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February 2012, Vol. 14, No. 2 There are now   116   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.

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.

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 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.



  Next Page Back Issues
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 In the February 2012 Vocabula
 The March issue is due online March 18.

by Jean Mallinson

A few years ago, reading Meditations at Lagunitas by American poet Robert Hass, when I came to the lines:

… There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,

I felt a palpable shiver, something half remembered, that enlarged and informed the poem. I realized that the lines echo Tudor poet Thomas Wyatt's lines in They Flee From Me That Sometime Did Me Seek:

… but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small,
Therewithal sweetly did me kiss.

It was the words "small shoulders ... sometimes" and the slightly off-beat cadence of the line with "sometimes" at the end that reminded me of the earlier poem. More ... 

by Clark Elder Morrow

I have just come across Mr. John McIntyre's Baltimore Sun article on my April 2011 Vocabula essay, The Self-Mutilation of the OED, in which I bemoan the decline of the Oxford English Dictionary — the same essay Robert Hartwell Fiske was kind enough to include as a Second Preface in his Dictionary of Unendurable English. Mr. McIntyre read my essay and discovered that I am a prescriptivist. Apparently he is something of a robust descriptivist. The very first thing Mr McIntyre does, upon determining that he and I disagree on the purpose of a dictionary, is to call me names.

He called me a "coxcomb." Needless to say, I stagger, I gasp, I reel, clutching my wounded bosom. Yes, that was the very first swipe of his rapier. And mind you, this blinding supernova of wit is from a successor of the Sun's H. L. Mencken, for God's sake. O tempora o mores. More ... 

The English meaning of ornamental cloth suspended over a bed or altar came directly from medieval Latin canopeum > classical Latin cōnōpēum, -eum, -ium, "net of fine gauze about the bed, mosquito net, tent."

The Latin was borrowed from Attic Greek κωνωπεῖον konopeion, "an Egyptian bed or couch with mosquito netting" < κάνωψ kanops, "gnat, mosquito." Its Greek form and spelling were perhaps influenced by the name of the ancient Egyptian city of Canopus. Compare canopic jars containing the embalmed innards and bundled disemboweled entrails of mummified Egyptians. But the word itself, kanops, according to J. B. Hofmann's Etymological Dictionary of Ancient Greek and Eric Partridge's Origins, is a direct loan from Hieroglyphic Egyptian khenus, khnemes, "gnat, mosquito, housefly," with the addition of a familiar Greek noun suffix — ops, opis.

Our English poets have clasped the word to their talkative bosoms, especially to denote the heavens above, the starry welkin, the overhanging sky. Notable among users, the Bard of Avon, exampled in the profligate beauty of Shakespeare's Elizabethan word music, which as prose adorns this passage from Act 2 of Hamlet (1604 CE), where the gloomy Dane attempts to delineate his sad humor: More ... 

Culture and Society
Back to Top  I, the Juror
by Kevin Mims

In the 1957 film Twelve Angry Men, Henry Fonda portrays the lone dissenter on a jury whose other eleven members all favor a guilty verdict. To my dismay, I found myself in just that position recently.

In the early morning hours of October 12, 2008, gunfire broke out at an AM/PM mini-mart located at the intersection of 65th Street and 4th Avenue in Sacramento, California. Unknown to those gang members involved, the shooting was recorded by a parking lot surveillance camera. More than three years later, on October 26, 2011, I and eleven other jurors gathered in a Sacramento courtroom to figure out who was responsible for the shooting. Each of our two defendants was charged with seven counts of attempted murder plus a whole menu of additional charges: committing a felony while part of a criminal gang, shooting into an occupied vehicle, disturbing the peace, attempted manslaughter, and more.

The incident was alleged to involve members of two rival African-American street gangs, KillaMOB and FAB (the prosecutor would tell us that FAB stood for Fourth Avenue Bloods, but his star witness said it stood for Fuck a Bitch). The judge instructed us not to visit the crime scene, search for information related to the crime on the Internet, or do any investigative work of our own. I didn't know it at the time, but a previous trial involving several of the same defendants was under a cloud of controversy because one of the jurors had posted comments about it on Facebook while the trial was going on. One night, after jury duty, I came home and Googled the names of the defense attorneys just so I could get the spelling correct in my notes. The next day in court the judge, although he mentioned no names, looked directly at me and said, "Ladies and gentleman of the jury, let me remind you that you are absolutely forbidden to look up anything about this case on the Internet — is that understood?" After that, I was afraid to even go online again until after the trial ended. More ... 


The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest
The 2012 Contest Ends May 31.
Enter Today.

by Richard Lederer

My son Howard and daughter Annie are full-time professional poker players who live and move and have their beings in that windowless, clockless pleasure dome known as Las Vegas. It's an easy life — earning thousands of dollars in a single night just sitting around playing card games. But it's a hard-knock life, too, what with the long, sedentary hours; the addictive behavior and secondhand smoke that suffuse the poker rooms; and the times when Lady Luck goes out whoring and your pocketbook and ego get roughed up.

