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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
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.
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.
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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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 (19231999), 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.More ...
by Kerr Houston
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 ...
by Bill Casselman
Dear Bill Casselman:
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 SocietyOn 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 ...
by Kevin Mims
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 Revisitedguardian | 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 VocabulaVocabula Poll
From Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English: Dictionaries often fail to define words correctly or to distinguish between them. More ...
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