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November 2011, Vol. 13, No. 11 There are now   101   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

And Coming in January 2012
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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Views of Vocabula   Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher

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

Vocabula Bound 1 and Vocabula Bound 2

Vocabula Bound 1 and Vocabula Bound 2

Want to read The Vocabula Review in print, on paper, in a book?

Vocabula Bound 1: Outbursts, Insights, Explanations, and Oddities — twenty-five of the best essays and twenty-six of the best poems published in The Vocabula Review.

Vocabula Bound 2: Our Wresting, Writhing Tongue — twenty-eight of the best essays and ten of the best poems published in The Vocabula Review.


You can order Vocabula Bound 1 and Vocabula Bound 2 from Vocabula Books.


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 In the November 2011 Vocabula
 The December issue is due online December 18.

by Joseph Epstein

The other day I asked my five-years-younger-than-I brother — the wit in our family — if he has taken to using a Kindle. "My Kindle," he said, "is at the cleaners." I'm not sure why I found that funny, but I did, and still do, and take it that he means he would never think of using this new aid to reading with which so many people are so very pleased.

If I owned a Kindle, I, too, would take it to the cleaners, but never bother to pick it up. I'm sure that this miraculous new device has lots to be said for it in the realm of convenience (many books can be stored in it at once) and ease of handling (it's much lighter than most hardcover books), but electronically is not the way I prefer to read books.

Some of my own books are available on Kindle, though I have never attempted to glimpse them in digital form. Years ago I had a few books on tape, and thought what a pleasing snack it might be to my XXL ego to drive around town listening to my own scribblings being read aloud by an out-of-work actor. I listened to one for about three minutes, and couldn't bear it, so different were the actor's reading rhythms from those I heard when writing the words he was now, so to say, misspeaking. More ... 

by Richard Lederer

Fifty years ago, in 1961, Joseph Heller (1923–1999), an English professor at Penn State University, published his first novel, Catch-22. The working title for Heller's modern classic novel about the mindlessness of war was Catch-18, a reference to a military regulation that keeps the pilots in the story flying one suicidal mission after another. The only way to be excused from flying such missions is to be declared insane, but asking to be excused is proof of a rational mind and bars excuse.

Shortly before the appearance of Heller's book in 1961, Leon Uris's Mila 18 was published. To avoid confusion with the title of Uris's war novel, Heller and his editor decided to change Catch-18 to Catch-22. The choice turned out to be both fortunate and fortuitous as the 22 more rhythmically and symbolically captures the double duplicity of both the military regulation itself and the bizarre world that Heller shapes in the novel. ("That's some catch, that Catch-22," observes Yossarian. "It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agrees.) More ... 

by Steven Cushing

Imagine the following scenario. You are camping in the woods, and you have a roaring campfire burning. I am camped nearby, but my matches have gotten wet, or I forgot to bring them. I sneak into your campsite with an unlit torch, without your knowledge, and I take some of your fire. A few minutes later I also have a roaring campfire going at my campsite, thanks to the flame that I took from you. You have no clue what happened. How would you now, as reader, describe what I did? What English verb accurately describes the nature of my action in this episode?

You can't say that I stole your fire, because you still have it. For me to have stolen something from you, five conditions have to have been satisfied:

(1) You had something in your possession.

(2) I took that something and, as a result, I now have it in my possession.

(3) You did not authorize me to take it from you.

(4) You lacked any desire for it to be taken from you.

(5) You no longer have it in your possession.

More ... 

If you happened to pick up the Spring 2011 issue of Art Journal, you may well have felt momentarily disoriented when you turned to page 55. Wedged between several relatively conventional pieces of criticism and art history was an unusual and fascinating analysis of the term project in contemporary artistic discourse. "I'm working on a project for….," "doing a project with," "it's part of our project series": as Christopher Bedford observed, the term is everywhere in contemporary art-speak. Moreover, it seems to convey several specific things. When used in casual conversation, for instance, it can work as a sort of shibboleth, signifying that the speaker is familiar with current jargon and is an art world insider. On a more exacting level, however, Bedford argued that the term — when used instead of, say, exhibition or body of work — "implies that the enterprise in question will unfold somewhat more informally, with an indeterminate endpoint that includes the possibility of failure." Projects, it would seem, are ongoing and risky. And they are thus labeled with a term that does not simply connote a thing; rather, it also involves a comment on its speaker, and invokes a sort of philosophy of work. References to projects, then, may be ubiquitous, but they are not necessarily vacuous; the term carries particular associations. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by Bill Casselman
Dear Bill Casselman:

I, Dorothy, received a sterling silver milk mug for my first birthday years ago from a British relative. It is engraved in script; the saying is "Pucca Dotty." It is stamped on the bottom: London, England. The daughter of the British relative said she only knew me by Pucca. I almost fell from my chair. The only reference I have of that name was on my mug.

I have tried to find out about Pucca but no luck. Anything you can come up with will make me smile and probably cry a little. Now I'm questioning the spelling. Maybe Pukka?

Dorothy —

The word is pukka. "Pukka Dotty" in British slang between, say, 1890 and 1940, would be an affectionate nickname that meant "the best Dorothy that ever could be."

Pukka is one of those Panjabi or Hindi words that wandering Brits brought back to Old Blighty, that is, back home to England from any of various military duties in India. It's a handy little adjective of many meanings, both in its original languages and adopted into English. More ... 

Culture and Society
Back to Top  On Chickenshit
by Caleb S. Cage

However much society, culture, and warfare change, there seems to be one constant for a military in combat: chickenshit, and soldiers of every generation can give you examples of it even if they have never heard the word. It is the superfluous tasks that senior officers require of their underlings during wartime boredom, the trivialities of rank structures foisted on them in the name of military discipline, the infuriating injustices that seem to occur so easily when the two are matched with personal insecurities.

Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, a book by Paul Fussell, offers the most thorough study of it in a chapter called "Chickenshit: An Anatomy." Fussell describes chickenshit as a term that does not merely "imply complaint about the inevitable inconveniences of military life: overcrowding and lack of privacy, tedious institutional cookery, deprivation of personality, general boredom." Rather, chickenshit describes the behaviors that make "military life worse than it need be." It is: More ... 

by Jeremiah Reedy

Suppose that the Romans, preferring not to use the foreign word rhinoceros (Greek for "nose-horn") had instead borrowed the idea and coined their own word nasicornu. In that case we might today speak of nasicornus instead of rhinoceroses. A word such as nasicornu is called a calque or "loan translation." Calque is from French for "replica" or "copy"; the corresponding verb is calquer, "to copy or trace." The American Heritage Dictionary defines a calque as "a form of borrowing from one language to another whereby the semantic components of a given term are literally translated into their equivalents in the borrowing language." For example, a skyscraper in Italian is a grattacielo; in French, a gratte-ciel. Compare also German Fernsprecher for telephone and Fernsprechnummer for telephone number. There is very little scholarly literature on calques, perhaps because the concept is so simple. More ... 

by Carey Harrison

We are well into the fall semester, I was going to say, gentle reader, until I realized that we're almost out of it. Four weeks left, with Thanksgiving in the midst of it all. So what do I have to report to you in the way of student English, in the way of student lapses and student glories, this semester?

The glory for me came when I asked my "British poetry since the 1950s" class to learn a poem. We have been studying Eliot by way of introduction to the period (and counting Eliot as a Brit), followed by the usual suspects: Philip Larkin, Stevie Smith, John Betjeman, and others, with a seasoning — thank goodness! — of Welshmen by the name of Thomas, the great R.S., and the wonderful Dylan. I told the class their poem would have to be at least fourteen lines long and drawn from the poetry we had studied, which offered ample material. The students went into an immediate search for fourteen-line poems. Whenever they found a twelve-line poem they implored me to accept it as a candidate. We had actually begun, before Eliot, with Masefield's majestic Sea Fever, a poem once thought immortal. (Is it possible to be formerly immortal? I dare say not. You’re either immortal or you demonstrably fail the feast.) I'll begin any poetry class with "Sea Fever." If you can't be transported by its fevered rhythms, poetry is not for you. The twelve lines of "Sea Fever" comprise more language — more words, more feet — than a sonnet; I said that "Sea Fever" was acceptable, though two lines short. More ... 

The social structure of sidewalk life hangs partly on what can be called self-appointed public characters. A public character is anyone who is in frequent contact with a wide circle of people and who is sufficiently interested to make himself a public character. A public character need have no special talents or wisdom to fulfill his function — although he often does. He just needs to be present, and there need to be enough of his counterparts…. Most public sidewalk characters … are storekeepers or barkeepers or the like. — from The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

For two months this summer I became a public character. My friend Richard, a bookseller, had to fly to Europe to take care of his ailing mother for a while, and I took over the management of his small used-book shop every weekday from ten a.m. until five p.m. I was paid nothing for this labor, but lately I've begun to think it might have been the most rewarding work I've ever done. It was also heartrending. Not until I found myself operating a retail business did I fully comprehend just how widespread the current economic deprivation is. Nearly every day the bookshop received multiple calls from jobseekers wanting to know if I was hiring. Nearly every day someone came into the shop looking for employment. One young African-American, on seeing the hundreds of unshelved books that were stacked behind the front counter, offered to shelve them all for me free of charge just to show what he could do. I had to turn down his offer. A lot of people came through the door carrying professionally prepared resumes. When I explained to them that the shop was a one-man operation and that I myself was working without pay as a favor to the owner, many of them still asked if they could leave a resume with me — just in case. I never refused these requests. It's one thing to say, "We're not hiring now." It's another thing entirely to refuse to even accept a resume. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  guardian | guidewords
by Michael J. Sheehan

Guidewords are the two words that appear at the top of every dictionary page to indicate the first and the last entry to be found on that page.

Guidewords are sober, reliable, and unobtrusive to a fault. To the uninitiated, they are invisible. To the experienced dictionary user, they encourage speed reading to find the precise page on which a word resides.

The neophyte plods all the way through columns A and B on many successive pages before finding the word needed. The veteran skims through guidewords exclusively, ignoring the rest of the page until he or she pounces upon the only alphabetically viable pair.

Recently, I have stumbled upon a literary exercise — a game, really — that involves these sedate signposts. Into their otherwise drab and somber lives, this game introduces verve, humor, even frivolity. It allows them to trade in their charcoal gray suits for loud plaid. Giggles replace grunts, and wild dancing supplants stiff-backed sentry duty. 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 ... 

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

From Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English: Dictionaries often fail to define words correctly or to distinguish between them. 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

Kindle at the Cleaners — Joseph Epstein

Catch-22 and Other Titular Numbers — Richard Lederer

Share, Borrow, or Steal — Steven Cushing

"Playing with" and Art World Discourse — Kerr Houston

Pukka, Sahib! Top-Drawer! — Bill Casselman

Culture and Society: On Chickenshit — Caleb S. Cage

A Quiz on Calques — Jeremiah Reedy

The Glory and the Shame — Carey Harrison

How I Spent My Summer Vacation — Kevin Mims

Vocabula Revisited: guardian | guidewords — Michael J. Sheehan

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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.