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 March 2010 Vocabula

My father died in his kitchen.

He wasn't cooking, however. He was replacing a lightbulb. He'd climbed up a stepladder to reach a fixture in the ceiling, and while doing so suffered a massive heart attack. Since he lived by himself in an apartment in St. Louis, it took many hours before the landlord found his body, crumpled on the floor at the base of the ladder. His cat, meanwhile, was wandering from one room to another.

I mention this not because I wish to be morbid — though I have no objection to morbidity — but because lately I've been thinking about the coercive relations between society and language, and my father embodied one of the best examples of this phenomenon I've ever encountered. Born near Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in 1926, he grew up speaking in a slow drawl that marked him instantly as a rural southerner. When he returned from active duty in World War II, he took a job as a radio announcer, and since he had a deep voice and a laconic sense of humor, this seemed an excellent decision. There was just one catch: he needed to change his accent. No one told him this, but he knew perfectly well that if he sought a chance at working for a major urban station, he'd have to speak in the standard English of middle America. So he abandoned the relaxed speech rhythms of his native South and adopted a more rapid delivery, sharper enunciation, and locutions characteristic of the upper Midwest. It worked. He never again spoke like a boy from the hills of southern Arkansas. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by Richard Lederer

One hundred years ago, boys grew up reading the adventures of Tom Swift, a sterling hero and brilliant inventor created in 1910 by Edward Stratemeyer.

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, created more than a half century after the birth of the original Tom Swift series. The object is to match the adverb with the quotation to produce, in each case, a high-flying pun: More ... 

Last year, to keep my coolness quotient high, I joined millions of others in the stampede to obey the latest commandment issued by the High Eminences of Social Networking: Thou Shalt Twitter!

Everyone (well, almost everyone) now knows that Twitter is one of the au courant social networking tools, so popular it even threatens to displace email as a marketing tool of choice. The point of it is to attract other Twittering "followers," and if you're lucky, fame in your field. In my first two weeks, I had miraculously captured 100 followers, including a woman whose mission is to send salvos of food facts approximately every three minutes. Thanks to her, I now know that today is National Hot Pastrami Day, making my life that much more complete. More ... 

Back to Top  Issue
by Julian Burnside

The dominant meaning of issue is changing. It is now commonly used to mean "problem" or "difficulty." It is common, and mildly irritating, to hear otherwise well-spoken people say "I have an issue with the way he is treating me" or "He has personality issues." It has emerged as a euphemism: it is less confronting than "problem," especially in the phrase "personality issues."

Issue has many meanings, but "problem" was not one of them, at least until recently. As a noun, the principal meanings of issue are: More ... 

This is my second review of Lynch's book. The first, the experimental "blind" review, appeared in last month's Vocabula Review. In it, I promised that having stuck my neck way out by offering a review of a book I hadn't read, I would then read the book and offer a conventional, après reading version; this is it.

I start with my general confession: there are some points in my blind review that I feel I need to withdraw or modify. I was too hasty in dismissing the book as just another example of the genus "Descriptivist Pooh-Poohing of the Idea of Proper English"; it is by no means that simple- or single-minded. One thing that keeps it from being single-minded is that it discusses a number of topics not directly related to the notion of Proper English: for example, there are chapters or major sections on spelling reform, on "dirty words," on American as distinct from English lexicography, on the major eighteenth-century prescriptivists, and on the predecessors to Samuel Johnson's great dictionary. And there is much interesting material in these sections, regardless of whether one is a prescriptivist or descriptivist. More ... 

Specialty Dictionary
Back to Top  Glossary of Jazz Slang
by Michael Ricci

18 karat — All the way, full out.

Air-check — A recording of a radio or television performance.

Axe — An instrument.

Baby — A term of endearment.

Bad — Good.

Bag — A person's particular interest.

