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August 2012, Vol. 14, No. 8 There are now   136   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

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

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Deliberately changing these cliche expressions can be fun (breakneck mountain, briny pickles, bumpkin pie, busman's transfer, days of bygones are just a few that come to mind); it's especially amusing to see innocent inexperienced readers misuse these ready-made expressions (One I have recently seen is "blathering idiot" for "blithering idiot." "A plan that went a rye" is also kinda funny ... I rate these up there with malapropisms sprung from spell-checkers, my favorite being "sand wedge" for "sandwich." — What do you say?

I don't read that the author is "sneering" at job training at all. His description of the efficacy of boot camp and jump school demonstrates his respect for the utility of training. His objection is that the university is being (has been?) drafted as a place to receive job training. The university in the traditional sense is a repository for the universe of knowledge. John Kilgore even used the term "monastery," when describing this view. The president of Yale told the incoming freshman class at orientation at least once "If you want to go to college to learn how to make a living, go to a trade school. At Yale, you learn how to live, and if you know how to live, making a living will always follow." ... — What do you say?

Terrific essay. I wish more people (especially women, if I may say so) would speak out against this lunacy. In case you haven't seen it, I highly recommend the Guidelines for Gender-Fair Use of Languageof the National Council of Teachers of English, an entertaining manifesto rife with examples of the silly arkwardness that comes with political correctness. ... — What do you say?

It is a shame that poems are no longer read in school. Someone needs to know what poetry can be, other than most of the crud we see currently. These days, all one has to do is break a paragraph into "verse paragraphs," call it a poem, and voila! Rhyme, meter that is intelligible and not so precious as to be unrecognizable by anyone not schooled in "prosody," the traditional poetic forms make poetry. Instead we get the vaporings of people who should keep their diaries to themselves. I invite anyone to defend contemporary poetry against these charges of commonness and mediocrity. — What do you say?

Your lengthy repost to that ass dignifuies the Yahoo and treats him as if he were a peer. He isn't and, to my way of thinking, a "Whatever...." would have sufficed as your response. Or, as the inimitable Monty Python would say, so might you say to the man, "I fart in your general direction." ... — What do you say?

Your article is an incredibly rich and highly enjoyable contribution. ... — What do you say?

The pronouncements of eminent, respectable people carry no weight with me. Abolish the apostrophe? Never. We need it to indicate possession, though I would have no problem with the abolition of contractions. It's a simple bit of punctuation, and we shouldn't capitulate to the slobs who can't be bothered to use it correctly. Like my drill sergeant used to say, "Ignorance is no excuse!" I also think you gave too much away when you capitulated to your slob roommates. — What do you say?

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.


Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Concise Writing
2012 Edition

Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Concise Writing

This is a new 2012 edition of The Dictionary of Concise Writing, which was first published, by Simon & Schuster, in 1990. A pdf version and more than 800 pages long, this version of The Dictionary of Concise Writing is not now available elsewhere. Buy it once and receive updated versions when available.

You can order Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Concise Writing from Vocabula Books.


Guide to Obfuscation: A Reverse Dictionary

Guide to Obfuscation: A Reverse Dictionary

Guide to Obfuscation: A Reverse Dictionary is an appendix in the 2012 edition of The Dictionary of Concise Writing. You may buy it separately. It is 234 pages long.

You can order Guide to Obfuscation: A Reverse Dictionary from Vocabula Books.


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 Marion Street Press 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 Marion Street Press 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.

Poem, Revised
54 Poems, Revisions, Discussions

Poem, Revised

The creative world of the writer is uncovered in this captivating exploration of the techniques of poetry revision. An in-depth look at the writing processes of fifty-four poems, each by a different modern author, is provided, complete with early drafts, subsequent revised versions, and short essays from the poets themselves, revealing how and why they made specific changes, as well as their editing secrets. Poetry lovers will enjoy browsing through their favorite works and authors, and budding writers will learn the skills needed to grow a first draft into a polished final piece.

You can order Poem, Revised from Marion Street Press or Amazon.


Silence, Language, & Society
A guide to style and meaning, grace and compassion

Silence, Language, & Society

"a remarkable little volume" — Midwest Book Review

"Silence Language & Society ... is an elegant little book, and I am very pleased to own it." — Joseph Epstein

"Robert Hartwell Fiske is one of the most quotable writers alive, and Silence, Language & Society positively oozes epigrammatic sentences from every page. If you like great writing, and if you enjoy reading pithy observations about language, literature, and life, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of this book." — Slade Allenbury

You can order Silence, Language, & Society from Vocabula Books or Amazon.


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 In the August 2012 Vocabula
 The September issue is due online September 16.

by John Kilgore

I watch too much basketball — the Chicago Bulls specifically, on TV always (though my wife and I did take in one live game last season) — dedicating unconscionable quantities of my mortal span to the NBA's 82-game regular season, then to as much of the playoffs as I can manage while still eating and shaving. The payoff and lure is the sort of out-of-time, out-of-body contentment that is achieved in other contexts by saints, drug addicts, and cows standing along a fence. But in the rare intervals when my brain stirs to life, it notices some fairly interesting things that basketball does to English. Like almost anything, the sport has its own argot — a small set of eccentric usages that give it a characteristic flavor and a certain sectarian, secessionist pull away from the main language.

For instance, the term of art for a shot that clangs off the rim, missing badly, is "brick," while one that misses even the backboard and net is an "air ball." A shot that puts a game out of reach in the last minute or so is "a dagger," short for "dagger in the heart," itself a demotic update of coup de grace. ("Nail in the coffin" is a close, slightly less emphatic synonym.) Two-point shots can be "deuces," three-point shots "treys" launched from "downtown." A rebound is a "board." "Assist" and "steal" are nouns as well as verbs. Loose balls down around the feet of several players crowded under the goal are "garbage." It is easy to imagine a highlight-reel narrator saying all the following: More ... 

