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September 2011, Vol. 13, No. 9 There are now   600   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.

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.

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 In the September 2011 Vocabula
 The October issue is due online October 23.

In struggling to deal with the current educational decline, I believe I can put my finger on a symptom if not part of the cause. Or so I fancy by taking that hackneyed metaphor literally and pointing to a specific passage from an early American short story.

The work is Washington Irving's once celebrated but now overshadowed, "Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Some may recall his tale of Ichabod Crane, the itinerant schoolmaster who ran a small backwoods school in the upper Hudson Valley, and how he takes a fancy to Katrina Van Tassel, the comely daughter of a prosperous farmer, more for her father's wealth than for her beauty. Presuming he can win her by virtue of his status as a pedagogue and the mere fact that he wants to be her husband, he little suspects that his plan together with his vanity will be upended by his rival for her affection Brom Bones, who, disguised as a headless horseman, terrorizes him into superstitious flight. Those who know the story may recall the episode where Ichabod has been summoned to a harvest festival at the Van Tassel farm. Accepting the invitation as a go-ahead to propose to Katarina and win her, he makes his way confidently to the farm on a borrowed old nag. And as he approaches the house, he takes smug inventory of its riches, considering the estate as good as his. Here is the passage: More ... 

by Joseph Epstein

After thirty years of teaching a university course in something called advanced prose style, my accumulated wisdom on the subject, inspissated into a single thought, is that writing cannot be taught, though it can be learned — and that, friends, is the sound of one hand clapping. A. J. Liebling offers a complementary view, more concise and stripped of paradox, which runs: "The only way to write is well, and how you do it is your own damn business."

Learning to write sound, interesting, sometimes elegant prose is the work of a lifetime. The only way I know to do it is to read a vast deal of the best writing available, prose and poetry, with keen attention, and find a way to make use of this reading in one's own writing. The first step is to become a slow reader. No good writer is a fast reader, at least not of work with the standing of literature. Writers perforce read differently from everyone else. Most people ask three questions of what they read: (1) What is being said? (2) Does it interest me? (3) Is it well constructed? Writers also ask these questions, but two others along with them: (4) How did the author achieve the effects he has? And (5) What can I steal, properly camouflaged of course, from the best of what I am reading for my own writing? This can slow things down a good bit. More ... 

by Jeff Minick

In May 2008, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) issued a report stating that there was no "boys crisis" in education and that "long-standing inequalities are not specific for boys."

The women who issued this report may hail from Venus, but the online howls of caustic incredulity that greeted their findings came not from Mars, but directly from earth and the very real world of classroom teachers and the parents of boys. Even at the AAUW's own website, opinion was overwhelmingly negative. Adrianne, for example, who described herself as a "sad and mad professor and mom," summed up the report as "stunningly short-sighted, myopic and irresponsible," while Beatrice commented that "it has been fortunate to see the majority of feedback to the report has been dismissive." Certainly American prison administrators, directors of the world's most populous penal system, had they read the report, would have choked with laughter or rage at the AAUW's egregious claims, since one of every seventy-three American males now resides in some institution of incarceration. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by Clark Elder Morrow

I like to begin my columns by throwing down a little gauntlet, so here's one you may try on for size, if you like: The more exact and precise one's words are, the more formulaic one's style becomes. And by "formulaic" I don't mean conventional or predictable (as in film criticism); I mean "very much like a mathematical formula." I will show you what I mean.

But since we must discuss something in order for my demonstration to achieve its object, I suggest (actually, I insist) that we choose these particular words to work with: justice, mercy, retribution, revenge, equity, and equality.

First, some quick definitions, which I promise will be shockingly succinct. Justice is everyone getting what he deserves. Equality is everyone getting the same, regardless of what he deserves. Equity is the ideal, the ultimate in fairness — where everything is as it should be. Retribution is "negative" justice (that is, justice involving something unpleasant, like punishment). "Positive" justice involves well-measured recompense or remuneration, like payment. Mercy is the mysterious x-factor or wild card we will talk about more thoroughly in a moment. Revenge is retribution without any sense of proportion or symmetry, so that the revenge-minded gangster, for instance, is famous for raving such things as "I want him dead! I want his wife dead! I want his family dead! I want his dog dead!" More ... 

by Richard Lederer

Carnivores eat flesh and meat; piscivores eat fish; herbivores consume plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. I am such a creature. My whole life I have feasted on words — ogled their appetizing shapes, colors, and textures; swished them around in my mouth; lingered over their many tastes; let their juices run down my chin. During my adventures as a fly-by-the-roof-of-the-mouth Riddler Reacher (an anagram of Richard Lederer), I have met thousands of other wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores, folks who also eat their words.

