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December 2012, Vol. 14, No. 12 There are now   3179   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

Robert Hartwell Fiske's Disagreeable English
A Quarterly Bulletin of Misused, Misspelled, and Mispronounced English

Four 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 Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher

 Discuss This Article

What a preposterous, linguistically naive and snobbish essay! Ms. Anderson's is a fascist view of language that ignores how living languages operate. She posits that vocabulary items must not stray outside their originating specialties. Poppycock! — What do you say?

Simply, what a lovely essay. — What do you say?

Good article; sweet, too. But the way you slipped in the pronouncement, "By the age of four, children from welfare families have heard thirty-five-million fewer words than their financially better-off peers" wasn't quite fair. You don't cite a source, but even if you have one or two sources, I'd remind you that there are many financially well off families who bring up their children up in front of the television just as there are many so-called "welfare" families who do quite the opposite. If money were the deciding factor in language acquisition and/or the accumulation of an extensive lexicon, we'd have a nation of Churchills and Chisholms. But, uhm, like, you know, just like listen, ah, to like just about uhm anyone in the, you know, like, public eye? — What do you say?

It was a pleasure to read Clark Elder Morrow's perceptive but scary article. It came at an interesting time, for I had just returned to Salisbury, Maryland from Baldwin, Long Island, where, with nine fellow alumni from the high school class of 1947, I celebrated our 65th reunion. It was a refreshing few hours of animated conversation where nary an "Oh my god - it was like amazing" comment was uttered. There were no "We shudda wents" or "They sent an invitation to Johnny and I" blunders, just English as we learned it at home and in our classrooms during the late thirties and early 1940s. I sent copies of Mr. Morrow's article to my three kids, 52, 54 and 56. who may be among the last generations of Americans who treasure the language and do it no harm. — What do you say?

So, Ms., Miss, or Mrs. Iqbal, it seems you're speaking to the choir, as we say. Those feminists, those narrow-minded "members of the PC brigade," as you call those of us who believe that language reflects the values of its speakers, have made it possible for you to have a platform from which to speak your mind, have welcomed you into the fold, as it were, of our culture and language. You could have approached the topic in a more inclusive and kinder manner by speaking directly to us without the belittling remarks. We obviously come from very different cultures and histories; therefore, it's remarkable that you would attempt to impose your linguistic prejudices on "people like us." I remember hunting for work in New York City during the early 1960s. Could I type? Could I wear more makeup? Could I hike up my bra straps? Did I do shorthand? Oh, no, you certainly can't wear pants to work. I remember working in an engineering department at Columbia University where there was one female grad student in mechanical engineering. Why didn't she go home and have a baby? Or, she's not very pretty, so who cares if she wants to be an engineer. That's the culture women my age come from. We worked against all sorts of ridicule and opposition to knock down barriers set up for us by history, culture, and language. Now conservative women are working to put them right back, and deriding those of us who don't agree with them. Keep your "mankind" and your generic "he." I won't disparage you for it because you don't share my history or my cultural values. But don't swoop down on my culture and insult me for speaking my language the way I choose to speak it. Ask me about it. Give me a good reason why I should speak English the way a native speaker of Urdu or Hindi speaks it. You won't convince me to hop on your linguistic bandwagon, but I will respect the differences we have. — What do you say?

I'm an avid basketball fan, so this article was a treat. Basketball slang seems to spring entirely from inner-city culture. New terms start on the playground and enter the vocabulary of popular rappers, who bring the slang to the suburbs and eventually to TNT and ESPN. As for the verb "ball," that's going to stick around. I remember it didn't feel at all new when Will Smith used it in 1999 (in "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It"), and since then so many rappers and movie stars have used it that it's become commonplace. I'm white and went to a predominantly white high school (graduated in '99), but I used the term often when I played basketball with friends. It's expressive advantage is that it's so much shorter than the alternative: play basketball. The term "baller" is obviously someone who balls, and it has developed multiple meanings, including someone who is rich or someone who is extremely talented at something (He's a baller in the courtroom.) It's even developed -- or retained, if it stems from the older usage you mentioned -- a sexual connotation, though that's not nearly as common. This usage is here to stay, from dimly lit playgrounds to suburban golf courses. — What do you say?

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?

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 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.

101 Elegant Paragraphs

101 Elegant Paragraphs

Read these examples of elegant English at your leisure, and from each you might glean some turn of phrase, some device of rhetoric, some clarity of expression, some novelty of thought that, in more contemporary writing, you seldom will have noticed. From these paragraphs you might indeed learn that language can be written with care and cleverness.

Elegant English, as these paragraphs show, is exhilarating; it stirs our thoughts and feelings as ably as everyday English blurs them.

You can order 101 Elegant Paragraphs from Vocabula Books or Amazon.

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 In the December 2012 Vocabula
 The January 2013 issue is due online January 20.

