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January 2012, Vol. 14, No. 1 There are now   7183   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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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.

Vocabula Bound 1 and Vocabula Bound 2

Vocabula Bound 1 and Vocabula Bound 2

Vocabula Bound 1 and Vocabula Bound 2

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 In the January 2012 Vocabula
 The February issue is due online February 19.

by Mark Halpern

Although I have been reading and writing for years about the controversy between those who think that language usage should be criticized and guided — the "prescriptivists" — and those who just want to observe and record it — the "descriptivists" — I have never seen a forthright, systematic presentation of the position of either party. Some prescriptivist principles can be inferred and pieced together from a sympathetic, intelligent reading of the writings of such men as Jacques Barzun, H. W. Fowler, William Safire, Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, Michael Dummett, and Bryan Garner, but that doesn't satisfy the need for an explicit, systematic presentation of the principles that underlie their position. It's in the hope of filling that need on the prescriptivist side that this manifesto is written — I leave it to a staunch descriptivist to do the same for his side.1

In what follows I offer rational arguments for my assertions, or at least cite texts where such arguments are presented; readers who want to see fuller discussion of the claims I will make here are generally referred to my Language and Human Nature (Transaction, 2008) — henceforth, L&HN — where they will find closer argumentation, more extensive quotations, and citation of sources. My claim to be offering rational arguments is not meant to suggest that Descriptivism is mere emotionalism, while Prescriptivism is loftily rational from its very roots; tout commence en mystique et finit en politique applies equally to both parties. But I suggest we ignore roots in judging between them; the rule to follow is by their fruits you will know them, and my claim is that the fruits of the prescriptivist position are vitally important cultural contributions, and those of the descriptivists are not. More ... 

Winter's root is wet, literally. The same Germanic root that gives our words water and wet makes the first vowel nasal and so adds an n, thus *ued > *wet > *went > *wint > winter. Thus winter is closely related to other English words like water and otter!

Or, winter may stretch all the way back to a root form in Proto-Indo-European *ueid that gives Celtic words for "white"; compare, for example, Old Irish find, "white," and many other Celtic cognates like Welsh gwyn, "white," and perhaps even the Druids "people of the white oak" from *dru-ueid or oak-white. Dru means "oak tree," and there are two PIE morphemes represented as *ueid. The second *ueid means "know, see." One of its reflexes in English is the word wit with its prime meaning of insight. In Latin, PIE *ueid displays as videre, "to see." Take *dru and *ueid compounded to make the word Druid, and the Druids could be the "oak-knowers" based on their veneration of the oak tree and its mistletoe.

English borrows Latin and Greek words for coldness and winter to obtain both poetic and medical words. The most common Latin word for winter is hiems, from which English derives a learned adjective hiemal, "taking place in winter, pertaining to winter." Latin hiems is cognate with these Indo-European relatives: Greek χειμώνας heimonas, "winter," Greek χιών chion, "snow," Sanskrit हेमन्त hemanta, "winter," and Russian зима zima, "winter." More ... 

by John Kilgore

Roving through the Big Book of Queer, Frequently Misunderstood, And Admittedly Puzzling English Idioms — a grand old volume, dusty and hidebound and (for a mere Table of Exceptions) alarmingly large — the fat finger of this month's column alights on an expression in the B section: buck naked. Our luck is good today, for this is an especially fine specimen: opaque and arbitrary, suffused with that idiomatic illogic that is the despair of foreigners, Rosetta Stone salespeople, developers of speech recognition software, children on occasion, and anyone else with a stake in reducing language to merely rational order. But of course, again archetypally, the phrase is perversely delicious. Once it has been pronounced, who can resist repeating it?

Buck naked. I have a vague childhood memory of hearing the phrase for the first time, guessing that a male deer was somehow involved, and tabling the issue with a sort of mental note to get back to it. In my experience, children's minds are full of notes of this kind, little Post-It queries about words — "Is peasant a kind of bird or something else?" "What does docking a boat have to do with docking my allowance?" — each discreetly in the background for now, but ready at any moment to be brought forward, answered, and retired. Such oddly patient curiosity is one chief reason, surely, that kids are so uncannily good at learning language. More ... 