Balloon lungs — A brass man with plenty of wind. More ... 

by Linda Eve Diamond

Is it true what they say, that ain't "ain't a word" (or at least a proper one)? And if it is, why is it so unacceptable now when in the eighteenth century it was just as respectable as any other contraction? While some make the case for why the word was banished from polite company, many think that overzealous grammarians made a bad case. Either way, we all know that ain't isn't proper, though it has still maintained a small presence in the mainstream dialogue — and it might even be on a slow climb up the status ladder. Language, after all, is always changing. In any century, any generation or decade, we can always say that language ain't what it used to be. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Choice Words
by Ken Bresler

The phrase "Hobson's choice" was named after Thomas Hobson, a stable-keeper whose "rule was that each customer must take the horse nearest the door or no horse at all." The result? "You get no choice at all," wrote Theodore Bernstein in The Careful Writer.

Hobson, who lived in Cambridge, England, in the sixteenth century, was not being inconsiderate to customers, but instead, considerate to his horses. Reportedly, he wanted to keep his most popular horses from overworking.

"Hobson's choice" is frequently misused to mean a difficult choice; it actually means no choice. More ... 

The Elder Statesman
Back to Top  A Perfect Mess
by Clark Elder Morrow

It's a simple question: What would you find in a perfect world?

Sometimes you hear people say things like: "In a perfect world there wouldn't be any police brutality" — little stopping to think, of course, that in a perfect world there wouldn't be any police. You can probably think of many such observations, often made by the kind of people who say things like: "I literally threw the baby out with the bathwater when I gave John the ring back." The one mooncalfery of outlook seems to live in the same neighborhood as the other gallimaufry of thought. Yet the opening question continues to blare in my head like a klaxon: What would exist in a perfect world? Would there be, for example, anything in the nature of seasons? Would there be nonstop summer (as some people would like), or would there be the ever-refreshing round of blessedly varied times in which we could celebrate all those venerable solstice- and equinox-observing spots on the calendar? What (in the world of climatological comfortableness) would constitute perfection? Are we doomed to wind up with the dreary old conclusion that there are "just as many perfect worlds as there are individuals"? Obviously not: I'm sure all of us (all of us who are certifiably sane) could agree that in our hypothetical Perfect World Project there would be no cancer, no war, no domestic violence. The question is — once again — what would be there in the scenery around us? More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back to Top  Hat Trick
by Bill Casselman

While watching a recent hockey game, I saw a player make his third goal of the game. Instantly hats by the hundred hit the ice. The announcer dubbed this scoring feat a hat trick. I wondered where the expression originated.

The cricket term hat trick appeared first in British print in 1858. It refers to one player scoring three times in a row. In cricket jargon, one bowler takes three wickets with three balls in a row. That player was then permitted to pass around his hat and collect a few modest tributes to his finesse in the form of British pennies. So runs one story. Another says the cricket club bought the hat-tricking player a new hat. More ... 

by Carey Harrison

It's seventy years since Christopher Caudwell's now (I imagine) largely unread Studies In a Dying Culture was published, posthumously, and sixty since Further Studies... followed it. Our culture seems not yet to have died. Or has it? We now have English students who don't read. Most people my age seem still to be in shock about this. It's happened so fast: in the space of one generation we've gone from widespread reading to almost no reading at all, leaving self-understanding and an idea of how human society has evolved to the few who care to know about more than pop culture in its various manifestations, the bread and circuses of our era. Never have the future rulers and ruled seemed so ill-equipped to question their economically allotted roles; never have they seemed more vulnerable to collective madness, to messiahs true or false, to wholesale despair and indifference. Back in the safe old days, the literati of my generation had Marshall McLuhan's vision of the coming global village to look forward to, a peaceful revolution (the early days of the Internet revived this pipe dream) in which information trumped politics. Oh, there were a few facile, unthreatening jokes about global village idiots, but the jokes missed the point. We still believed in the coming era of universal proximity. What strikes me today is that our susceptibility to McLuhan's enticing idea was a form of refusal to accept the ineradicable nature of class divisions in human society. We were all post-Marxists then, even those of us who thought we were still Marxists. Especially those of us, indeed. We were longing to transcend Marxism, infected as we were by the ideas of progress and the dissolution of class society inscribed in Marx's Enlightenment-derived utopianism. As Britons — for I am only an adoptive son of the New World — we also thought we were hard-bitten, cynical even, heirs to a tragic sensibility distinctively European, by contrast with the perennial hopefulness of North American sensibilities. In truth, we were all innocents, on both sides of the Atlantic. More ... 

