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March 2012, Vol. 14, No. 3 There are now   2845   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

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?

You mention Hofstadter's essay. If "chairman", to take one example, were "chairwhite", so what, so long as "chairwhite" included people of all complexions? In Urdu, we use the word "habshi" (original meaning: Abyssinian) for all Negroes - and I use the word "Negro" because it's the only correct translation of the Urdu word. "Habshi" is polite (its origin lies in the early history of Islam), but precise - Urdu speakers do not use it for white Africans like Nadine Gordimer or for dark-complexioned people like Sri Lankans, so I can't translate the word "habshi" with "African" or "Black" or "black". ... — 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.

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.

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 In the March 2012 Vocabula
 The April issue is due online April 22.

by Richard Lederer

I always try to be even-handed in my approach to writing. On the one hand, I try not to be highhanded, underhanded, or heavy-handed. On the other hand, I don't want you to handcuff me or force my hand or reject my writing out of hand.

Because handedness — the tendency to favor one hand over the other — and language seem to be uniquely human traits, biologists have assumed that they are closely linked. Whether or not this is true, I hope you'll give me a hand and give me a free hand to show my hand but not force my hand by presenting for your consideration a handy, hand-picked and handy-dandy topic about which I possess firsthand knowledge. Open now a small handbook, or manual, of manual words and expressions that leave our language anything but shorthanded. More ... 

For the last five years, I had been adopting the changes suggested by advocates of political correctness unquestioningly enough. I'd wanted my English to be up-to-date, and I didn't see that these changes created any problems for me: in fact, they seemed to make life easier. Instead of two words, for example, you had to know just one: "poet" instead of "poet" and "poetess," "firefighter" instead of "fireman" and "firewoman."

A week ago, however, I needed to write an essay on Bertrand Russell's prose style, so I took out my copy of his The Conquest of Happiness, and reread it. Five years ago, I'd read the same book easily enough. But this time, as I tried to read it, I realized, with a growing sense of panic, that because I had stopped using words like "he" and "man" to refer to both men and women, I could hardly pin down the meaning of any of Russell's sentences, let alone make incisive comments on the style in which they were written.

Since then, I, for one, have stopped using non-sexist language. I am not going to speak a kind of English that locks me out of enjoying and appreciating most of the great literature that has ever been written in or translated into English. More ... 

by Bill Casselman

Protean things are fluctuant and mutable, as variable in form as brisk, nimble clouds scudding across windy sky. Most uses of the adjective are positive, saluting a pleasing versatility, but protean may be applied to what is erratic and inconsistent too.

Proteus was a mythical Greek sea god, a son of Oceanus, who evaded capture by being able to mutate into many forms and living creatures (see the Homeric passage that follows). Proteus thus belongs to a very ancient order of supernatural beings whose general descriptive is shape-shifter, a trickster god of polymorphic whim and sportive metamorphosis, found flitting foxlike through many a primordial myth. But when, rarely, humans were able to seize hold of Proteus, the capricious godlet was forced to foretell their future, fishy oracle that he was.

Proteus' name Πρωτεύς is probably rooted in the Greek word for "first," πρῶτος, protos, so common in dozens of English derivatives like protocol, proto-Marxist and proto-punk music. The ancient thought may have been that he's an old divinity of the first order of gods, but he's still a hard worker.

In linguistic terminology, proto- is a prefix that denotes a language's very early stage of development, as in proto-Germanic or Proto-Indo-European. More ... 

The triumph of the MFA mills is nearly complete. Most contemporary American writers of what is called "serious fiction" seem to be products of academia. And because academia is generally liberal, most American fiction writers seem to be leaning left these days. The MFA-mill/serious-literature merger seems to have developed primarily over the last forty years or so. Before that, we had plenty of conservative writers of serious literary fiction, men such as John O'Hara, James Gould Cousins, John P. Marquand, and the late-career John Dos Passos and John Steinbeck. Even in academia, there were conservatives, such as Vladimir Nabokov, a staunch anti-communist, who supported the Vietnam War and didn't think much of female writers other than Jane Austen, whom he grudgingly admired. John Updike was another Vietnam War supporter and champion of traditional small-town, churchgoing values who managed to achieve success without always towing the liberal line.

Nowadays, when an MFA from a prestigious university writing workshop seems to be a prerequisite for a fiction-writing career, it is far more difficult to find novelists and short-story writers who are both conservative and held in high regard. Nonetheless, the conservative male writer of serious fiction is not quite extinct. More ... 

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

Break open any of the scores of writing guides, visit any writing program in the country, attend lectures on style and composition at any writing conference, and the advice is generally the same. Use simple words and simple sentences. Avoid long descriptions. Employ adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Make one word do the work of two, three, or four words. Steer away from repetition. Keep paragraphs short.

Such advice, which is often delivered as if carved in stone on Mount Sinai, may well be sound in an age when Internet readers whir like grasshoppers from site to site, landing on this article to read a paragraph or two, jumping to the next email, hopping from one link to the next. In an age of distraction — and ours is the greatest age of distraction ever witnessed in human history — minimalism rules. "Cut to the chase" is the editorial watchword for writers living in the age of the blip, the bite, the twitter and tweet of our electronic cloud.

