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June 2012, Vol. 14, No. 6 There are now   279   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

 Discuss This Article

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?

As always, your essay today is a delight. Howsomever, if Homer be none the less Homeric for his infamous nodding, you are still the delightful you for your nodding concerning Swift's Houyhnhnms. Sir: Swift's Houyhnhnms are, not to mince words, horses' asses!--rather akin to our "Public Intellectuals". They are NOT intelligent; they are pompous (horses') asses--think Chomsky. Be ever well and keep up the delightful writing for TVR. — 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 June 2012 Vocabula
 The July issue is due online July 15.

by Tina Bennett-Kastor
To be, or not to be.
— Shakespeare

To be is to do.
— Socrates

Do be do be do.
— Sinatra

Several years ago, my ninth-grade daughter came home from school with a paper her Language Arts teacher had graded. As a good writer who had won an essay contest a few years earlier, my daughter was dismayed by the mediocre grade marked at the top and the red ink filling the margins and the spaces between the lines. I had read over the paper myself prior to her turning it in, and it was a better paper than that. I saw red circles ringing a word in nearly every sentence, and the teacher's emphatic comment: "avoid be-verbs!"

Supportive parent that I am, I sent a note to the teacher suggesting that she might have come up with a more genuine criticism; not only was this a fine paper, but be-verbs in general are hardly the culprit in students' poor writing. I sent along a photocopied page of an article from National Geographic on which I had circled all the be-verbs used by this professional writer (hardly a slouch, given the quality of the publication). Because I am a linguist and inclined to support arguments with objective measures, at the bottom of the page I wrote the total number of be-verbs the author had used, divided by the number of sentences, to indicate the rather high ratio of be-verbs to sentences. I added a note asking the teacher whether she would have refused to give the National Geographic contribution an A grade. More ... 

by Bill Casselman

This column presents some English words that came to us, often through French, from medieval Latin, words like agency, ambush, annex, appoint, abstract, subject, communicate, matter, and probable. So we must take a moment to define in quick outline the stages of the Latin language, its progression and procession through history.

753 BC — On this traditional date of the founding of Rome, Latin is the language spoken by several thousand people in and near Rome.

Archaic Latin or Old Latin or Early Latin — 1000 BCE (?) to 75 BCE

Classical Latin — 75 BCE to 400 CE

Late Latin — 400 to 700 CE (written)

Vulgar Latin — 400 to 1000 CE (spoken source of the Romance languages like French, Spanish, and Italian)

Medieval Latin — 700 to 1500 CE

New Latin — 1500 to present day; chiefly scientific coinages, a few dribbles of Latin poetry, for example, by John Milton, and various documents of ecclesiastical Latin

Medieval Latin was written in the Middle Ages, primarily as a medium of scholarly exchange and as the liturgical language of the medieval Roman Catholic Church, but also as a language of science, literature, law, and administration.

Let's look at two examples of the language. The first is also important in the history of pre-printing. It's a medieval Latin inscription at a monastery, Prüfening Abbey in Germany. Shown below, it was made by pressing wooden letter-stamps into wet clay, done in 1119 CE, more than 300 years before Gutenberg! More ... 

Not long ago, at the edge of my small town, which is not in Indiana, but let's say that it is so my title will work — not long ago, a billboard there began sporting a new slogan: "Towne Square Jewelers: Because Sighs Matter." Oy vey. Even the seventh graders in the back seats must be making faces as their parents drive past. Yet whoever came up with this groaner was correct, I think, in judging that it would be good for business, never mind that the pun is strained, irrelevant, and arguably in poor taste. For one thing, as research shows, ads that annoy us can be commercially effective, just because pain (even aesthetic pain) stimulates memory. We denounce the damn-fool slogans and idiotic jingles, then buy the products anyway, because at the moment of truth a supremely nonjudgmental language gremlin sends up to consciousness only the message that, hey, the Super Whizzo brand looks familiar, better choose that one.

Here, though, a subtler but cheerier diagnosis seems called for. The pun does not merely annoy us; in fact we like it too, or at least we like disliking it. We groan, but our comprehensive reaction is one of pleasure and even an odd sort of approval; and this is a very consistent reflex, one that can be observed again and again, in titles, slogans, headlines, and of course punch lines, where wordplay is so frequent that it seems to be nearly a requirement. Never mind what is being discussed; we language-making bipeds are weirdly fond of stopping to fiddle with the words themselves. More ... 

by Richard Lederer

What do the following words have in common: bread, clams, dough, cabbage, lettuce, peanuts, and chicken feed? Each is a food that is metaphoric slang for "cash."

What do these words have in common: galore, extraordinaire, akimbo, aplenty, aweigh, incarnate, fatale, royale, par excellence, immemorial, aforethought, and manqué? The answer is that the dozen are "deferential words." While the vast majority of adjectives usually precede the nouns they modify, the words in this list always come after the noun they modify.

