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November 2012, Vol. 14, No. 11 There are now   168   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

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?

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?

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.


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.



  Next Page Back Issues
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 In the November 2012 Vocabula
 The December issue is due online December 16.

As a medical editor, researcher, and writer, I regularly read biomedical and clinical information in international newspapers and medical journals, usually in English. One day I realized something curious: When I searched medical journals or medical sites for the latest word on, say, dyslexia, I retrieved information on the clinical disorder itself. But when I searched newspapers, I'd retrieve not only clinical facts about dyslexia but also details like these (relevant expressions boldfaced): A British book reviewer praised a book on economics and finance as one that could educate the "economically dyslexic." In the United States, a co-developer of software to help people keep track of their appointments admitted that her inability to schedule her obligations inspired her to develop the product. She was quoted as saying jocularly that she was "calendar dyslexic."

Many other medical conditions had also migrated from hospital floors and doctors' offices and taken up dual citizenship on the pages of newspapers, in news reports, and in quoted speech. More ... 

by Richard Lederer

Eye is the only palindromic body part. Eye, I, and aye are all homophones, yet each starts with a different letter.

When it comes to words and phrase origins, the eyes have it:

Daisy was created in Old English from the poetical "day's eye." The flower is indeed a metaphor waiting to be born, with its sunburst center, its radiating white petals, and its sensitivity to the progress of the day, opening during the sunny hours and closing in the evening and extinguishing its brightness. The poet Geoffrey Chaucer, without benefit of any linguistic manual, referred to the sun as "the day's eye, or else the eye of day." More ... 

by Mark Halpern

My friend Jacques Barzun died on Thursday, October 25, at the age of 104. Handsome obituaries, tributes, and memorials appeared immediately in all the principal journals, obviously prepared well in advance in expectation of being needed at any moment. But many of them seem curiously listless and uninvolved; Barzun apparently figured in the minds of their writers as a generally admirable but not very exciting figure who wrote generally admirable books on a lot of important subjects, but never an epoch-making, utterly novel one that changed the world — changed, that is, the terms in which the world discusses any of those subjects. He is being prepared, it seems, for burial in footnotes and bibliographical essays as a very decent sort of chap, almost always on the side of the angels, but perhaps not in the front rank of heroic battlers for truth and freedom. More ... 

by Kevin Mims

In Woody Allen's hit 2011 film, Midnight in Paris, protagonist Gil Pender (played by Owen Wilson) is a hack Hollywood screenwriter who fantasizes about going back in time to Paris in the 1920s and reveling in the bohemian world of his literary and artistic idols: Hemingway, Picasso, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Dali, and others. Several poets and rhymesters are name-checked in the film (T. S. Eliot, Cole Porter) but no mention is ever made of one prominent versifier who also made his home in Paris during the 1920s: Robert Service.

Those who have only a nodding acquaintance with the name Robert Service might be surprised to discover that he had any connection at all with Paris. His most famous books bear titles such as Songs of a Sourdough and The Spell of the Yukon, and most people associate him solely with the Klondike Gold Rush of the late nineteenth century, which drew thousands of prospectors to Alaska and western Canada. His best known poems are "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee." "McGrew" is about a deadly shootout in a Yukon saloon. "McGee" tells the story of one man's terrifying effort to dispose of a body while battling a bone-chilling Canadian blizzard. These are not subjects that usually draw one's thoughts to the Eiffel Tower or Les Deux Magots. But Service had a long (he died in 1958 at the age of 84) and prolific career. He wrote roughly thirty books, including poetry collections, novels, memoirs, and even a self-help book called Why Not Grow Young or Living For Longevity. When he died, Time magazine estimated that 3 million copies of his poems had been sold. His last poem was written just a month before his death, to commemorate the annual reunion of gold miners who had once participated in the Klondike Gold Rush. More ... 