This emphasis on alacrity and precision may help explain the diminished stature of Thomas Wolfe — not the man in the white suit, who is himself longwinded, but the earlier Wolfe, the oversized jabbering North Carolina mountain boy who dazzled the sophisticated Max Perkins with his volcanic prose. Wolfe's reputation today has reached an all-time low. He is ignored in most university classrooms. Look Homeward, Angel, his signature work, never appears on the Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition preferred works lists. Ask the curator of North Carolina's Thomas Wolfe Memorial, the boarding house where Wolfe grew up, how many high schools in Wolfe's home state teach his work, and you will receive a shake of the head. Even here in Asheville, Wolfe's hometown, where in addition to the Memorial the Civic Center boasts the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium and the public library maintains a Thomas Wolfe collection, few people have read Wolfe. As one man told me, "He's the guy who uses all the words, isn't he?" More ... 

An Armenian, an Englishman, and a Greek walk into a bar and order drinks. After serving the trio, the bartender, a geography student, asks of them in a quizzical tone, "Where is Albania?" The Armenian responds, "Why, it's in the Caucasus of course!" But the Englishman disagrees, "I'm afraid you're wrong, fellow. Albania is in Britain." The Greek, confident in his answer, contradicts his buddies, "No, no, no! Albania is northwest of Greece." Without intending to make the bartender even more confused, it's high time we butt in and tell them they're all right! No joke, historically the English language has conjured up three ways to use the toponym "Albania," and not one of these uses has any relation to the other. In time, you too can astound your friends with this joke reeking of intellectual snobbery.

On a timeline, the first geographical expanse modern English speakers can call "Albania" existed in the Caucasus Mountains, and was a term that broadly defined Eastern Transcaucasia as early as the fourth century BCE and until the eighth century CE. The original term was Parthian, Ardhan, which became Middle Persian Arran, Armenian Աղուանք (Ałuankʿ), and Greek Ἀλβανία (Albania). The Greek term passed into Latin during the Middle Ages as Albania, remaining the same in translation to Western languages. Today this "original" Albania is called Caucasian Albania to distinguish it from the most common usage, and is situated just north of Armenia, roughly corresponding to modern Daghestan. On a related note, Caucasian Albanian lies next to Caucasian Iberia, another geographic term that gets mismatched with its more commonly employed cousin, the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal). The name Albania has also been somewhat controversial in Caucasian scholarship: in an attempt to disavow that certain prominent medieval Armenians were, in fact, Armenian, some Azerbaijanis have taken to labeling them "Albanian" instead, even claiming that what constituted medieval "Armenia" was not really Armenia, but "Albania." More ... 

by Diane Ackerman

One day Diane Ackerman's husband, Paul West, an exceptionally gifted wordsmith and intellectual, suffered a terrible stroke. When he regained awareness he was afflicted with aphasia-loss of language and could utter only a single syllable: "mem." The standard therapies yielded little result but frustration. Diane soon found, however, that by harnessing their deep knowledge of each other and her scientific understanding of language and the brain she could guide Paul back to the world of words.


After his stroke, Paul avoided the telephone instinctively, the way moles avoid light. His anxiety was understandable, since he never knew if he'd be able to find the right words, and he couldn't see the other person's face to gain clues about what they were saying. Worst of all, as wrong words kept muscling in and sabotaging him, his listener would often retreat into a confused silence. Then the common to-and-fro of a telephone call would deteriorate into long spasms of quiet.

All he wanted was to return a call from his friend Brad, novelist and editor of the literary magazine Conjunctions. As we stood in my study, Paul finally gave up trying to dial and sat seething in frustration with the cordless phone in his hand.

"Why do I keep pressing the scurvy button when I know it's scurvy?! I can't stop pressing the scurvy one!" Paul snarled. Holding the receiver at arm's length, he looked accusingly at its dumb gray face. "It's as if someone else is guiding the machinery, and always scurvy! No ... scurvy is the wrong word. Wrong is the wrong right word." More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  DisenYOUGUYSing American English
by Joan Taber

The way we address one another reveals our cultural and personal attitudes, our self-awareness, our sensitivity to others, even our social standing in relation to that of our interlocutors; for, as sociolinguists remind us, words never exist in isolation. It is also true that language, like all living creatures, is in a constant state of evolution, and most linguistic changes are initiated in the lower echelons of society and flow to the more resistant, less populated upper classes. Along with relaxations in rules of social etiquette that have occurred during the last fifty years, there has been a similar relaxation in what constitutes polite language behavior, especially in regard to forms of address. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, senators, teachers, graduate students, mothers, fathers, grandparents are now addressed as "you guys"; and though this leaves a portion of the population with the curious sensation of having been insulted, the designation seems firmly entrenched in American English.

What is unique about you guys in its generic guise is that it can function as such only in its plural vocative form. For example, the referents in expressions such as "There's a guy at the door" or "I'm going out with the guys" are undoubtedly male, whereas the referents of "Hey you guys" might be a male or female. Whether its referents are male or female, you guys continues to grow in acceptance, even by those who reject terms such as mankind or generic he. Women or men who protest being addressed as guys are thought to be out of step, out of time, even elitist. Some, such as Sherryl Kleinman and Douglas Hofstadter, have tried to launch more public protests, but to date, few converts have signed on. 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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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.