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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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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?
Your article is an incredibly rich and highly enjoyable contribution. ... 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.
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.
54 Poems, Revisions, Discussions
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.
Silence, Language, & Society
A guide to style and meaning, grace and compassion
"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
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.
I could hear the thud from the floor below as the chunk of concrete fell through. When the drill had slowed to a stop, I clumsily dragged the 200 pound machine two feet to the left, lined it up with the X and began another hole. How many were left? Each floor had two identical electrical closets, and I had to drill three holes in each closet. Six holes per floor. Thirty-three floors. I forgot which floor I was on. The motor roared, joined by the high-pitched whine of steel digging into concrete. It would take hours before it broke through and another concrete core fell with a thud beneath me.
Around and around the drill revolved. I could do nothing but watch it spin while keeping pressure on the lever and gradually lowering the blade. My thoughts went in circles, just like the drill, just like a man pacing in circles wearing away a path. Just a circle, the same circle over and over until the core would fall away, like a word repeated so many times that it doesn't mean anything: freedom, epic, love. I started repeating words to myself.
"Concrete. Concrete. Concrete." It started to sound funny in my ears, like I was punching holes in the word while the drill punched holes in the floor. "Concrete, concrete, concrete concrete concrete concreteconcreteconcrete ...." More ...
by Skip Eisiminger
Language is a virus from outer space. William S. Burroughs
I've read that children growing up on the streets of Johannesburg may absorb as many as ten languages or dialects by osmosis before they're twelve. Prior to the age of six, children are near-perfect language sponges: one swipe and most of the words on the countertop are gone. Our grandson Spencer in his first week of German-only kindergarten listened to his teacher read a picture book that introduced the class to ten German color words and animal names. That weekend, he and his mother chanced on the same book in English in a Charlotte, N.C., library. Spencer recognized the book immediately, and as his Mother read the English, he translated every word into German, adding in English "the wolf is actually a dog only feistier."
In the thirteenth century, Frederick II decided to find out once and for all what language Adam and Eve spoke, so he ordered some of his subjects not to speak in the presence of their babies. Ultimately his majesty failed because, as the monk placed in charge of the experiment wrote, "He labored in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands and gestures, and gladness of countenances, and blandishments," which included any speech, flattering or otherwise. Though the monk does not specify, some of the children may have become psychotic because that is what happened to apes in similar deprivation studies in the twentieth century. More ...
by Bushra Iqbal
Milk and apples (this has been proved by Science, comrades) contain substances absolutely necessary to the well-being of a pig. George Orwell, Animal Farm
Proponents of the theory of sexist language claim to have found empirical evidence to back up their claims that man means only adult human male, and so should be used only in that sense. For instance, according to Words and Women by Casey Miller and Kate Swift (New York: Doubleday, Anchor Press, 1977), in 1972, sociologists at Drake University asked three hundred students to select pictures from magazines and newspapers for a textbook. Half of them were given headings like Industrial Man and Political Man. The other half were given headings like Industrial Life and Political Behavior. Apparently, to a statistically significant degree, and even more than that in some cases, "use of the word man evoked ... images of men only."
If you look under the entry for animal in the first volume of The New Caxton Encyclopedia (The Caxton Publishing Company Limited, 1966), you'll find (among other things) a chart showing the silhouettes of various species, with the human race represented by the silhouette of a man, captioned man. If you think that was soooo sixties, take a look at the OALD, or Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (Eighth Edition, 2010), which warns in its note on Gender that "When you are writing or speaking English it is important to use language that includes both men and women equally. Some people may be very offended if you do not." And on page 48 (V48), in its Visual Vocabulary Builder contents, under the heading of The Body (no man, no human), shows only the picture of a man. Another example of the same convention is furnished by the April 2127, 2012 issue of the New Scientist, which uses human, not man, to refer to Homo sapiens in its cover story, "Our true nature." But take a look at the cover itself, and you'll see that the weekly carries a picture of a man (surrounded by some animals). More ...