How best to catch and crystallize this collide-o-scopic life my children lead, this life of gorgeous poker rooms and hearts of darkness, of Euclidean clarity and survival of the meanest? Bob "Silver Eagle" Thompson, once tournament director of the World Series of Poker at Binion's Horseshoe casino, said it best: "Poker is a tough way to make an easy living."

That's a paradox, a statement that seems absurd or self-contradictory but that turns out to be true. The word paradox derives from para, "against," and doxos, "opinion." In its Greek form, the word meant "not what you'd expect to be true." More ... 

by Carey Harrison

Your intrepid correspondent had a close encounter with American English last month, an encounter intense enough to suspend his January contribution to these pages while he sorted it out. As an adoptive American — a Brit by birth — I found myself engaged in a contest with a mid-Western accent: Chicagoan, to be precise. I had cast myself as Donny Dubrow in a production of David Mamet's American Buffalo, his first and, as many believe (myself included), best play. I say "cast myself" because it was The Woodstock Players, the theater company I founded with my wife, that staged the show. Our regular stage manager had long wanted to direct Buffalo, leaving me the tempting prospect of taking leave of absence from directorial duties and, instead, tackling Mamet's famously fractured dialog, or "dialogue" as we continue to spell it in Britain — "dialog" still seems a scientific neologism like analog, quite out of place in the ancient -ogue-ridden halls of drama where we still speak of prologue and epilogue. And please don't tell me Americans write pedagogue as pedagog.

Gregory Mosher, who directed the first production of American Buffalo and wrote an introduction to the published version of the play, described Mamet as rendering ordinary language into iambic pentameter. This oft-repeated comment is generally regarded as mere hyperbole, as a compliment elevating Mamet's prose to the status of poetry — a kind of street poetry, in the manner of accomplished playwrights over the centuries. The truth, in Mamet's case, comes a surprise, even to theater practitioners. Mosher spoke literally. Mamet wrote American Buffalo in iambic pentameters. He just didn't lay it out as verse. Here's one of the speeches he gives to the junk shop owner, Donny Dubrow, when Donny is talking about articles deriving from the 1933 World's Fair (referred to here as "the thing"): More ... 

Each year, new words are coined in Maltese by filching a word or two from the English language and giving it a prefix or a suffix, or altering the spelling into the approximate Maltese orthography, to render it — or so some think — Maltese.

So we have tokxinja (to auction); tippuxxja (to push); and tikklajmba (to climb); ix-xuws (the shoes); il-ħorsis (the horses); is-siżżers (the scissors); and tutbraxx (toothbrush).

The true Maltese terms for these concoctions would be, respectively, tbiegħ b'irkant, timbotta, tixxabbat, iż-żraben, iż-żwiemel, l-imqass, and xkupilja tas-snien.

Even if they are illiterate, most Maltese people "spik" a kind of English, usually enough to make ourselves understood by foreigners. Maltese and English, indeed, are our two National Languages since Malta was a British colony for a long time. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Apostrophe Epiphany
by Mikita Brottman

What a complex set of emotions are attached to that small, inky polliwog, the apostrophe.

If you are anything like me, you may feel an irritating stab low down in the abdomen at the sight of a so-called greengrocer's apostrophe, the common term for an apostrophe erroneously inserted before the final s in the plural of a word (like pancake's). These errant apostrophes are found all the time in my student papers, where, at least, I can circle them, amend them, and have done with them. Not so when they appear in public places, on shop signs or billboards, or in officially published documents, such as a friend's recently obtained identity card that refers to legislation published under the "American's with Disabilities Act."

Personally, I am less interested in the grammatical error itself than in the emotion this error evokes, which might best be described — at least, in my case — as a feeling of momentary discomfort at the notion that something is out of place. It's not so different from the anxiety evoked by the sight of an overflowing ashtray ("hey, either do something about it, or get it out of my sight"). When the misplaced apostrophe occurs in an "official" publication, as in the ADA card, the feeling is compounded by a sense of indignation, of the world being somewhat askew ("surely an official body should know better than that!"). 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 ... 

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  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 ... 

 Featured Essays

Allusion — Jean Mallinson

When Bloggers Attack — Clark Elder Morrow

Canopy: From an Egyptian Word Meaning Mosquito — Bill Casselman

Culture and Society: I, the Juror — Kevin Mims

On Paradox — Richard Lederer

In Praise of the Iamb — Carey Harrison

Maltese and the English Language — Tanja Cilia

Vocabula Revisited: Apostrophe Epiphany — Mikita Brottman

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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.