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October 2011, Vol. 13, No. 10 There are now   76   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

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Disagreeable English

A Bimonthly Bulletin of Misused, Misspelled, and 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

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 In the October 2011 Vocabula
 The November issue is due online November 20.

by John Kilgore

Is it just me, or have failures of subject–verb agreement been on the uptick recently? Here is an example from the New York Times:

As Karen Dynan of the Brookings Institution has found, well over half of the decline in the nation's debt levels are due to foreclosures and consumer credit write-downs . . . .

And one from the Decatur Herald and Review, here in Illinois:

A compromise solution, such as the one put together by the "Gang of Six" senators, have been rejected.

In the first case, are should be is, of course, to agree with the noun phrase well ... levels; in the second, which leaps off the page, have should be has, to agree with solution.

I keep poor notes, or I could furnish endless further examples, for I have been noticing this problem again and again. The blunder seems especially common in a situation that is admittedly a little tricky, when a linking verb joins a singular subject to a plural complement: More ... 

by Bill Casselman

Using a word new to me this week, a lady during a radio interview called herself an entomophage. She practices entomophagy (en-toh-MOFF-ah-gee) and yet has never been detained by the authorities! An entomophage (en-TOE-moh-fage) eats insects as food. In the two words, note the different syllabic stress.

Our ordinary English word insect began as a Roman loan-translation from early Greek science. Entomon was Aristotle's word for insect, from tomos, "cut, divided up," and en, "in," so that ἔντομον, entomon, meant "cut-up-into-segments thing," referring to the segmental divisions of an adult insect's body such as head, antennae, mouth parts, thorax, wings, legs, and abdomen. More ... 

by Jean Mallinson

I used to long to live inside poems; now I know that it is possible to do so. All I have to do is memorize a poem and then, as I say it over, it lives in me and I live in it. First I decide which poem I shall memorize, then I type it into my computer and print it in a font size as small as I can read, cut it out and keep it in my pocket for handy reference.

You never really know a poem until you have learned it by heart. Typing the words is the first step in memorizing, saying them aloud (when alone; I don't declaim in crowded malls) is the second. I remember them in part by their position on a half visualized page. As I learn new poems, they don't displace one another. They each occupy a space in my imagined mind, which, so far, has proved without boundaries. I memorize a poem while waiting — at a bus stop, in a doctor's office — or while doing hand work. I say it over lovingly. My feeling for the poems I have memorized is almost erotic. I am alone with the poem, and I love the way it sounds. The poem and I are somewhere together. More ... 

by Richard Lederer

In Ireland, celebrants of Halloween carved out the insides of turnips and lit them with embers to represent the souls of the dead. The Irish brought this custom with them to America, only replacing turnips with the more abundant pumpkins, which had been grown here for more than 5,000 years. From pumpkins they began to create jack-o'-lanterns, and the custom spread.

The Irish tell a story about a notorious drunkard and trickster named Jack. He could not enter heaven because he was a miser, and he was unable to enter Hell because he had played practical jokes on the devil. The devil gave him a single ember to light his way through the frigid darkness. Jack placed the hot coal inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer and was left to walk the earth until Judgment Day with his "Jack's lantern." More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

For many years now, lexicographers and descriptive linguists (let me call them lexlings, meaning both lexicographers and linguists, and expressing an opinion of both with the diminutive suffix -ling) have been fervently promoting the idea that a dictionary should record the language as it is used instead of as it ought to be used.

Most intelligent people, however, I dare say, want to know how to speak and write well, clearly, persuasively, compellingly, perhaps even beautifully. Collecting tripe from Twitter and other dubious sources, as lexicographers are wont to do, helps ensure that we — or those people who still, for what reasons we can only wonder, pay any attention to the dictionary — speak and write like every other ignoramus.

Lexlings are eager to regard their nemeses, prescriptivists — those who feel as though standards of English-language use ought to be maintained — as socially and politically conservative. And some prescriptivists certainly are. The modern prescriptivist, however, is, or strives to be, as just in his social and political views as he is exacting in his grammar and usage. Upholding the values of accuracy, clarity, and elegance goes beyond speaking and writing the language well; it also means upholding the values of honesty, grace, and justice.

The modern prescriptivist, through his choice of language, has no interest, despite the accusations of lexlings, in disparaging women and minorities; no talent for using incendiary or insulting language; no thought of being superior to others who do not speak or write the language as he does. The modern prescriptivist is concerned with speaking and writing well — and with having the language, the usage and grammar, with which to do so. More ... 

by Carey Harrison

Once again, like last month, I encounter a former student of mine — this time on the street — who is about to be certified to teach seventh through twelfth grade. She doesn't ask for a letter of recommendation, thank goodness. But she actually volunteers, smiling in shy apology, the fact that her grammar is poor, her knowledge of written English weak. I nod tenderly, thinking of similar students of mine who, when warned that I might not be able to write them an unqualified rave for their mastery of English, ask me nevertheless to write a letter of recommendation. I used to wonder why on earth they would do this, especially since they must have other teachers past or present to whom it would not occur to pass any comment at all on their control of written English. Why would they court my at best guarded, at worst negative, recommendation? Surely it wasn't about my not unduly glorious name, attached to the letter, as if this were valuable in itself — much as it was always considered better for a novelist to have a mixed or even poor review in the New York Sunday Times than none at all. (I've benefited from this philosophical attitude in the past.) But no: no, the reason, when it finally penetrated my obtuse, outmoded brain was shockingly simple. The truth is that my students are simply far smarter than I am. They know that their hypothetical employers have no interest whatsoever in a prospective employee's command of English, even, indeed especially, when the job involves teaching English. You may think I'm joking. If you do, then you are as obtuse and out of touch (I shall not say outmoded) as I have been. It has been true for some time, but in my life it has only been in the last twelvemonth that I have heard people in the business of education say outright that grammar is not taught any more — not that it is negligently, poorly, or ineptly taught, but that it is not taught at all. A graduate student of mine told me a story last month that finally broke through my disbelief. His sister, he told me, is a grade-school English teacher; one of her students took issue with her (the teacher's) spelling of a word; her reply, according to my student, was, "I'm an English teacher, not a spelling teacher." More ... 

