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 May 2010 Vocabula

by Joseph Epstein

I was reading along in an article in the New York Times Magazine about a woman who reacted to being fired from a rather cushy job by working out her depression through over-eating, when I came upon the following sentence: "I put the plate of peanut better, a half bottle of wine, a glass and a linen napkin on a tray and climbed back to my bedroom." Ah, thought I, "peanut better, what can be butter?"

Why do people take such pleasure in discovering typographical errors — typos, in the trade term — especially in putatively august publications? I confess I do. Is there a touch of Schadenfreude in it? Not so much "see how the mighty have fallen" as "see how sloppy, sadly incompetent, bereft of standards they have become." Catching a typo heightens the reading experience, making a reader feel he is perhaps just a touch superior to the author, his or her editors, and, it does not go too far to say, the culture of our day. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by Skip Eisiminger
Anyone who doesn't know a foreign
language knows nothing of his own. — Goethe

If you've been following Slim's hard times in Gasoline Alley, you surely recall his initiation at Corky's Diner. The grill man's first order that morning was for "Adam and Eve on a raft; baled hay and a cup of naked!" This was followed by a call for "a light crust doughboy and S.O.S! Hurry!" Said Slim in his befuddlement, "Hurry is the only part of these orders I understand!" Knowing that her tips depended on the speed of Slim's output, the server explained in the following strip that the first order was for poached eggs on toast, shredded wheat, and black coffee; the second called for light toast and "shit on a shingle." Of course, no newspaper that buries Doonesbury in the classified ads as the Greenville News does is going to run a strip with a crude remnant of Old English, so the artist Jim Scancarelli was forced to gloss S.O.S. as "chipped beef on toast." I'm sure some readers are still wondering why it wasn't "CBT" along the well-known lines of "BLT" or "PBJ." The bigger mystery is how "S.O.S." slipped by the censors. More ... 

At the end of the nineteenth century, a crisis occurred in the Barnum and Bailey Circus. The man who was shot out of the cannon every day was asked by his wife to quit his high-risk profession, much to the distress of the great P. T. Barnum. Barnum, whose wit was equal to his showmanship, summoned the fellow and said, "I beg you to reconsider. Men of your caliber are hard to find."

Barnum, of course, was perpetrating a playful pun on the word caliber, which, from its earliest beginnings, meant "the diameter of a bullet or other projectile." Gradually caliber broadened to signify "degree of excellence or importance." More ... 

Culture and Society
Back to Top  The Resiliency Gene
by Ellen Graf

My husband, Zhong-Hua, sat down at the kitchen table. As Tai Chi Master, he always sits perfectly straight, centered, and benignly poker-faced, but this time his face flushed dark red and his eyes narrowed to glittery black slits. His being felt dense enough to crash through the floor. "I is stupid," he said. "Only a stupid old man would have tried this young person thing. Waste time, waste money. My head is like wood. I am failed. I want to stop. What is the point?"

He feared he could not pass the difficult courses needed for the paramedic degree toward which he had striven night and day for two years. "Don't talk," my husband said. So I didn't talk. I felt bad, but I left him there. This was not my call. More ... 

by Donna Gorrell

Is crossword puzzling a guy's game?

Why are nine of the top ten winners of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament men? In the years 1996–2009, the highest number of women each year in that select group was three, and the most common number was one. A curious fact? More ... 

If you thought you had it rite the first time, think again. Spell Cheque has problems, two.

Can you find the correct expressions, clichés, and proverbial answers — with there homophonic errors? More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Hyphenology, or The Missing Link
by Darren Crovitz

All readers and writers are interested to some degree in the nuts and bolts of language. Sure, when we read, there are larger things we're looking for — a controlled focus, cohesive organization, an engaging style. But for each of us, there are certain issues of diction, syntax, grammar, punctuation, and usage that snag our attention, like thorns snatching and unraveling a sweater.

One of those pet peeves for me is hyphens. Or rather, the lack of them.

Why the hyphen? After all, it's such an innocuous-looking thing. A tiny half-line, barely visible on the page, joining words together like the cars of little toy trains. There are a thousand other more obvious issues I could have with writing. But for me, a missing hyphen is like a hole in the universe, a white void, a yawning nothingness, an empty space crying out in need. More ... 

by Maryann Corbett

Behind them, the hydrology display
murmurs its model speech, while second graders
gape and exclaim, and stare the other way

at the real river, live and unrehearsed.
The genuine overwhelms the illustration:
The whole of Harriet Island lies immersed More ... 

The Elder Statesman
Back to Top  A Different Sort of Scholarship
by Clark Elder Morrow

Some of the things you learn while compiling a family tree are very mundane things, and some are extremely touching — almost heartbreaking. Here is an example of the mundane: "Hawise" was a popular woman's name in the Middle Ages. Here is a sample of the touching: often, when you see in the records of a family the death of an infant bearing a certain name, you'll find a child born soon afterwards bearing the very same name — as though mother and father were attempting to resurrect their dead baby by gracing the new infant with the decedent's name. For example, my distant ancestors Robert and Elizabeth Goldsborough had many children in the early eighteenth century, but toward the end of their fertile years they produced a child (whose sex cannot now be determined) named Greenbury. This child was born in 1717, and five days after its birth it passed away. A year later the genealogical records tell us another infant named Greenbury was born, and then died on the day of its birth. The emotional toll these two deaths took on the mother may perhaps be calculated from the fact that Elizabeth herself passed away four months later. More ... 

