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

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 In the July 2010 Vocabula

by Sarabjeet Garcha

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In November 2007, I was in my hometown, Nasik, Maharashtra, to attend a gathering commemorating my grandfather's first death anniversary. We assembled in a local gurdwara, which I noticed had been recently renovated. Now, I love everything about a place of worship even if at times I am convinced that the world is losing its share of selfless worshippers. The hymns rendered with passion and devotion, to the accompaniment of the tabla and the harmonium, never fail to move me. The Granth Sahib, the striking compilation of the Sikh scriptures, reaches out to me to proffer its timeless wisdom woven in the mellifluous verses of seer-poets. The community kitchen is also something without which the picture of a Sikh shrine is never complete. Although I don't consider myself religious, I do admire religious motifs. But little did I know that tales of this covert admiration would begin doing the rounds in the scenic, serene city located on the banks of the Godavari when I asked for a stool to capture with my digital camera the garlanded photograph of a deceased priest. What was thought to be my undying love for unsung godmen was in reality my irrepressible zeal to photograph a grammatical error: on the bottom left of the frame was written "Date of Birth," while on the bottom right was a phrase that's very familiar to not only pharmacists but also laypersons: "Date of Expiry." Perhaps they forgot to include a "best before" date, I wondered. More ... 

by Janet Byron Anderson

On the Sunday before Senator Robert Byrd (Democrat, West Virginia) died, I was visiting a family whose daughter (I'll call her Kim), an only child, had begun her summer of independent study and intermittent leisure. She'd just completed ninth grade and was looking forward to tenth grade — and especially to her new English teacher, who, she hoped, would not deduct 10 points for every instance of the passive voice on a student's paper. Although many teachers and coaches frown upon use of the passive voice, the teacher's grading horrified me.

However, I didn't want to condemn the teacher, and thus unwittingly encourage Kim to disrespect teachers, so I simply explained that I would've graded differently. I speculated on the teacher's motive. "She was probably worried," I said, "that you wouldn't learn how to be specific about who or what did the action — a discipline that the active voice forces upon you." Nevertheless, I had two concerns. First, I feared that this child, the dutiful daughter of Chinese immigrants (both MDs), would obediently develop passive-voice-phobia whenever she sat at her computer to write an essay. My second fear was deeper: Kim is fascinated with U.S. history, government, and law. In fact, she's already set her sights on Harvard Law School. No student aiming so high can afford to leave behind a sturdy knowledge of the strengths of the passive voice. Therefore, using examples, I explained to Kim what these were, and she took notes. More ... 

by David Galef

The last time I went to buy a pair of sneakers, the clerk directed me to a section of the store labeled "running shoes." I grew up in the age of Keds and P.F. Flyers, but for the first time, I thought about the term sneakers and what it implies: the kind of soft, rubber shoes quiet enough for the wearer to sneak up on someone. The origins are disputed: an ad copywriter's using the term in a 1917 campaign, pre-empted by an academic bulletin in the 1880s claiming schoolboy usage, but clearly the term has stuck. The British are more directed, naming this type of footgear trainers because athletes train in them, though they also call a type designed for indoor wear Plimsolls, after a now-defunct brand. Never mind that the item has split into walking shoes, cross-trainers, basketball high-tops, and so on. Sneakers has an American folksiness, embodying the kind of diction that comes up with movies to describe pictures that seem to move. I thought about that as I bought my high-end (in price, not heels) shoes and padded home. More ... 

Not long ago, I was one of about sixty people who performed in a "Celebrity Sonnets" program here in San Diego. I explained the meter and imagery of Sonnets 73 and 138, while my friend Tiffany Moon took a musical approach, offering a dark interpretation of Sonnet 8 against the Baltic folk harp in g minor. She was joined by two of her Institute of Arts and Letters students: Nine-year-old Lilith Irvin played Greensleeves on the harpsichord as an accompaniment to a reading of Sonnet 128 by Ved Joshi, who is all of six years old.

At least half the performers that luminous evening were students, which prompts me to share with you my lifetime collection of fluffs and flubs, goofs and gaffes, blunders botches, boo-boos and bloopers miscreated by students across our fair land. Because Shakespeare's works have been widely read in schools for centuries, in their assigned essays, many generations of young scholars have gone from bard to verse. Here is a string of the brightest uncut and unpolished student gems: More ... 

We know from the titles of June Casagrande's books what kind of writer she is, and for whom she writes. Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies, an earlier book of hers, is clearly not a book for accomplished writers or even, one can easily imagine, bright people. And so it is with It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences, a book meant for novice writers, as, I suspect, Casagrande is herself.

Casagrande's newest book is another in an unending assault of badly written language books (written by her and others) that are designed to appeal to dull-minded men and women. Publishers correctly reason that since a great many people are dull and unimaginative, a book written for this audience will likely sell far better than a book written for an intelligent readership. Well-written, intelligent books seldom sell well. More ... 

Numerous undeniable facts about languages and the way they behave cause society great consternation, among which are that languages change, they change constantly, and they can change rather quickly.

