John Kilgore

When Writers Become Red — Paul Weidknecht

Vocabula Revisited: Gin, Anyone? Or, How Did Gynecology Become a Guy Thing? — Henry Ansgar Kelly

Fiction: Dear Jean — Katherine Mullis


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Some Tools of Our Trade

Amalia Gnanadesikan: Postcards from Babel — tlhIngan Hol Dajatlh'a'? (Do You Speak Klingon?)

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Obscure Verbs of Leaping

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner Todo es Nada

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — Is Washington Filibusted?


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