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August 2011, Vol. 13, No. 8 There are now   1108   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

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Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English
A Compendium of Mistakes in Grammar, Usage, and Spelling with Commentary on Lexicographers and Linguists

Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English

Today's popular dictionaries often fail to define words correctly or to distinguish between them; some dictionaries even maintain that one word means the same as another simply because people who do not know the correct meanings of the words confuse them. Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English — a supplement to whatever dictionary you own or use — is an attempt to combat this nonsense, to return meaning and distinction to the words we use.

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The Best Words

The Best Words

The point of learning new words is not to impress your friends or to seem more intelligent than they. The point is to see more, to understand more. An ever-increasing vocabulary uncovers connections, introduces spheres, and — in reminding us that there are words for all thoughts, all feelings, all behaviors, all things — upholds all humankind.

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The Dimwit's Dictionary, Third Edition

The Dimwit's Dictionary, Third Edition

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.

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 In the August 2011 Vocabula

by David Grambs

And like I'm, like, really grossed out, like ...

The L-word. A kind of weightless backpack word that's more and more giving us humpbacked spoken English, the lite like has been airily clogging American sentences for years now. The war against the usage — well, it wasn't much of a war, alas — has been lost for some time, and we language-conscious losers are all trying to learn to live with the new, disjunctive babble.

Still, I believe the phenomenon is worth standing back from and taking a look at, as opposed to shrugging or winking at its growth. What does the new, gratuitous use of like really represent in our language, functionally and lexically? What do the purportedly authoritative dictionaries tell us? And, as I ask myself every time I hear it, what price is literate, listenable English paying for its increasing currency?

Like-speech, or like-orrhea, is a curious, self-contained medium. With its attendant (usually) limited vocabulary and all-thumbs expressiveness, it's almost a kind of verbal hand-gesturing or mimicry, if not a middle-class pidgin. The kids — and more and more adults — seem locked in a kind of cawing hyperpresent tense. Many have strangely unresonant, throat-blocked, or glottal voices and use "up-talk," the tendency to end all sentences in a rising, questioning inflection.

Yes, they're mostly young people (though again, increasingly, exponentially, by no means just young people). But at times I think I'm hearing the voices of Loony Tunes and Merry Melodies creatures, each lost in rote subjectivity. At my neighborhood café a few years ago, where some local prep school kids hung out, I particularly remember one tall, chain-smoking girl, always dressed in black, who couldn't go five or six words without coughing up a viral like. None of her peers batted an eye at this. She was speaking their language — a language in which the role of the indispensable L-word isn't so much to mean as it is to stylize. Or is it destylize? More ... 

I wonder if I'm becoming obsolete. Or if not exactly obsolete, maybe a bit like a Studebaker: a quaint memory, a thing no longer of the here and now though you could probably find one in a barn somewhere if needed — perhaps to be used as a movie prop to lend authenticity to the scene where the nattily dressed young man, knees a-knocking, peers from behind the living room curtain and waits for his beloved's father to finish washing the aforementioned Studebaker. All this so that as the father enters the house, and wipes his still sudsy hands across his flannel shirt, the nattily dressed young man, knees still a-knocking (picture a young Jerry Lewis) can step forth and ask the father for the daughter's hand in marriage.

Teaching is changing dramatically, as is learning. The world I grew up in, the world I honed my teaching skills in, is long gone. I have taught writing, lit, and humanities at community colleges over the last seventeen years. Most of my students have never heard the clackety-clack of a typewriter break the silence of the dark night. Most have never heard of a Studebaker or, for that matter, know that Jerry Lewis was once the epitome of goofiness and was beloved for something other than the MDA Labor Day Telethon. And a guy asking a woman's father for her hand in marriage — well, to be sure there are ways the world has improved. More ... 

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.)

Let me back up and start again. To pronounce the word gynaecology or gynecology with an initial hard G goes against the norms for pronouncing words derived from the classical languages, not only words based directly on Latin terms but also words based on Greek but respelled in Latin. Our word of concern here, "gynecology," is an example of such Latinate respelling of a Greek-based word. If it were not thus respelled, but brought into English directly from the Greek, it would look like "gunaikology." (More on this below.) More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

Back to Top  Arabber
by John E. McIntyre

On the streets of Baltimore, one can still see vendors coming down the street with wagons of produce drawn by ponies, their approach heralded by bells jingling from the ponies' harnesses. Once numbered in the scores, these relics of the city's past have dwindled to around forty. They are African-American, they work hard to make a living, and the name by which they are called recently kicked up some dust in a minor controversy.

They are arabbers or a-rabs, pronounced in the local patois as AY-rabbers or AY-rabs. And some people are disturbed by this — though not many from Baltimore.