What characteristic do the following words share: any, arty, beady, cagey, cutie, decay, easy, empty, envy, essay, excel, excess, icy, ivy, kewpie, seedy, and teepee? Turns out that each word is cobbled from the sounds of two letters: NE, RT, BD, KG, QT, DK, EZ, MT, NV, SA, XL, XS, IC, IV, QP, CD, and TP.

None of these clusters approaches the fascination of another group of words that I have been tracking for decades. Read on, O fellow verbivore, and I trust that the category will gradually come into focus. More ... 


The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by Clark Elder Morrow

Thumbing through a few dusty old law books the other day (such is the odd inclination of my idle moments), I made a discovery that held me in thrall for hours. I had stumbled across a set of legal maxims in Latin, French, and English. I read a couple and at once found myself in the position of someone who tries an olive tapenade amuse-bouche at a party, and then must quickly devour every remaining canapé. The maxims were irresistible: I popped them like craisin crab bruschettini chased with Veuve Cliquot. I knew that I had serendipitously discovered a wealth of insights — real sunbursts of wisdom — that had implications far beyond the law. I saw at once that these saws — some inscrutable, some profound, some Zenlike — would illuminate many corners of the world, and of the human soul, where purely legal questions rarely intruded. The only thing to do was to find a comfortable chair and notebook and start making sense of my whirling impressions. Not having studied the law, I came to these ancient foundation-stones of the legal profession with fresh eyes — without preparation or context, and with an uninitiate's capacity for complete misunderstanding. That is my disclaimer and my waiver.

Here, for openers, is a taste of what I mean. For thought-provokers, these will do nicely: More ... 

by Michael Berberich

Already well beyond 40 when he showed up in my remedial writing course, Gerald brought to mind a ruddy-faced, red-headed Walter Mathau. From the first day, Gerald was active and popular in class, not to mention an example to students much younger than him that it's never too late for school. Or for a career change. On the first day of class, Gerald informed us he had worked running tables and managing shifts in restaurants "for probably more than a few too many years." He said he'd been making "enough to get by but not to get ahead." He'd struck a common chord; his classmates could relate.

"I need a change," he went on. "I don't have enough time or money to go all the way through college, so that's not my goal. I know I need to write better and improve my math skills a bit if I want to get a better job. Something that'll get me off my feet, that's all I need. Maybe hotels or something. Back in an office somewhere. So here I am."

"Here" was Galveston College, where this fall I will begin my twenty-fifth year of teaching. Gerald took a couple of my classes over the next year and, sure enough, hotels it was: He landed a job at a small, isolated, independent mid-price range hotel that jutted out over salt grass spiked dunes on the Galveston Island's East Beach. The place was a year-round favorite of fishermen. From the hotel's entrance a quick southerly walk would lead you straight to the Gulf of Mexico and a stringer full of redfish, black drum, Spanish mackerel, or speckled sea trout; or if you cut to the east and followed the estuary's marshy inlets, you'd be in prime shallow waters for flounder, Atlantic croaker, or Texas blue crab. On a good day you could start just before dawn and limit out by lunch time. Fisherman liked staying at Gerald's hotel so they could catch those last precious minutes of shut eye, skip driving, and be in the water at the sun's break. The hotel was two long blocks from where I lived. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog
by Kitty Burns Florey

Diagramming sentences is one of those lost skills, like darning socks or playing the sackbut, that no one seems to miss. Invented, or at least codified, in an 1877 text called Higher Lessons in English by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg, it swept through American public schools like a measles germ, embraced by teachers as the way to reform students who were engaged in (to take Henry Higgins slightly out of context) "the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue." By promoting the beautifully logical rules of syntax, diagramming would root out evils like "it's me" and "I ain't got none," until everyone wrote like Ralph Waldo Emerson, or at least James Fenimore Cooper.

Even in my own youth, many years after 1877, diagramming was serious business. I learned it in the sixth grade from Sister Bernadette. I can still see her: a tiny nun with a sharp pink nose, confidently drawing a dead-straight horizontal line like a highway across the blackboard, flourishing her chalk in the air at the end of it, her veil flipping out behind her as she turned back to the class. "We begin," she said, "with a straight line." And then, in her firm and saintly script, she put words on the line, a noun and a verb — probably something like dog barked. Between the words she drew a short vertical slash, bisecting the line. Then she made a road that forked off at an angle — a short country lane under the word dog — and on it she wrote The.

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

Don't Be That Way — Tina Bennett-Kastor

Medieval Latin Words in English — Bill Casselman

Hoosiers, Freud, and Virginia Woolf — John Kilgore

Words That Never Stray — Richard Lederer

The Law as Guru — Clark Elder Morrow

One Sentence — Michael Berberich

Vocabula Revisited: Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog — Kitty Burns Florey

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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.