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Robert Hartwell Fiske's Disagreeable 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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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?
Your lengthy repost to that ass dignifies 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?
Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English
A Compendium of Mistakes in Grammar, Usage, and Spelling with Commentary on Lexicographers and Linguists
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
by Mark Halpern
Steve Pinker has recently issued two documents on the Descriptivist (D)-versus-Prescriptivist (P) wars, and I hope they will be widely read. Both reveal, in different ways, the mindset of academic linguists and their supporters in related disciplines that tells us why these wars will not end soon, if ever. The occasion for the first of those writings was an email inquiry on August 29, 2012, from Fred Shapiro to a couple of online groups,1 in which he mentioned his impression that the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) did not use databases, and was, at least in comparison with the Merriam-Webster Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (W3), prescriptive. In reply, Steve Kleinedler, Executive Editor of the AHD, called both these impressions wrong. Then Pinker, who is chairman of AHD's Usage Panel, stepped in to support Kleinedler, and not only agreed that the AHD was not prescriptive, but claimed further that no modern dictionary is really P or D. Pinker said that he had done some looking into current dictionaries, including W3, and found that the differences in actual treatment of entries between the supposedly descriptive ones like W3 and prescriptive ones like AHD are "trifling."2 He concluded that the distinction between P and D dictionaries is "almost entirely mythical" and "an urban legend which should be buried once and for all." More ...
by Richard Lederer
On the grounds of St. Paul's School, where I taught English for almost three decades, stood two signs that announced, "Private Property: No Trespassing Without Permission." Early in my career at the school I explained to the administration that the warning was redundant, that by definition the act of trespassing is committed without permission. My suggestions that the last two words in the signs be painted out were met with polite smiles, but tradition endures and prevails in New England boarding schools. Now more than forty-five years later, the signs still stand and so do their messages. Unauthorized visitors are still required to obtain permission before they trespass on our grounds.
I am surrounded by an army of recurrently repetitive redundancies. In fact, I am completely surrounded. Even more than that, I am completely surrounded on all sides. These repeated redundancies are in close proximity to my immediate vicinity, which is a lot worse than their being in distant proximity in a vicinity far away.
I turn on the radio or television and learn that "at 10 a.m. in the morning" a man has been found "fatally slain," "leaving no living survivors," that three convicts "have successfully escaped" (how else does one do it?), that "foreign imports" are threatening to destroy the balance of trade (by outnumbering the domestic imports, presumably), that the weather is "minus ten degrees below zero," and etc., etc. More ...
by John Kilgore
HAMLET. How absolute the knave is! We must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us. Hamlet, V,i.
And so, by the cruel and silly logic of contemporary politics, the most consequential phrase of Presidential Debate Number Two turns out to be, you guessed it, Mitt Romney's "binders full of women." The candidate had been asked what he might do to promote equal compensation and general fairness for women in the workplace. He responded with an eager story about his efforts to appoint women to high government positions while he was governor of Massachusetts. First, said Romney, he had noticed the scarcity of women applicants. Then:
I went to a number of women's groups and said, "Can you help us find folks?" and they brought us whole binders full of women.
What Romney meant to say here is obvious: "binders full of women's resumes." But under the pressures of the moment excruciating pressures, let us admit, with everything at stake and the debate clock racing he missed the possessive -s marker and the one word, "resumes." More ...
by Clark Elder Morrow
Tigers have a taste for human fetuses and can smell if a woman is pregnant. They will often kill a pregnant woman, rip out and eat the fetus and leave the woman otherwise untouched.
The best way to start a speech is not with a joke, but with an arresting, unexpected fact a fact so intriguing that your audience sits spellbound for a moment, weighing its impact. And do it without preamble (this will add to its dramatic value). The effect of such a statement is twofold: it focuses the attention of your listeners, and sets the bar high for their expectations. From that moment on, they're going to look forward subconsciously to a high level of discourse. This inclines them toward you almost imperceptibly. You have raised yourself in their estimation; you have gotten off to a good start. If you simply make them laugh with a good joke at the beginning, you may establish yourself as a winsome and charming person, but the audience knows instinctively that being amusing is a wholly different matter from being instructive and penetrating and insightful throughout the length of a speech. Make your listeners react to a powerful fact or concept, and they will settle in happily for a speech they now expect will have many thoughtful attributes. Of course you'll make your opening, startling observation pertinent to the theme of your talk. More ...
by Bill Casselman
Enfilade: An enfilade is a suite of rooms aligned with each other often in grand buildings, the doors to each room being lined up with the doors of the connecting rooms along a single axis so that one can see down through the entire suite of rooms. In more modest home buildings, an enfilade is style of hallway, as shown below. The French noun began as a military word, from the verb enfiler, "to thread something on a string" < French fil, "thread" < Latin filum, "thread, wick, cord." The modern military nounal meaning of enfilade is artillery shots that sweep a line of enemy soldiers from one end to the other.
Gablet: Gablet is on its face a small gable, especially one made to cover a buttress or niche. This Anglo-Norman contribution to eleventh-century English has a base in French, gable, ultimately from a word brought to northern France by Vikings, Old Norse gafl, "roof fork," cognate with the ancient Greek word for human head κεϕαλή, kephale, so that one ancient sense was top, vertex, head of a roof. Kephale is the source of English medical words like cephalic, encephalitis, and hydrocephalus, commonly called "water on the brain." More ...
by Kevin Mims
For years I have collected other people's handwritten diaries. Mostly I prefer vintage travel journals, but I also snatch up more mundane material. I always marvel at the discipline it must have taken to fill in every single day of a 365-page diary. My most interesting, and historically important, find was the diary of a young Japanese-American man who was imprisoned at the Gila River Relocation Camp in Arizona during the years of World War II. The diary covers all of 1944 and includes many fascinating details about life in an internment camp the movies watched, sporting events participated in, social events attended, and the unbearable heat of the desert air.
Another gem of my collection is the diary of young Helen Louise Robertson, which chronicles the adventures of a young American girl as she travels with her family across Europe in 1909. Her father is a History professor at Yale University and a friend and colleague of future U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.
Elsewhere in my collection is the diary that Clara M. Everton, of Edmunds, Washington, kept during her tour of the Orient back in 1927. Here's an excerpt, describing Clara's last day in the Osaka area of Japan, from the diary's March 7 entry: More ...
Vocabula RevisitedNifty Neologisms
by Michael J. Sheehan
But if Dictionaries are to be the Arbiters of language, in which of them shall we find neologism. No matter. It is a good word, well sounding, obvious, and expresses an idea which would otherwise require circumlocution. ... I am a friend to neology. It is the only way to give to a language copiousness and euphony. Without it we should still be held to the vocabulary of Alfred or of Ulphilas; and held to their state of science also. Thomas Jefferson
I have always been intrigued by offbeat words, especially those excruciatingly specific nouns that fill a void I never knew was there.
Need a word for the fine wood powder left by boring insects? Of course you do; try frass. What about that indentation at the bottom of a wine bottle? It's called a punt. Crossword puzzle fans all know that an aglet is the plastic or metal sheath at the tip of a shoelace. And who would have thought that the world needed a word like haw, a dog's inner eyelid.
Occasionally, however, I cannot find a word with the specific meaning that I need. It is then that I turn to Greek and Latin word parts and invent a term. It may never catch on with the general public, but it gives me a sound to mutter as I think or write about the subject. After all, philosophers warn us that something that cannot be named may not even exist. 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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