The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

Purlin: A purlin is a horizontal roof beam laid along the entire length of the roof, over trusses, to rest on the main rafters and support the boards of the roof. Purlin stems from Old French porloigne, pourloigne, "delay, to put far off," although no one knows the sense-connection of "delay" with a roof beam. French loin, "far" < Latin adverb longe, "along way away, distantly." Purloignier is the source of the English verb to purloin, "to put out of sight, to take far off, to steal."

Quoin: A quoin is a brick or stone cornerstone at the juncture of two walls. The word is merely an alternative spelling of coin, whose first meaning in English (1350 CE) was coynston, that is, coin-stone. Quoin and coin in Middle English are coyne < Middle French coing, coin, "corner, wedge, die for stamping metal money" < Latin cuneus, "wedge." All the stamped metal money senses of the word coin are developed meanings from "wedge" because early monetary dies were wedge-shaped. The Shakespearean coign of vantage is a good corner spot from which to observe someone or thing. More ... 

Specialty Dictionary
Back to Top  Beauty, Thy Name Is ...
by Leland Thoburn

As an early fan of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels, I marveled at the richness of variety that a large vocabulary could bring to the denigration of women. In the playgrounds, streets, bars, and taverns, vulgarities were the rule. But "bitch" had no place in the Wolfe household. Words like "lamia," "harpy," "strumpet," and "hoyden" sent me scrambling to the dictionary. Soon, I began a list. I started with Wolfe. Every time he boiled over, out came my list.

It was not long before I was scouring dictionaries and thesauruses. I kept a watchful eye on everything I read. Eventually, my list comprised over 500 words, each describing some unique facet of the female phenomenon. Ever curious, I began looking for the male counterparts for my words. I rarely found them, or whatever word did exist paled in comparison. Clearly there was a bias at work.

As an example of the bias, we all know the words misogyny (hatred of women; see Nero Wolfe) and misanthrope (hatred of mankind; see Ambrose Bierce, H. L. Mencken, and many others). And yes, there is a word for hatred of men, misandry. I will send one dollar to anyone who emails me documented evidence that "misandry" has been used in popular culture (limit first ten, just in case). Wikipedia (forgive me) states that "misandry" was considered a neologism in the early 1970s. "Misogyny" dates from the 1650s, and, by comparison, is actually used by English-speaking people.

There is a fundamental truth here. Hell if I know what it is. Maybe semanticists have parties over issues like this. But I have a theory. Words are created to salve the chafe of unexpressed thoughts. No thought: no word. Our vocabulary is in essence an archeological dig into the history of human thought. Granting that, my word list does not speak well to the impartiality or nobility of our forebears. What's more, it is clear that men have controlled our vocabulary for too long. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  One, Two, Three
by Verónica Albin

I consider myself fortunate in that I married into a highly literate family whose members do not resort to euphemisms. Not a one goes number one or number two; they all pee and poop. When they get technical, they use fancy verbs like micturate, urinate, and defecate, but never, ever, do they resort to numbers. It is such a relief! Such a breath of fresh air! Because I don't do numbers at all.

In fact, I'm not quite sure how I managed to graduate from high school with my dismal performances in math, physics, and all other disciplines that required computation. I'm one of those completely lopsided individuals who could be really smug about their verbal SAT scores but wanted to hide under the table when asked about the other half of the test. I can't count worth beans.

As an economist who really understood those biggest of lies called statistics, my dad thought that if I read George Gamow's One, Two, Three... Infinity, the magic of numbers would be revealed to me. It did not happen. I have kept on trying to read books about numbers such as The Man Who Loved Only Numbers and I get the story, but not the math. I'm hopeless. I can count to three and then I get stuck there, and I don't mean getting stuck in the same way that Nikola Tesla got stuck with the number three. He was stuck there because of his OCD while I get stuck there because I just can't go any further. What I'm trying to say is that, as far as I'm concerned, the YouTube video Hillbilly Math makes perfect sense. 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.


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