One species of verbivore sees words as collections of letters to be juggled, shuffled, riffled, and flipped. Lovers of logology — the art and craft of letter play — are spellbound by the fact that TWENTY-NINE is spelled with capital letters made of straight lines only — 29 of them, to be exact. They swoon that ambidextrous is alphabetically ambidextrous. Its left half, ambide, uses letters from the left half of the alphabet, and its right half, xtrous, uses letters from the right half of the alphabet. Logologists fall heels over head in love with temperamentally — a snowball word that can be cleft into five words that are one-, two-, three-, four-, and five-letters long: t, em, per, amen, tally. More ... 

by Bill Casselman

You commit disfluency every day. It's a newish technical term in phonology used when analyzing speech. Disfluency names a spoken ploy most of us use every day. Disfluency is inserting short spacer or filler sounds into a sentence when you can't immediately come up with the next word. For example, He is the ... uh ... um ... head of the group. His proper corporate title is ... you know ... darn ... use it very day ... mmmm ... oh ... yes! ... Vice-President in Charge of Public Excuses for Our Continuing Poisoning of the Planet Earth So That Our Executives May Purchase That Third Summer Home on Tahiti.

Saying um or uh is disfluent. Your fluency in uttering an unimpeded English sentence is very temporarily compromised. For once, I approve of the definition given in a Wikipedia article: "Speech disfluencies are any of various breaks, irregularities, or non-lexical vocables that occur within the flow of otherwise fluent speech." Under that definition, would Homer Simpson's moronic "Duuhhh" qualify as a non-lexical vocable? More ... 

by John Kilgore

1. First, do plenty of harm. Argument in America, these days, is no namby-pamby exercise in reflection and truth-finding. It is a sort of verbal equivalent to cage fighting. Your job is to draw blood, early, late, and often. Succeed in that, and you can always work for another candidate or client if this one loses.

2. Only losers and amateurs still believe the old idea that disputants may share certain premises. You must always insist that you have absolutely nothing in common with your opponent. You want to show that every thought that passes through his mind is necessarily and completely wrong. If he happens to express some idea that you have always firmly believed, accuse him of hypocrisy and not really believing it. Or change your mind on the spot, hotly deny the idea, and work out the consequences later. Argument is about adrenaline, which impedes memory, and chances are that no one will really notice your switcheroo.

Warning: Never give an enemy credit for reasonableness in having conceded your idea. "I'm glad you see that" is the sort of thing that losers say. A winner will shout, "So you admit it!" and proceed to ridicule the opponent. More ... 

First-Place Winner — Fathima Mayan

The Ire of Gnarled Things

The stress levels and high decibel arguments were always indicative of things looming. The ever-present air of strife-about-to-erupt, no doubt, gave our men and women their trademark gnarled veins.

Soon after her fifth delivery, Umma's lovely porcelain skin erupted into pale green meandering vines. Gradually, they fattened and bulged till they stared you in your face with pointed maliciousness, unabashed in their green black ire. In an alarmingly short time, the veins branched into angry tangles.

As they settled into their final pattern, the green became more pronounced, yet placid. Little did they reveal the pulsating rage of the blood that flowed through them, except when Umma tried to assuage its mindless violence by pressing her aching leg against her thigh, shifting her weight on to the other leg.

"Ya, Allah," we often heard the cry wrenched out of her, as she pressed her hammering foot against the floor tiles. At times, she literally jumped at the agony shooting through, as she tried to hurry her chores, fretting to feed eight of her own and the countless guests that enjoyed her husband's hospitality. She held up her "bad" leg, and quickened the sautéing of onions for the mutton stew. As soon as she finished, she half hopped, half ran to flop on her bed, dragging her bad leg, so that she could let it rest on the headrest railings of the old bed. She hoped to kill the wild thumping in her twisted veins, reaching out for her books, for the anaesthetic of Natasha's rejection of Andre in War and Peace. More ... 

Many books on the craft of writing can also be read to improve one's character. Herbert Read's English Prose Style, F. L. Lucas's Style, John R. Trimble's Writing With Style, Joseph M. Williams's and Gregory G. Colomb's Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace — these and other craft books generally condemn pomposity, artifice, showiness, laziness, sloppiness, imprecision, and other traits that one would be better off eradicating not only from one's prose but also from one's character. Likewise, many literary style manuals extol the virtues of clarity, courtesy, generosity, and other traits that can improve not only one's writing but one's person. But if it is true that writing manuals can be full of good advice for improving one's character, is it equally true that books about improving one's character can be full of good writing advice? In the case of one seventeenth-century collection of aphorisms, the answer is a resounding yes.