One of my favorite books is The Naked Ape, Desmond Morris's 1967 bestseller, a half playful piece of science writing that, nearly five decades later, seems oddly consequential. If Morris does not exactly invent "sociobiology," he is one of the first and most winning of popularizers. A zoologist and keeper of the London zoo, Morris conducts an extended "field study" of Homo sapiens, putting aside sentiment for a supposedly strict zoological inquiry into human nature. The resulting tour de force offers one Aha! moment after another, though also a certain number of Oh, come on's. Ancient and stubborn mysteries — why men shave, for instance, why women wear lipstick and have big bosoms, why people keep pets and what kinds — melt away as all available data are run through the mill of evolutionary explanation.

Every so often, though, the commitment to objectivity slips a bit. Morris can't resist judging what he should only describe, and effectively jumps back in among his specimens: More ... 

by Bill Casselman

In sassy arcs, high over the brine bath of the sea, vaulting above the bounding swell, the dolphin has spanked across the wide bay of human imagination from our first tentative sightings, voyaging on tree-branch or hollowed trunk. Darting through shallow seas above continental shelves, dolphins are found all over the temperate planet. Dining daintily on little squids and slippery fishlets, they join us in being happy piscivores. A carnivore eats meat; a piscivore eats fish. All the ancient peoples who encountered these playful marine mammals fell in love with dolphins. Friendly intelligence — how rare on earth is that? — and their curved mouth, the famous delphinine smile, ensured humanity's affection.

The word dolphin sailed into English from Old French daulphin < Medieval Latin dolfinus < classical Latin delphinus < Hellenistic Greek δελφῖνος delphinos < classical Greek δελφίς delphis. The term is related to the Greek word for uterus or womb δελφύς, delphus. The ancient Greeks saw the sea mammal bearing live young, hence womb-fish? And did the glistening shimmer of the dolphin "look like" a womb to those randy Hellenic fishermen? Perhaps. The Greek womb word δελφύς, delphus, may be a reflex of the Proto-Indo-European morpheme *dhel-, "to be hollow, to be split," suggesting a male naming of the vagina. Perhaps even more apt as a source is an extension of that PIE morpheme, namely, *dhelbh-, "dig, excavate, insert, delve." More ... 

by Richard Lederer

This is a timely time of year. We'll soon arrive at our winter solstice, the shortest, darkest day of the year, when the sun is at its southernmost and at its lowest altitude above the horizon. December 21 is also the day on which many believe the planet Nibiru, discovered by the ancient Sumerians, will collide with Earth. That day signals the end of the final cycle of the Mayan calendar and, hence, the end of the world. Others assert that just as our yearly cycle ends on December 31 and a new cycle and calendar begin, after December 21, 2012, the cosmic odometer will keep on turning.

But just in case time stops apocalyptically before next Saturday, I'll take the opportunity here and now to tell you what an honor it has been for me to serve you in this space as your resident fly-by-the-roof-of-the-mouth user-friendly linguist, Wizard of Idiom, Attila the Pun, and Conan the Grammarian. More ... 

Culture and Society
Back to Top  A Christmas Meditation
by Clark Elder Morrow

If you had asked a mother or father two hundred years ago what he or she wanted most for his or her son, the answer would have been something along the lines of "I wish him to do well, and to be a good man." Today, the same question would invariably be answered with this: "I just want him to be happy."

In other words, a shift has occurred from the moral to the emotional. The emphasis has shifted from doing to feeling. Of course many parents today would say they want their children to be good as well as happy, but that's not what comes to their minds first. In the past, success in life was seen as being inseparable from high achievement in the moral sphere. You rose in the world because you were industrious and thrifty and your word could be trusted among men. These so-called bourgeois values were the predicable outgrowths of older, earlier virtues — virtues celebrated in the ancient world and among the church leaders of the West. Those older virtues were temperance, fortitude, prudence, and justice. But in truth, one could say that all the bourgeois virtues might be deuced from prudence alone: the very height of prudence would be industriousness, thriftiness, cleanliness, honesty in business dealings, and so forth — simply because all these attributes would conduce to material success. And that would be practical wisdom (prudentia) par excellence. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by Kevin Mims

My favorite part of a novel? Roughly forty pages from the end. Every novel is different, of course. Some, such as Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn and William Kennedy's Quinn's Book, have superb opening chapters that they never quite live up to. Both Of Human Bondage and East of Eden have dull beginnings (especially East of Eden, which begins back in the ice age and describes how glaciers formed California's Salinas Valley) and tediously drawn-out endings, both books are redeemed by tremendous, fascinating middle sections. The same could also be said of War and Peace, which starts slowly and seems to take forever to come to a conclusion, but has lots of interesting stuff in between. For the most part, however, if a novel follows a fairly conventional — or, if you want, classical — story arc, its final forty pages are the most fun to read. Some might say that this final forty pages is merely the climax of the book and that a climax is logically a pleasing phenomenon to any human being. But I think it is about more than just the plot reaching its climax. I like to think of this part of the book as the last three or four miles of a marathon or — if you run 10Ks rather than marathons — the last K. It's that point in an endurance event where you know that you will finish and you feel fairly certain you will enjoy the experience. Some 10Ks — especially if they are run in foul weather into the face of a headwind — can be miserable experiences from start to finish.