John Selden (1584–1654) was an English historical and legal scholar. He was — he is — also one of the glories of English history and civilization himself. It is a tribute to the depth and richness of English literature and historiography that so brilliant a star can go almost unseen in the blinding brightness of the galaxy of which it's part. For a long time his works, with one small exception, were known almost exclusively to historians specializing in seventeenth-century British history or in the history of scholarship itself, and these specialists wrote for each other, not for the generally educated public. But in recent years books have begun to appear on one or another aspect of his work and life that are readable by the liberally educated; the first of these was probably David Berkowitz's John Selden's Formative Years. Then a few years ago, Jason Rosenblatt published a monograph on Selden's pioneering Hebraic and rabbinical scholarship in his Renaissance England's Chief Rabbi: John Selden. And now Professor G. J. Toomer has given us a book that is the first full portrait of the man (insofar as our information permits such a thing) and full study of his work, and opens a new era in the modern rediscovery of Selden. More ... 

by Bill Casselman

North Americans expect witches to broom through black sky on Halloween. But the older European tradition says that the proper time for witch flight is Midsummer's Eve, the night of June 24, called Walpurgisnacht in German. Intimately associated with this magical eventide is the plant named St. John's Wort.

The verbal origin of St. John's Wort is a demonstration of how powerful an erroneous folk etymology can be. First, we'll do some etymological spade work in the loam of Old English on that intriguing wort that subtends so many old English plant names: birthwort, liverwort, lousewort, lungwort, pennywort, pepperwort, and sneezewort. The Oxford English Dictionary lists hundreds of common "-wort" names for flowers. The Old English word for root or any plant, herb, or veggie useful as food or medicine was wyrt, Germanic relative of the modern German noun Wurz, "root," and related to the Scandinavian word urt for "root." Wort is related to our word root, to Old Norse rot, to Latin radix (hence radish), to Greek rhiza, all meaning "root of a plant." More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back to Top  Corporate Woods
by Carey Harrison

A brief sally, dear readers, while May draws back its rash promise of summer and replaces a vulgar foretaste of August with February chill.

How did "corporate" become a noun, and an abstract noun, at that, like "greed" or "paralysis," not "the corporate" or "a corporate" but just "corporate," as in "corporate says," "corporate requires," or "corporate expects"?

It's all right. I know how it became a noun. It was too much effort to go on saying "Corporate headquarters," when you could just say "corporate," which sounds less obnoxiously military than "headquarters" or "division," more sweetly, soothingly commercial, all-embracing, friendly. Corporate! A body of men and women, caring, humane. More ... 

The Common Reader
Back to Top  Read Any Good Maps Lately?
by Kevin Mims

In a recent issue of Via magazine, essayist Steve Rushin lamented the decline of the printed map. In this digital age of ours, city maps, state maps, and road atlases are rapidly being replaced by computerized global positioning systems. Rushin correctly noted that computerized maps lack the aesthetic beauty of the great works of cartography's past. He mentions in particular the "exquisitely beautiful" maps of the world that Lucien Boucher created for Air France in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. These "planispheres" (flat representations of a spherical object), which were originally used as advertising posters, are now highly desired by cartophiles (map lovers) and collectors of illustration art. An old Boucher-illustrated Air France poster hangs in the front hall of Rushin's home. I've coveted such a map for years, but the prices of Boucher's old posters generally run upwards of a thousand dollars, which is too steep for me. More ... 

Letter of the Law
Back to Top  Well, I'll Be Hanged
by Adam Freedman

Ever since the British election on May 6, journalists have been exulting in the prospect of a "hung parliament" — a term that derives from that venerable American legal slang "hung jury."

The phrase "hung parliament" became a fixture of British political slang in the aftermath of the U.K.'s general election of 1974 in which no party gained an outright majority. Some referred to the situation as "deadlock," others as a "stalemate," but ultimately the Times of London weighed in with "hung parliament." Other newspapers followed suit. More ... 

Crossword puzzle makers, or cruciverbalists (CVs), have been matching wits with "straight" verbalists for a long time. The first crossword challenge appeared in an Italian magazine in 1890, triggering a 120 years war. The United States joined the fray in 1913 when the New York World Sunday newspaper published the first American crossword puzzle and, eighteen years later, the New York Times Sunday edition printed its first crossword puzzle. Eventually, the NYT puzzle became a daily feature and the standard of excellence in American puzzling. 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 ... 

A Leave-Taking

Let us go hence, my songs; she will not hear.
Let us go hence together without fear;
Keep silence now, for singing-time is over,
And over all old things and all things dear.
She loves not you nor me as we all love her.
Yea, though we sang as angels in her ear,
          She would not hear. 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 ... 



Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — A Different Sort of Scholarship

Mark Halpern: The Critical Reader — An Appreciation: G. J. Toomer, John Selden: A Life in Scholarship

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — St. John's Wort: Its Benefits Both Mystical and Medical

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Corporate Woods

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — Read Any Good Maps Lately?

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — Well, I'll Be Hanged


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