Two centuries ago — on February 7, 1812 — Charles John Huffam Dickens entered the earthly stage. Born into an impoverished family, his father having served a term in debtor's prison, Charles, worked as a child slave in a London blacking factory.

The rags-to-riches life of Charles Dickens's was more remarkable than any of his stories. From such unpromising origins, he arose to become the best-selling writer of his time and one of the most enduring and quotable writers of all time.

What has been described as the most successful writing career in history was launched when Dickens was 24. On March 31, 1836, he published the first installment of a comic novel about a bunch of bumbling gentlemen who knock about England getting into various scrapes. At the center of the group was one of the greatest comedy teams in all literature — Samuel Pickwick, a fat retired businessman, and a jaunty young cockney by the name of Sam Weller. The novel emerged as The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, popularly known as The Pickwick Papers.

Following Pickwick came fourteen more enormously popular novels, from The Adventures of Oliver Twist, or the Parish Boy's Progress, to the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and hundreds of stories, including "A Christmas Carol."

How did Dickens do it? More ... 

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The 2012 Contest Ends May 31.
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by Clark Elder Morrow

The fountainhead of English literature was quite familiar with hogsheads: Geoffrey Chaucer's father was a vintner at a time when it was possible to grow wine grapes in southern England. The wine business was prosperous for the elder Chaucer, and his son must have grown up finding his way around many a mug, a flagon, a wine glass, a tankard, or whatever else the business afforded him. Consequently he was in an excellent position to understand, and allude to (in the Prologue to the Manciple's Tale1), the Four Stages of Drunkenness. The First Stage — according to an ancient rabbinic tradition — is the Sheep Stage. This occurs when the drinker is just coming under the effects of his drink and feels a slight numbing throughout his limbs, disposing him toward a blank ovine stare. Afterwards comes the Lion Stage: the toper invigorated, our drinker appears courageous, is moved to foolhardiness, and feels as though he could take on the world. This noble but rash outlook is soon eclipsed by the Ape Stage — the besotted imbiber is now swinging from the chandelier, playing with things that should never be played with, chattering away like a gibbon, and generally eyeing every lampshade in the room as a possible piece of headgear. Finally, and rather sadly, our pathetic overindulger succumbs at last to the Swine Stage, where he wallows abjectly in his own ejecta, gurgling and burbling incoherently, and slipping inevitably into a deathlike swoon.

But these stages are not firmly fixed in their order: they have enjoyed a great flexibility throughout history. Thomas Nashe, in 1592, ranks them differently and adds a fifth stage: More ... 

"When I use a word," said Humpty Dumpty, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that's all."

— Lewis Carrol, Through the Looking Glass

Although the major European countries have been prolific in bringing dictionaries to press since the early seventeenth century, dictionary production in the twentieth century has grown exponentially in all the major European languages. It is worth mentioning that although in the last two decades there have been revolutionary electronic innovations in format, searchability, presentation, and design, in many fundamental respects monolingual general dictionaries produced today, whether in the United States or in Europe, are very similar to those of earlier centuries. More ... 

If you're a retired organic chemist and a wordaholic, you might have developed a chemically induced view of the world of letters, words, and affixes and you are constantly mindful of their semblance to atoms, molecules, and functional groups. You're stuck with an acute awareness of the similarities between the science of language and the language of science.

The similarities begin with the English alphabet and the periodic table. The periodic table is the alphabet of chemistry, consisting of letters representing each atom, the smallest particle of matter. The English alphabet also consists of letters representing phonemes, the smallest units of speech sound. Although the periodic table uses only twenty-four of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, double letters are used to represent many of the elements. Likewise, in the alphabet of spoken English, consonant blends (st, cr, bl, sn, etc.) are used to represent individual phonemes. 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 ... 

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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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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.

Buy and review the first issue now for $10.

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.