The Vocabula Review

August 2012, Vol. 14, No. 8 Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book Excerpt

The Dimwit's Dictionary, Third Edition Robert Hartwell Fiske
Web version
Mr. Fiske is, in short, a fanatic, an extremist who apparently believes that clear language is our only hope for clear thought, that dull language deadens the mind and dampens the imagination, that a felicitous phrase is good news, that a strong prose style is a gift to be cultivated and cherished, that nothing, no, nothing in the world exceeds language in its significance to the human enterprise. As it happens, I believe in all this, too, which makes it an honor to salute a fellow fanatic and wish him and his book the great good fortune both deserve. — From the foreword by Joseph Epstein

Here are fourteen or so sections from the new third edition of The Dimwit's Dictionary.

Excerpts from Part 1

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.

The Dimwit's Dictionary is a compilation of thousands of dimwitticisms (clichés, colloquialisms, idioms, slang, and the like) that people speak and write endlessly.

The Dimwit's Dictionary categorizes dimwitticisms by the following types:

• Foreign phrases
• Grammatical gimmicks
• Ineffectual phrases
• Inescapable pairs
• Infantile phrases
• Moribund metaphors
• Overworked words
• Plebeian sentiments
• Popular prescriptions
• Quack equations
• Suspect superlatives
• Torpid terms
• Withered words
• Wretched redundancies

The Dimwit's Dictionary, Third Edition

The Dimwit's Dictionary, Third Edition
Author: Robert Hartwell Fiske
Publisher: Marion Street Press
Pub. Date: August 2012
ISBN: 978-1933338989
Binding: Paperback
Price: $17.95
Trim: 5" by 9"
Pages: 235

You may buy the book from the publisher at a 33 percent discount; the discount code is VOCAB

Plebeian sentiments reflect the views and values of the least thoughtful among us: be nice; (I) gave (him) the best years of (my) life; (it) gives (me) something to do; (these things) happen to other people, not to (me); I (just) don't think about it; I just work here; I'm bored (he's boring); (it) keeps (me) busy; (it's) something to look forward to; there are no words to describe (express); you think too much; what can you do; why me?

What's more, these expressions, base as they are, blunt our understanding and quash our creativity. They actually shield us from our thoughts and feelings, from any profound sense of ourselves.

People who use these expressions have not become who they were meant to be.

Dimwitticisms give rise to ineloquence, and it is precisely this that marks so much of our speech and writing. Whatever the occasion, whether celebratory or funereal, quotidian or uncommon, people speak and write the same dimwitted words and phrases. No wonder so many of us feel barren or inconsolable: there are few words that inspire us, few words that move us, few words that thrill or overwhelm us. Persuasion has lost much of its sway, conviction, much of its claim.

A person who expresses himself with genuineness instead of in jargon, with feeling instead of in formulas is capable as few have been, as few are, and as few will be; this is a person to heed.

Soon, it is clear, we will be a society unable to distinguish one word from another, sense from nonsense, truth from falsehood, good from evil. We will soon utter only mono- and disyllabic words, be entertained only by what pleases our peers, and adore whatever is easy or effortless. Unfamiliar wording and original phrasing will soon sound incoherent or cacophonic to us, while well-known inanities like have a nice day, what goes around comes around, and hope for the best but expect the worst will serve as our mantras, our maxims, our mottoes.

So prevalent is everyday English that the person who speaks correctly and uses words deliberately is often thought less well of than the person who speaks solecistically and uses slang unreservedly. Today, fluency is in disfavor. Neither everyday nor even uneducated English seems to offend people quite as much as does elegant English. People neither fume nor flinch when they hear sentences like those illustrated earlier. But let them listen to someone who speaks, or read someone who writes, elegantly, and they may be instantly repelled. Doubtless, well-turned phrases and orotund tones suggest to them a soul unslain.

It is not classism but clarity, not snobbery but sensibility that users of elegant English prize and wish to promote. Nothing so patently accessible as usage could ever be justly called invidious. As long as we recognize the categories of usage available to us, we can decide whether to speak and write the language well or badly. And we might more readily decide that elegant English is indeed vital were it more widely spoken by our public figures and more often written in our better books. Countless occasions where elegant English might have been used — indeed, ought to have been used — by a president or politician, a luminary or other notable, have passed with uninspired, if not bumbling, speech or writing.

The Dimwit's Dictionary will aid us in our quest for elegant, for wittier, speech and writing. The goal is to promote understanding and rouse people to action. The goal is to express ourselves as never before — in writing that demands to be read aloud, in speech that calls to be captured in print.