In 1647, Baltasar Gracian, a Spanish Jesuit priest and writer, published a book called Oraculo Manual y Arte de Prudencia (literally The Oracle: A Manual of the Art of Discretion), in which he presented three hundred maxims on the art of living. The book is usually translated into English under the title The Art of Worldly Wisdom. The most recent American edition of the book — The Art of Worldly Wisdom: A Pocket Oracle — was translated by Christopher Maurer and published by Doubleday in 1992. It became a bestseller upon publication and has since sold well over 100,000 copies. According to Maurer's introduction, The Art of Worldly Wisdom "is a book of strategies for knowing, judging, and acting: for making one's way in the world and achieving distinction and perfection. It is a collection of three hundred aphorisms too delicious not to share with friends and colleagues, too penetrating not to hide from enemies and rivals. Its ideal reader is someone whose daily occupation involves dealing with others: discovering their intentions, winning their favor and friendship, or (on the other hand) defeating their designs and 'checkmating their will.'" More ... 

by Carey Harrison

September. The fin-de-siècle poet Jules Laforgue, who died a youthful victim of consumption, as it was then called, speaks mournfully in his Derniers Vers of September and of la rentrée, the terrible French term for the recommencement of classes: C'est le toux dans les dortoirs the coughing in the dormitories la tisane dans le foyer herbal tea beside the hearth la phtisie pulmonaire attristant le quartier tuberculosis ("pulmonary phthisis") dragging sadness through the streets et toute la misère des grands centres and all the destitution of a metropolis.

In Broooklyn, as in Paris, it's la rentrée once more, but while we still have destitution there's not too much phthisis, thankfully, in my September classroom. Eliza, my great great great-aunt, died young of phthisis in the North-West of England; and T. S. Eliot's Princess Volupine forever extends a meager, blue-nailed, phthisic hand while ascending a water-stair. But phthisis is largely vanished as a term, and though the phthisic hand in Eliot's poem belonged, in life, to his first wife, Vivien, before he lent it to the Princess Volupine, Eliot's use of it is all but archaic; he was much possessed by Laforgue, and will certainly have been mindful of it in "L'Hiver Qui Vient," the Laforgue poem from Derniers Vers.

So not much phthisis, perhaps, but what does arrive along with my fresh crop of composition students, some of them freshmen, some quite antique, after peregrinating through life or other colleges before landing at the seminar table at the center of the thirty-six-seater office that doubles as my classroom, is a predictable crop of wayward English. Prepositions, as usual, are the victims of writing paralysis. "Aside for my spelling, my English is okay," writes one. "I am not accustomed of reading alot [sic]," offers another. I call it writing paralysis, or writing seize-up, because they would not fail, in conversation, to say, "aside from" and "accustomed to," respectively. (Reading "accustomed of," I get a sudden image flash of Rex, my illustrious Papa, stepping on stage and exclaiming, "Damn, damn damn, damn damn! I've grown accustomed of her face.") More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Perilous Pronouns
by Ada Brunstein

First: I argued over we.

Me: So, we went out for pizza and beer.
Him: We?
Me: Yeah.
Him: Fine.
Me: What?
Him: You're a we?
Me: A what?
Him: A we.
Me: You're nuts.

If you've been in a relationship, this exchange will not surprise you. You know that words matter. Love makes linguists of us all. As close as we feel to our loved ones, we're always trying to get one step closer, hoping ultimately to end up inside their heads — and language is the best way to get there. We might grab on to a verb, lean on a noun, ponder a preposition (and later a proposition), wondering what was meant by each one.

But pronouns should be straightforward. Pronouns hardly change. They don't get verbed, their reference is restricted, and new pronouns seldom appear in a language. You'd think we would've learned to use them by now. So, why can't we manage them in our relationships? More ... 

As any wordaholic knows, etymology is a branch of linguistics that explores the origin and history of words. It is a fascinating study with countless stories about how words came into being. The history behind company names can be just as interesting. This LM takes a quick look at the etymology of corporate America's biggest names.

Corporate names fall into four categories. The first includes initializations, abbreviations, and acronyms and is merely the conventional short-cut use of the first letters of the full corporate name, for example, ABC, NSA, RCA, IBM, UPS, NCR, CBS, NBC. Some names are from the first few letters as in Alcoa, the Aluminum Company of America, and Nabisco, the National Biscuit Co. Sometimes the initials meld into an acronym, as in SPRINT, Southern Pacific Railroad INTernal Communications.

The second type of company name incorporates the names of the founders. Examples include Friedrich Bayer; S. Duncan Black and Alonzo Decker; Amar Bose; Michael Dell; Soichiro Honda; Mark Honeywell; Henri Nestle; Michio Suzuki; Horace Smith & Daniel Wesson; Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. Some use only the initials, as in A&W Root Beer for R. Allen & F. Wright; RB (Arby) for the Raffel Bros; and CC (CiCi's) for Joe Croce and Mike Cole. Wendy's was named after the nickname of founder Dave Thomas's daughter, and the luxury car Mercedes was named after the daughter of Emil Jellinek, an Austrian automobile entrepreneur. Paul Orfalea's kinky red hair earned him the nickname Kinko in college, and that became the name of his copying company. Harpo, the production company founded by Oprah Winfrey, is Oprah spelled backward. 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 ... 

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And Coming in January 2012

Robert Hartwell Fiske's
Disagreeable English

A Bimonthly Bulletin of Disagreeable English

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