Nothing paints a picture of former times as strikingly as a contemporaneous guide to language. Here, for instance, is a passage from Robert Whittenton's Vulgaria: Principles of Grammar, printed in London in 1520. Whittenton is giving examples of speech, both in English and Latin, "wherein the genitive signifies the whole of which a part is taken." A Latin translation follows, in the original, each of the following sentences:

PRAECEPTUM

Upon London bridge I saw three or four men's heads stand upon poles.

Upon Ludgate, the fore-quarter of a man is set upon a pole.

Upon the other side hangeth the haunch of a man with the leg.

It is a strange sight to see the hair of the head fase [fade] or moose [moult] away, and the gristle of the nose consumed away.

The fingers of their hands withered and clung unto the bare bones.

Well. That certainly gives us a sense of the early Tudor period, in a way that Sir Thomas More never really does. And who can deny that a schoolboy learning his lessons from such a textbook will forever carry in his mind's eye an ineradicable picture of the genitive? Whittenton, it seems to me, has done quite all he can do to reach the "visual learners" in his audience. More ... 

To paraphrase the folksy poet Edgar Guest, let me sit in a house by the side of the road and try to name all the parts of the very bungalow in which I, cheerful as a toodling warbler, do most happily dwell. How humbling it was to discover that even a citizen as platinum-tongued and magniloquent as my fine self was not able to name thirty or forty distinct parts of the very abode in which I abide.

What is a spandrel? A chamfer? A quoin? A gablet? Spandrel, Chamfer, Gablet & Quoin — it could be a law firm of ambulance-chasing shysters who just won two million dollars from an estate on behalf of their distressed client who had grievously injured a fingernail while picking the lock on his dying grandmother's bedroom safe.

Thought I, If Casselman failed to peg these household words, maybe a reader would too? So here is the list, helpful I trust, as a modest attempt to remove the tar paper of ignorance that heretofore shrouded my dwelling-place vocabulary. More ... 

If your native tongue is inadequate to the task, hijack another's. — The Wordspinner

It's an improbable fiction to be sure dating to about 1575, but thereby hangs a youthful tale by Willie Snackspoor.

"Soft, my child. The post brings sad tidings that my once joyful mother is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought. Holp me if it please thee, for I have laundry to pound on Avon's stony banks. For the nonce, bear this claret and these sweetmeats to our ailing kinswoman.

"I fain would bring myself thither, Mother, come what may, for you alone have taught me to make a virtue of necessity. Sweet are the uses of adversity, but our moon-calf father is not one of them."

"Marry, young Russet. Now, don thy hooded cape incarnadine and hie thee to the forest o'er yon high eastward hill. Keep to the path no matter how the harebells beckon, and, I beseech you, beware the fantasied forest. There a wolf named Lupus dwells, swift as a shadow, and thus beggars all other description. Verily, he must be eschewed, for he will surely cozen you. Should you perchance to meet the rascal, screw thy courage to the sticking place, and hasten to thy destination." More ... 

by Richard Lederer

For more than five decades I've had the joy of writing about language — from puns to punctuation, pronouns to pronunciation, diction to dictionaries, palaver to palindromes. From the time I began pouring my words about words into textbooks, journals, and books, I have always felt that I was writing about the most deeply human of inventions — language. Words and people are inextricably bound together. Whether the ground of your being is religion or science, you find that language is the hallmark, the defining characteristic that distinguishes humankind from the other creatures that walk and run and crawl and swim and fly and burrow in our world.

In the Genesis creation story that so majestically begins the Bible (Genesis 1:1–31; 2:1–6), we note the frequency and importance of verbs of speaking: "And God said, Let there be light; and there was light. ... And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. ... And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters. ... And God called the firmament Heaven." [Emphasis mine.] More ... 


The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

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.

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. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Bad Writing Kills
by Christopher D. Ringwald

In this age of fear and terrorism, we've scrutinized government memos in the intelligence and defense fields. Missives and reports were written, rewritten, deep-sixed, read, revised, acted upon, ignored, and dismissed. Often a chasm opened between the writer's intent and the reader's understanding. People died as a result.

Shortly before the 9/11 attacks, FBI agent Colleen Rowley pleaded with superiors in Minneapolis to investigate Zacarias Moussaoui, an alleged plotter. By some accounts, authorities didn't understand her request, which had been revised by intermediaries. Of course. Rare is the direction or request or idea or finding that gets across clearly in a bureaucracy. Memos and reports never state a point; they express a political consensus where the original idea has been reworked into the ground and something else entirely — or, preferably, nothing at all — is reported. Call it group-write. The same happens in corporate, research, and academic circles. More ... 

Summer Edition

In June, July, and August, The Vocabula Review will be published as summer editions; that is, we will publish Feature essays but few, if any, of the Department pieces (Elegant English, Clues to Concise Writing, Scarcely Used Words).

More Good Summer Reading


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 ... 

 Featured Essays

Ball Talk — John Kilgore

Primitive Primers: Early English Grammars — Clark Elder Morrow

House Parts: Their Names and Word Origins, Part 1 of 4 — Bill Casselman

Fiction: An Improbable Fiction: The Language of Shakespeare — Skip Eisiminger

The Humanness of Language — Richard Lederer

Book Excerpt: The Dimwit's Dictionary, Third Edition — Robert Hartwell Fiske

Vocabula Revisited: Bad Writing Kills — Christopher D. Ringwald

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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.

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. You may also order individual issues.