Excerpts from Part 2

a good read An infantile phrase. This is a hideous expression that only the very badly read — those, that is, who read merely to be entertained — could possibly verbalize. The people who use this phrase are the people who read best-selling authors (SEE). • This bookstore caters to those looking for a good read in paperback. REPLACE WITH a readable paperback. • While Foley's piece on football stadiums was a good read, it is entirely off the mark in terms of the proposed megaplex. REPLACE WITH entertaining. • It is hard to make air-conditioning repair a good read. REPLACE WITH captivating. SEE ALSO a (must) read.

go forward A torpid term. 1. advance; continue; develop; go on; grow; happen; improve; increase; make headway; make progress; move on; occur; proceed; progress; take place. 2. shall; will; delete.

• The way in which this is drafted will allow those takeovers to go forward, which would allow for a greater efficiency and productivity. REPLACE WITH proceed. • It is still our expectation that the summit will go forward and be productive. REPLACE WITH occur. • We look forward to going forward. REPLACE WITH proceeding.

Going forward is replacing auxiliary verbs like will and shall, which to the politicians and businesspeople who now rely on going forward, do not convey futurity as effectively. Going forward, to these dimwitted thinkers, seems to reveal the future more forcefully; yet distinctions in tense, mood, and voice may be forfeited along with a subtle, yet indispensable, sense of what it means to be human.

• This highlights perhaps the greatest risk to the economy going forward. • We need to train more Iraqi troops going forward. • I can't wait to share ideas about what we can do going forward. • Going forward, as the company has more mature branches, its profit margins should benefit and widen a bit more. • The company will continue to face challenges going forward. • This is an excellent opportunity for both companies and we look forward to maintaining positive momentum going forward. SEE ALSO a step forward; a step (forward) in the right direction; move forward; move (forward) in the right direction; proceed forward.

on the part of A wretched redundancy. among; by; for; from; of; -s. On the part of is a preposition phrase that apparently appeals to bombastic men and women who may not fully consider what they say, for they certainly do not consider how they say it. People use on the part of when they're too lazy to think of the proper, a better word — most often a two- to four-letter, monosyllabic preposition. This is a thoughtless person's phrase.

• As a result, and following vigorous lobbying on the part of CFS victims, the disease is now called chronic fatigue immunodeficiency syndrome. REPLACE WITH by.

• Open-ended questions require much more effort on the part of the person answering them. REPLACE WITH from. • Misconduct on the part of the police sometimes also violates the criminal law. REPLACE WITH Police misconduct. • It has also sometimes been attributed to an attitude on the part of health counselors that the poor are charity cases who should be satisfied with whatever they get since they are probably not paying for their own care. REPLACE WITH among. • If we are to get over the current crisis, sacrifices on the part of everyone will have to be made. REPLACE WITH everyone will have to make sacrifices. • Exhaustive questions reduce the frustration on the part of the respondents. REPLACE WITH respondents' frustrations. SEE ALSO on (his) part.

that's how (the way) it goes A plebeian sentiment. That's how (the way) it goes and other expressions of resignation are often spoken by some people and rarely, if at all, spoken by others.

It is dimwitted people who are too often resigned when they should be complaining, too often resigned when they should be demanding, too often resigned when they should be raging. SEE ALSO such is life; that's how (the way) the ball bounces; that's how (the way) the cookie crumbles; that's life; that's life in the big city; that's show biz; what are you going to do; what can you do.

there are no words to describe (express) A plebeian sentiment. There are many more words than people seem to think, and far more is expressible with them than people seem to imagine.

Those who depend on dimwitticisms to convey thought and feeling are more apt to believe there are no words to describe ..., for these people are, necessarily, most frustrated by the limits of language.

Dimwitticisms do permit us to describe our most universal feelings, our most banal thoughts, but they prevent us from describing more individual feelings, more brilliant thoughts. These are reserved for a language largely unknown to everyday speakers and writers. SEE ALSO words cannot describe (express).

wrap (get) (his) arms (head; mind) around A moribund metaphor. 1. accept; advocate; back; champion; embrace; support; welcome. 2. appreciate; apprehend; comprehend; grasp; understand. • People are really struggling to get their arms around this bill. REPLACE WITH support. • It's a selective organization, inherently biased and fallible, but likewise incapable of wrapping its arms around every problem and every controversy. REPLACE WITH embracing. • It's hard for people to get their arms around this. REPLACE WITH understand.

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Robert Hartwell Fiske

Robert Hartwell Fiske :: Move me  

Robert Hartwell Fiske is the editor and publisher of The Vocabula Review. He is the author of The Dictionary of Unendurable English and To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing.


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