The same is true of some books. Many endurance runs begin dauntingly. This is true of the famous Dipsea Endurance Run, an annual event since 1905 that begins in Mill Valley, California. You start by climbing three flights of stairs comprising a total of 672 steps — roughly the equivalent of running to the top of a fifty-two-story building. I ran the race, just once, back in the 1980s. By the time I reached the 672nd step, I was seriously doubting the wisdom of entering the run. After the stair climb, numerous challenges remained: a steep descent into the Muir Woods, a tortuous crossing of rocky trails with names like "Cardiac" and "Dynamite," and another steep ascent known as "Insult Hill." Somewhere along the way, however, this run ceases to seem merely arduous and somehow transforms itself into an almost sublime experience. Near the end, as tired as I was, I found myself eager to prolong the experience, unhappy about the idea of reaching its conclusion. While most runners begin to sprint toward the end of a race in order to improve their race times, I usually slow down a bit, in order to forestall the end of an enjoyable experience. Likewise, there comes a point in many good books where I don't want to pick the book up. I am enjoying the story, I like thinking about the characters and their dilemmas, and I am not overly eager to see it all end. This, I think, is the best experience reading has to offer. More ... 

This month we celebrate the birth of the most universally famous of all literary characters, Sherlock Holmes, the world's first consulting detective. The intrepid sleuth's deerstalker hat, Inverness cape, calabash pipe, and magnifying glass are recognized by readers everywhere, and the stories have been translated into more than sixty languages, from Arabic to Yiddish.

Like the heroes of so many popular stories and myths, Sherlock Holmes was born in poverty and nearly died at birth from neglect. Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle was a novice medical practitioner with a dearth of patients. To while away his time and to help pay a few bills, Doyle took pen in hand and created one of the first detectives to base his work squarely on scientific methods.

In December of 1887, 125 years ago, Sherlock Holmes came into the world as an unheralded and unnoticed Yuletide child in Beeton's Christmas Annual. When, not long after, The Strand Magazine began the monthly serialization of the first dozen short stories entitled "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," the issues sold tens of thousands, and the public furiously clamored for more. More ... 

Film Review
Back to Top  Django Unchained
by Marion DS Dreyfus

Briefly, former dentist Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), now turned well-compensated bounty hunter, buys the freedom of slave Django (Jamie Foxx), training him to hunt and kill the wanted villains he has been hired to bring to heel. The intent is to deputize Django, an expert marksman, as his aide de camp bounty hunter. Schultz is instead soon led to the site of Django's enslaved wife (Kerry Washington), who is living under the ruthless domination of Calvin Candie, a Machiavellian, high-living plantation owner.

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained is a Weinstein avatar. It features the requisite sloppy buckets of scenic splatter, sometimes multiple draughts from the same "fire wall," a dead body that serves as a shield for Django against a rifle and 30-.06 barrage, plus the dispatching of every white person to appear on screen for longer than a cigarette draw, excessive evidences of modern-day sensibility retro'ed back into 1858 ("two years before the Civil War," we are legended pompously), a tapestry of the evils and debaucheries of the slave period. The PC Weinsteins and zealous, blood-lusty Tarantino miss not a trick for the audience, amused and titillated by the winsome Christopher Waltz (the very same from the film this most resembles, Inglourious Basterds). More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Cleaning Up My Act
by Joseph Epstein

Roughly three months ago, I resolved to stop swearing. Not that I used profanity relentlessly, but I began to notice that I was availing myself of it more and more — and swearing in places I'd not previously sworn in, among what used to be called mixed company.

Lots of women have now taken to swearing. The right to use profanity is, I suppose, one of the side — some would say highly dubious — benefits of women's liberation. "When I was young," Tom Lehrer has said, "there were so many words you couldn't use in the presence of a girl. Now you can use them all, but you better not call her a girl." Too true.

I decided to banish profanity from my conversation because it began to seem indecorous, especially in a man who is a grandfather. A clue that it was time to cease was when I began to part words in the middle with the f-word: as in unf------believable. Besides, I don't want my deathbed words to include profanity. More ... 

Although few people can complain of another's grammatical mistakes with impunity, that is, without revealing their own, we are hopeful that "Disagreeable English" will encourage us all to pay more heed to how the language is used — by ourselves as well as by others — while bettering our ability to speak and write it. More ... 

We all know far too well how to write everyday English, but few of us know how to write elegant English — English that is expressed with music as well as meaning, style as well as substance. The point of this feature is not to suggest that people should try to emulate these examples of elegant English but to show that the language can be written with grace and polish — qualities that much contemporary writing is bereft of and could benefit from. More ... 

People long to write a clear, a readable, even, at times, an elegant sentence. In "Toward the Making of a Sentence," we talk about the style and sound, the grammar and punctuation, the words and meaning of a sentence. 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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Robert Hartwell Fiske's
Disagreeable English

A Quarterly Bulletin of Misused, Misspelled, and Mispronounced English

Four 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.