by Kevin Mims

In early March, two famous writers died within days of each other. Curiously, I once met both of them on the same day, about five minutes apart. In the summer of 1999, I attended the Sewanee Writers Conference in Tennessee. Every student writer who attends the conference is entitled to a one-on-one manuscript consultation with one of the teachers there, all of whom are prominent writers. On the day of my consultation with the prominent southern writer who was my instructor, I left my dorm room about 30 minutes before my appointment was scheduled and made my way to the Rebel’s Roost, which is the nickname of the house at which all of Sewanee’s prominent faculty members hang out between classes. When I arrived at the Rebel’s Roost, I found southern literary legend Barry Hannah sitting by himself on a deck outside the house. I was early, so I wasn’t sure whether I should enter the Rebel’s Roost or not. As I looked around for clues, Hannah saw my indecision and asked if he could help me. This surprised me because some of my fellow conference-goers, who were students of Hannah’s, told me he could be a really nasty guy in the classroom. But out here at the Rebel’s Roost he seemed as calm and approachable as a Teddy Bear. I told him I was there for my manuscript consultation but that I was a little early and didn’t know if I should wait outside or go in. Hannah pointed to a chair near his and suggested I take a seat. For about ten minutes or so, he peppered me with questions. He seemed to be genuinely curious about my work and about my life. I was 40 at the time, and I told him I had been struggling a long time to establish myself as a professional writer. I mentioned that I was hoping the Sewanee conference might provide me with the impetus I needed to make a full-time career of writing. He wished me good luck but told me not to get my hopes up too high. I thanked him for the advice and then I went inside to prepare for my consultation. More ... 

Letter of the Law
Back to Top  Cents and Sensibility
by Adam Freedman

Money makes the world go around, but not all "money" counts as "legal tender."

Legal tender is that which a creditor is required to accept when "tendered" in payment of a debt. Tender comes from the French tendre (to hold out), which also gives rise to the use of "tender" as an adjective and even occasionally as an adverb, like when Elvis sang "love me tender[ly]." More ... 

An integral element of the English vocabulary is the figure of speech. It’s found in every facet of our language — from polished prose to these Language Modules. In fact, many of the LMs highlighted several types of FOSs. LM-7 was about pleonasms; 8, zeugmas; 9, similes; 23, mondegreens — all intentional departures of the literal use of language. That’s one definition of a figure of speech. A more precise description is that it is a turn of phrase that changes a literal expression to a figurative one in order to achieve a rhetorical effect. Upon searching for more information about these rhetorical devices, I learned that there are two main types: schemes and tropes. Schemes change the pattern of words, as with alliteration, spoonerism, non-sequitor; while tropes change the meaning of words, as in oxymorons, similes, zeugmas. I also uncovered more FOSs than I could shake a stick at, or pronounce, such as anadiplosis, antimetabole, epanadiplosis, epizeuxis, parrhesia, synchysis, paraprosdokian, paroemion, aphorismus, and aposiopesis. This LM is about a select few of the more recognizable ones. 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

"Thank you so so much" is more heartfelt and sincere than "Thank you so much," which is more heartfelt and sincere than "Thank you." 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 ... 

 Features

 Columnists


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — A Perfect Mess

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Hat Trick

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Reflections on the Death of Learning

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — Roosters: Encounters with Barry Hannah and Horton Foote

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — Cents and Sensibility

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Robert Hartwell Fiske
Editor and Publisher of
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