Certain things cloud the reality of language and tend to diminish the grandeur of its infinitely varied and intertwined forms. Not the least of which are commonly held though wrong-headed views on the relationship between language use and intelligence and misguided attitudes toward language variation and educational standards. In this article, using examples from a selection of contemporary languages, for the most part English, I make the claim that many instances of nonstandard language use have little to do with a lack of one's intelligence or one's educational background. Instead, the forms in question are examples of natural language evolution, which far from deserving societal ridicule should be accepted as forerunners of a future grammar, which in their turn some day will frame the standard. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

A Poem
Back to Top  En(cry)ption
by Christy Ferrato

consider the bodies
entered deep into the earth
the prayers of lovers stillborn
beneath bone split and rubble

the clear fluency of
tremor and tomb

the child's hand
the twisted leg
the dust-caked arm More ... 

A Poem
Back to Top  Pietà
by David Radavich

She stands along the shore —
or half-stands, it's hard to tell
from here — but weeping
clearly, expressing grief

to the reeds and grasses
vaguely bending, waters vacantly
shifting shoreward, clearly
heaving with the blood almost More ... 

by Clark Elder Morrow

The scene is an upscale hotel room. We hear muted laughter and talk approaching, and then the door opens. A middle-aged man enters, casually dressed. With him is a mid-30ish woman in scanty garb, moderately attractive, with an air of forced gaiety about her. They're both a little self-conscious, but affect casualness in throwing keys on tables and draping jackets across backs of chairs. The Woman lounges in a chair, and the Man lies across the bed. They have glasses in their hands and sip from them.

Woman: This ain't bad.

Man: Yeah, it's —

Woman: I don't always get to spend the night in a place like this.

Man: Well you do tonight. More ... 

by Bill Casselman

My interest in the word potty-mouth began a few months ago when some of my writings were banned. I shall fabricate the identities of the censors and say that a coven of brain-dead, born-again female morons wrote that I was "a potty-mouth atheist" and that little minds should be protected from my idolatrous seethings.

What about my intellectual freedom in a North America where everything I might wish to express publicly must be vetted by fundamentalist thought police? We'll leave their insult for another time and for a lawyer to consider whether or not "potty-mouth atheist" et alia impressa et dicta (Latin "and other things printed and said") constitute criminal libel under the law. I'd love to sue them white, bleed them of every penny they have! In the meanwhile, I loll in sybaritic degeneracy here in the gold-lamé litter that I use as a hammock on the summer porch, all the while contemplating the small truth that "potty-mouth" is a fascinating term of abuse, well worth etymologizing. More ... 

The Common Reader
Back to Top  The Sophie Stories
by Kevin Mims

I don't own a Kindle or a Nook or an iPad or any other e-book reader. I am not opposed to electronic readers. If I could afford it, I might purchase one just to see what all the fuss is about. But many of the works in my personal library contain elements that cannot be duplicated on an e-book reader.

In the January 2006, issue of the Vocabula Review, I wrote about my collection of books that are memorably inscribed by people who are strangers to me. These are not books autographed by their authors. They are books inscribed by Aunt Jennie to her nephew Luke on the occasion of his thirteenth birthday, or from a young woman to her boyfriend as he sets out on a cross-country wanderjahr without her. A few months ago, at a used-book store in Davis, California, I found a beautiful copy of Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio. It caught my eye because its front and back covers were free of the usual promotional verbiage — no blurbs, no plot summary, no text at all except for the title and the author's name. I picked up the book and discovered that, though it was an English translation of Pinocchio, it had been published in Italy, by a company called Giunti Gruppo Editoriale. When I opened the front cover, I found the following inscription: More ... 

Summer Edition

In June, July, and August, The Vocabula Review will be published as summer editions; that is, we will publish Features and Columnists essays but few, if any, of the Departments (Disagreeable English, Clues to Concise Writing, etc.).

More Good Summer Reading

One cold, blustery, wintry evening many moons ago, when I used to carpool to work, I was in the lobby of my building, waiting for my ride home. I waited, and waited, and thanked my lucky stars that, unlike my other carpoolers, I could look for my ride from inside a heated building. I was warm as toast as I watched people leaving the building, getting into their cars, and pulling out of a parking lot that eventually had only a few cars left. One of those vehicles was a full size van that was pulling away and … there, behind the van, was my car, my my-turn-to-drive car. Unfortunately, this was before cell phones, so my riders couldn't call me to tell me how c-c-c-cold they were.

When your neural networking's not working, it's time to find ways to stimulate the brain to get those neurons firing. Neuroscientists tell us that neurons that fire together, wire together. Mnemonics can be the solder that keeps those circuits wired. A string around the finger, a word, a sentence, an acronym — are all considered mnemonic tools that help keep the neuron circuitry wired. For me, mnemonics have been as good as money in my memory bank. More ... 

The Tower


What shall I do with this absurdity —
O heart, O troubled heart — this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog's tail?
Never had I more
Excited, passionate, fantastical
Imagination, nor an ear and eye
That more expected the impossible — 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 ... 


 Poetry and Fiction

A Poem: En(cry)ption — Christy Ferrato

A Poem: Pietà — David Radavich


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Sex Talk: A Study in Gender Differentiation

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Potty-Mouth: Clean Thoughts on a "Dirty" Synonym

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — The Sophie Stories


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101 Foolish Phrases

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Poem, Revised
54 Poems, Revisions, Discussions

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