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December 2011, Vol. 13, No. 12 There are now   12383   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

Robert Hartwell Fiske's Disagreeable English
A Bimonthly Bulletin of Misused, Misspelled, and Mispronounced English

Six times a year, we will email you this addendum to Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English. Each bulletin will include new examples of misused, misspelled, or mispronounced English.

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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.

You can order Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English from Vocabula or Simon & Schuster or Amazon or elsewhere.

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.

You can order The Best Words from Vocabula or Amazon or elsewhere.

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.

You can order The Dimwit's Dictionary, Third Edition from Vocabula or Amazon or elsewhere.

Vocabula Bound 1 and Vocabula Bound 2

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Vocabula Bound 1 and Vocabula Bound 2

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 In the December 2011 Vocabula
 The January 2012 issue is due online January 22.

by Carey Harrison

Readers of this column have long endured the frantic flapping sounds of my distress at the decline in undergraduate grammar-competence. I myself have endured wave upon regimented wave of error, semester after semester. Now the beached whale strikes back: with a colleague, John Keller, I am about to start marketing a new grammar primer entitled Where Did You Get That Bitch?

This catchy title (at any rate we hope it'll prove catchy) will be illustrated on the front cover, if a publisher is found and will indulge us in this regard, by a panting female dog on a leash that protrudes from a gloved hand that enters the frame without showing the owner of the dog. Why gloved? Well, we would prefer — in view of the specific nature of this grammar book — not to identify the race of the dog's owner. After all, "Where did you get that bitch?" is a question that any person, regardless of tribe or creed, could address to another. The back cover of the book will show a woman carrying an expensive item of some kind, clearly recently acquired — and racial specificity could here be more of a problem, unless we show only the body and, say, the gloved hand of the woman carrying the item in question. More ... 

1. Gadzookery is what I'm doing here: gadzookery is the deliberate use of archaic, obsolete words. The word stems from a seventeenth-century mild swear word: Gadzooks! Characters in bad historical novels utter it constantly. Gadzooks is a "minced oath." When you have hit a finger with the misplaced blow of a hammer, instead of yelling "God damn it!" you murmur tepidly "Gol darn it!" You mince your swear word. Minced oaths are used to spare the speaker from uttering sacrilege, to prune blasphemous superfluities of angry speech with the sickle of good taste.

In one theory about the origin of gadzooks, it is a blending or slurring of the much nastier "God's hooks!" a curse phrase that made specific reference to the nails used to crucify Jesus. Yikes!

The oath is often met while reading this sort of "historical" romance:

Lord Studley seized her at a casement window of stately Distracted Manor. Lady Minklet sensed his hot, coarse breath polluting her milk-white shoulders as he ripped the fine silk straps from her heaving bodice. After the scarlet rush of lust's blush had incarnadined her maidenly cheeks, Lady Minklet drew back and exclaimed, "Gadzooks, sir! What are these nocturnal impertinences! Do you take me for a common milkmaid, sir?"

"No, milady," cooed Lord Studley, whose tact and charm were bruited about on every fashionable lip in Shropshire, "I take you, even done up in Parisian tuile and lace, for what you have always been, a whore."

More ... 

by Clark Elder Morrow

Some people's drawbacks and failings are of such a nature that they actually attract us to them. They build links of sympathy and care. But some people's foibles are the stuff of frustration and failure when it comes to establishing healthy ties. There are many who simply antagonize with their faults, and create greater gaps between themselves and society, simply by being who they are. This is the central insight of Wallace Stegner's novel Crossing to Safety (1987). Think of the people in your life whose frailties call forth your pity and love, and then think of those whose peccadilloes do nothing but annoy and alienate. That is an insight most of us can manage. What takes an even deeper wisdom is the ability to see further, and see that those whose faults are alienating may often be just as admirable (because of their unseen struggle to overcome their faults) as the more ingratiating set.

When I think of prickly people who are nonetheless admirable, a great many famous wits come to mind. And recently, thinking about famous wits, a remarkable pair of them commandeered my fancy, though as a pair they are remarkable mostly for the coincidences that attach to them. By which I mean that the two wittiest women writers of the twentieth century were both named Dorothy, and both were born in 1893. Dorothy Parker and Dorothy L. Sayers are the women in question — the former the American star of the Algonquin Round Table and The New Yorker, the latter a British advertising copywriter and famed author of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels. More ... 

by Donna Gorrell

As a writer and reader, I spend entirely too much time thinking about commas. From my perspective, some writers use too many while others, a smaller group, omit some they need. For me it's not a matter of conservation or sustainability (commas come and go at the touch of a key), just of annoyance at unnecessary pauses or lack of clarity.