The term arabber, spelled variously, appears to date to the nineteenth century. H. L. Mencken's The American Language: Supplement II refers to the "vocabulary of Baltimore speech in the 80s and 90s," with "a number of terms that were in common use there and then do not seem, to have been noted elsewhere, e.g., Araber, a street huckster; to arab, to go huckstering...." More ... 

The other day I gave a friendly correction to a fellow editor at the Canadian newspaper I work for. He was going to use the word obtuse in a headline in a manner that suggested he was trying to say "arcane" or "esoteric" or perhaps "obscure" or "complex" — you get the idea.

I told him obtuse, in a figurative sense (in use, according to the OED, since 1509 — the meaning most commonly intended by anyone other than a geometrician for a goodly span of years), was a synonym for "stupid," and, thus, could not have been further from the meaning he was trying to convey.

When I offered that, and said it was likely that what he really meant to write was "esoteric," he thanked me and made the change, but the next day, I discovered an email on my computer citing the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, giving the 1(b) meaning of obtuse as "difficult to understand, obscure."

I was stunned.

How could a respectable dictionary give as the first meaning of a word a meaning that, as far as I knew, didn't exist. And yet, it was clear that my colleague thought that meaning to be legitimate. Naturally, I consulted a number of authorities, none of whom, incidentally, included any taxi drivers, coffee-shop waitresses, computer programmers, or semiliterate graduate students. More ... 

by Valerie Collins

The first time I came across the word snoreathon, I fell about laughing. It's such an amusing, evocative word. In fact it's quite brilliant how, in English, you can glue a bit of ancient Greek place name to an onomatopoeic middle English verb to describe a football match ("the Croatia–Switzerland snoreathon"), a speech, an election campaign, a book, a concert ... the Los Angeles Times (the context where I first saw the word) ... anything (subjectively) long and mind-deadening. How was your date? A total snoreathon!

You don't need to know how this information-and-value-judgment-packed word was made in order to understand it, but it's a fascinating exercise.

Because snoreathon clearly contains a fragment of another word — marathon — it tends to get lumped into the category of blends. As we saw in Abomistrosities, a blend is broadly defined as a word "in which part of one word is joined to part of another."

Now, the first point to be made about snoreathon is that only the -athon part is a fragment of another word. Snore is a word in its own right: a freestanding word, a free morpheme. The elements of the new word are still perceived as separate: they are transparent. More ... 

by Kelly Cannon

Early in my ten years as a legal secretary, I mailed a letter containing the preceding sentence. It wasn't my letter, thank heaven, and I didn't sign it. It was dictated and signed by a brand new lawyer — a "baby attorney" we call them in the field — who apparently thought his law degree and subsequent passage of the bar exam made him an ex officio English scholar.

Did I do my duty and quietly correct this credibility-compromising gaffe? Yes. I typed, "Two dogs attacked my client while she was riding her bicycle." Minutes later, the marked-up draft appeared on my desk with the bicycle sentence restored to its original comedic splendor. The attorney didn't even bother to ask why I hadn't typed it as he'd dictated it. In the mind of this man, it was inconceivable that someone who hadn't achieved his level of education, and whose salary was one third the amount of his, might know something he didn't.

A competent lawyer not only knows the law but is also an articulate communicator. Obviously, most attorneys do realize how important communication is in their field, but many don't understand what constitutes effective writing and speech. They make the adolescent assumptions that a big word always trumps a small word and a complex sentence structure is always preferable to a simple one. These fallacies might be forgivable but for the fact that many lawyers lack a command of English sufficient to score the verbal coups to which they aspire. They then heap arrogance atop ignorance by rejecting the assistance of the very people whose job it is to help them maintain a professional image. What results is, at best, writing that even an educated layperson finds difficult to interpret. At its worst, "legalese" is a mangled mishmash of the arcane, the convoluted, and the downright meaningless. More ... 

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.

And so it goes. Men and women who lived the sorts of lives biographers dream about passed on with the most prosaic sentiments on their lips. Consider Casanova's last come on: "Bear witness that I have lived as a philosopher and die as a Christian." Philosopher? Christian? Giovanni, what about all those chicks? More ... 

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 ... 

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Back to Top  Vocabula Poll

OMG and LOL and the heart symbol belong in dictionaries. More ... 

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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 — at least in the sense you define it — before we list it here. More ... 

 Featured Essays

The Like Virus — David Grambs

Of Concordances, the Spider Guy, and Other Matters: A Rumination — Michael Berberich

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

Arabber — John E. McIntyre

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary: Obtuse Indeed — John Worsley Simpson

Cutting and Splicing — Valerie Collins

Lawyers vs. Language — Kelly Cannon

The Last Words — Christopher Orlet

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