by Clark Elder Morrow

Most of us, on occasion, read certain authors simply because we find their personalities charming — even sweet (if I may use a term that's often misunderstood — the word originally referred to that quality of an apple or orange that made it a little more magical and pleasant than staple foods; it didn't mean "sugary"). Just as we read some authors merely for their prose style — in my own case, Macaulay and Gibbon — so we read some writers simply because their personalities are such a delight. I know there are only two reasons I read children's author Edith Nesbit (she always published under the epicene nom de plume "E. Nesbit," but it's time she stood forth on the literary stage under her full name). I read her for her sweetness, her charm, her alluring humaneness and kindly tempered tone. And I read her for her insights into the differences between the sexes.

Although I'm attracted to her sweet nature, I must say that I'm rarely inclined to pick up a Nesbit book simply for the fantasy elements in it — the outright "magic" in her stories is seldom as captivating as the magic of her personality and style. After all, what she conjures up as the supernatural in her novels is not often all that original (she deals in the customary stock of flying carpets, time travel, wish-granting, amulets, and so on), and it rarely creates the frisson one always looks forward to in tales of the numinous. More ... 

As I write this, I am sitting behind the counter of a small Sacramento used bookstore. The proprietor is a friend of mine. He is caring for a sick relative for the next few months, and I am watching the store in his absence. He is paying me nothing for my time and effort. Mine is a labor of love — love both for my friend and for used bookstores in general. I say all this to establish my credentials as a supporter of the small local bookshop (even though I often buy books on Amazon.com). Those credentials aside, however, I would like to say a few kind words about the big chain bookstores.

Earlier this summer, Borders Books & Music announced that it was going out of business. This was a particularly hard blow to the Sacramento metropolitan area because there were five giant Borders operating here. In my opinion those big box stores filled an important need in the community. I love small used bookshops but, in all honesty, they cannot fully serve a community's reading needs by themselves. Every day that I have worked in Richard's shop I have had to disappoint a dozen or more potential customers. A lot of these customers have been coming into the store clutching a "summer reading list." These lists usually contain such titles as To Kill a Mockingbird, A Separate Peace, Beloved, Slaughter-House Five, and so forth. Yesterday a young woman came into the store and handed me her list. She needed copies of The Importance of Being Earnest, Hamlet, A Streetcar Named Desire, some Norton anthology of Victorian poetry, some other anthology of American short stories, Amazing Grace by Jonathan Kozol, and Dickens's Great Expectations. More ... 

From the businessman, to the baker, to the cheerleader, we all use words that we find "totally American," having decided that the language we speak is — like our nation — so distinct as to have no historical relation whatsoever to the ways of foreigners. But some of you might be surprised to discover that your favorite words, even your beloved "Hooray!" shouted at football games with hot-dog in hand, actually sneaked out from behind the Iron Curtain (and other Eastern European locales).

Most of you know that bratwurst and kindergarten are German, nacho and cafeteria are Spanish, and spaghetti and graffiti are Italian — then again, when italicized, any word begins to gain the enigmatic title of "loanword," a word from one language used in another language. And though it may not shock some that bagel, schmuck, and Oy vey! are Yiddish in origin, still many more of our favorite words have been snatched from the lexicons of this Eastern European tongue. Take, for example, "panhandle," as in "Girl Scouts are always panhandling Samoas this time of year": it's in our newspapers, legal ordinances, and in the most American of TV shows. But it too is Yiddish, originally from handeln, "to bargain." Just the same, gamers will find that all of their glitches can be blamed on Yiddish and that golems weren't invented by D&D. More ... 

by Mark Halpern

Although I have been writing for years about the controversy between those who think the language should be guided — the "prescriptivists" — and those who just want to study it — the "descriptivists" — I have never seen a forthright, systematic presentation of the platform of either party. Some prescriptivist principles can be inferred or pieced together from a sympathetic, intelligent reading of the writings of such men as Jacques Barzun, H. W. Fowler, Robert Graves, Michael Dummett, and Bryan Garner, but that doesn't satisfy the need for an explicit, orderly presentation of the principles that underlie their position. It's in the hope of filling that need, at least on the prescriptivist side, that this essay is written — I will leave it to a staunch descriptivist to do the same for his side. It will appear in two parts, of which this is the first. More ... 

There'a a name for everything. We all need one to address or refer to a person, a group of people, an organization, place, animal, or thing. A well-chosen name can be a prized reputation or even an honorable title. An ill-chosen name can become an embarrassment and a permanent stigma. Mr. and Mrs. Cass, for instance, wouldn't want to raise a Jack Cass. Nor would Morris Lester's parents wish to introduce a Moe Lester into the family. Even the good book tells us that "a good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold" (Proverbs 22:1). 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 ... 

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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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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 ... 

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And Coming in January 2012

Robert Hartwell Fiske's
Disagreeable English

A Bimonthly Bulletin of Misused, Misspelled, and Mispronounced English

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