On the side of the unnecessary, commas are often not needed in places where handbooks dictate, such as after introductory phrases or between main clauses, and omitting them may lead to a more direct, more forceful style:

From there the liquids go to a more complicated secondary treatment.

Later on in the decade we went to the movies for twelve cents each.

The human eye can distinguish about ten million colors but we have names for only a few.

I consider these omissions — after there, decade, and colors — optional. Some writers would include the commas. I didn't, but at another time I might.

In many usages the comma may be inappropriate or outright wrong: before quoted words, around essential elements, before and when it introduces a second verb phrase. These commas are familiar to teachers reading student writing: More ... 

by Richard Lederer

On December 28, 1895, in the Grand Cafe in Paris, 14 boulevard des Capucines, the first program of films was screened, cinematic history was begun, and a new language — the language of film — was born.

The press took little notice of that very first picture show, but one of the two reporters who showed up wrote: "With this new invention, death will be no longer absolute, final. The people we have seen on the screen will be with us, moving and alive after their deaths."

Next to television, film is the youngest of the arts. None of the people in that first picture show are alive today, but they and the art of film continue to move and to move us.

Sure, experiences that could be called "film" had been shown before December 28, 1895 — "Record of a Sneeze," "Man and Woman Kissing" — but these were very brief one-shots, nothing more than animated photographs. The next and necessary step was to record the reality of life and perhaps even to tell a story. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Shoptalk
by Robert McHenry

Until recently my experience of the retail trade had been purely as a customer, and that as seldom as possible. I dislike shopping. No, "dislike" is too mild a word for how I react to what is for so many Americans a regular and apparently pleasant pastime. I abhor it. I become irritable approaching the parking lot, anticipating the frustration of trying to see past, or perhaps under, the giant SUVs infesting it. I recoil from the crowds of quasi-solipsists, each bent upon his or her own plastic-powered purchasing and oblivious of elementary courtesies.

The one blemish on my status as customer was a summer in college, when I worked as a stock clerk in one of a now-defunct chain of discount stores. While I can still call up some shudder-inducing recollections of that job, there was nothing linguistically memorable about it, beyond the folk etymology that was current among the dollar-something-an-hour staff, to the effect that the store's name, E.J. Korvette, memorialized acronymically the chain's founders — eleven Jewish Korean veterans. More ... 

If you were to search for the word verbivore, in the dictionary, you would find eight other "vores," instead. There's a carnivore, a meat eater; a piscivore, or fish eater; a plant-eating herbivore; bug-eating insectivore; fruit-feeding frugivore; seed- and grain-eating granivore; an omnivore that eats everything, including other "vores"; and even a detritivore, an organism that feeds on dead or decomposing organic matter. But no verbivore. It's not in Webster's Collegiate, the American Heritage, or even the Merriam-Webster or Random House unabridged dictionary. However, it is in the Web's Wiktionary, which lists it as a neologism for someone who enjoys words and wordplay. The word was coined by Richard Lederer in his book, Adventures of a Verbivore, where he describes a verbivore as someone who devours words.

If you're a compulsive verbivore, you need an occcasional fix of high energy words — words that are rich in other words, in other words. High-density word content can be found in such words as "ushers," which is stuffed with five personal pronouns (us, she, he, her, hers), and "therefore," which is filled with ten smaller word bites (there, the, here, he, her, ere, fore, for, or, ore). Another verbivore delicacy is a kangaroo word — a word that contains the letters, in order, of another word with the same meaning. These marsupial words carry their shorter synonyms within themselves. Here are ten examples of kangaroo words (with their joeys): masculine (male), deceased (dead), astound (stun), instructor (tutor), illuminated (lit), respite (rest), municipality (city), quiescent (quiet), regulate (rule), transgression (sin). 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  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

A Counterattack on Failing Grammar — Carey Harrison

A Modest Bouquet of Rare Verbal Blossoms or Obscure Words Worth Revival — Bill Casselman

Women Wits: Connecting the Dots — Clark Elder Morrow

Comma Complaint — Donna Gorrell

The Language of Film — Richard Lederer

Vocabula Revisited: Shoptalk — Robert McHenry

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Robert Hartwell Fiske's
Disagreeable English

A Bimonthly Bulletin of Misused, Misspelled, and Mispronounced English

Six times a year, we will email you this addendum to Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English. Each bulletin will include new examples of misused, misspelled, or mispronounced English.

Buy and review the first issue now for $10.

The cost is $25 a year for the emailed version, or $35 a year for the mailed version. Sign up today. Please make your credit card payment using the PayPal system.