Culture and SocietyThe Aurora Shootings: An Appreciation
by John Kilgore
Is this a great country, or what? Just when you are starting to be seriously worried about America, when there have been four straight months of bad jobs reports, when the presidential campaign on both sides seems to be coming straight from the Mean Girls table at some middle school, when hateful Ivy League types on NPR are pointing out that our health care system is three times less efficient than Taiwan's, when not just the Japanese and the Koreans and the British and the French, but the Swedes and Chinese and Indians and for God's sake the effing Serbians are kicking our obese butts in international math-and-science competitions, when the War on Drugs is the same losing proposition it has been for fifty years, when efforts to restrain the slaughter in Syria just a bit, if only long enough to let the blood clot on the asphalt, are stymied by the Chinese and Russians as effectively as Obama's efforts to do anything about the economy have been stymied by Tea Party types with cheap flags and bad haircuts, when our bottomless appetite for incarceration sends a million citizens of the Land of the Free, most of them brown or black, to crammed disintegrating prisons where they may be subject to freeform torture, rape, and murder, when everyone loves crime shows because they soothe our guilt over this, when nothing matters or speaks but money, money, and again money, when even the effing weather testifies to a hopelessly broken climate, promising endless hardships ahead and confirming our disgrace in rejecting the Kyoto Protocols, when the coral reefs are dying and the HIV new-infection rate is back up, when the do-nothing Congress and the dare-nothing president have been waltzing around these and all other problems for three of the past four years, when a smart-ass new HBO series by Aaron Sorkin takes off from a rant denouncing and denying what we have never before even dreamed of questioning, that we are the greatest country on earth and the swellest people in the universe just when you are on the point of getting seriously bummed by all this, there comes along something that reminds you all at once, unmistakably, of who we are and what we do best, so that suddenly you feel proud as ever to be an American. More ...
by Clark Elder Morrow
I have been writing regularly for The Vocabula Review for ten years now, and in that time I've noticed some distressing trends in the use of the English language. Now of course the whole purpose of this column (and this website) is to be alive to degradations of the language, so I suppose it was inevitable that I would be annoyed, over the course of a decade, by what my fellow countrypersons were doing to my mother tongue. (Do prescriptivists ever descry a good trend among formal and informal writers?) Either I'm an extraordinarily touchy nerve-ending when it comes to inexactitudes of speech and writing (and that may very well be my curse) or I am simply hallucinating when I see the expansion of linguistic horrors I dread encountering. In any case, here are my observations on the debasing of the English language in recent years, though I believe all these foul tendencies existed before 2002, and my belief in their aggrandizement since then is largely only an article of faith on my part, and not based on systematic empirical evidence.
Went with the Wind
It's odd the way the word gone has gone away. Some words for no discernible reason sometimes just dry up and blow away, like peonies in a dust bowl. Gone has gone, and my theory for why it has is in the section titled I Done Did It! Here I'll content myself with the observation that just the other day I heard an educated political commentator say on nationwide TV the following: "He should have just went with it." And no one else on the panel so much as blanched. Such usage (or rather abusage) is startlingly common. It strikes me as a burgeoning phenomenon, but then again so does everything else I dislike. More ...
Book ReviewWhat's a Word's Worth?
by Joseph Epstein
The language wars date from the beginning of language the beginning, one suspects, of every language. A language is invented, new words added, a grammar devised, an approved syntax established, and in one of countless possible ways it proves inadequate, opponents gather, snipers fire verbal shots, polemical grenades are flung, canons line up, and war is underway. The reigning rule of language is change, endless bloody change; it was forever thus, and always will be. Case far from closed permanently open.
In his richly informative book, Henry Hitchings chronicles the language wars of English, its continuous skirmishes, its controversies, its often rancorous disputes. The Language Wars is impressively comprehensive, its author immensely knowledgeable. He takes up the subjects of spelling, grammar, punctuation, pronunciation, metaphor, regional speech, jargon, the influence on language of the Internet, and profanity, both lyrical and gross. One cannot but admire his learning and high spirits as he makes his way through material that in a less deft hand would have drooped into pedanticism or become inflamed with bad temper. More ...
by Bill Casselman
Chamfer: A beveled edge on a board formed by removing the sharp corner. Generally used on moldings, edges of drawer fronts, and cabinet doors.
From French chamfrain, "a channel in stonework" < Old French verb of the same meaning chanfraindre < late Latin canthus, "a band of iron surrounding a hole in an object," like an opening-supportive grommet + Latin frangere, "to break, to cut."
Check-throat: A check-throat is a groove cut along the underside of a window sill or door sill to stop rainwater from running back to the building wall and causing water damage.
Cheeks of a fireplace: Cheeks are the laterals of any structure. The cheeks of a fireplace are the inside, interior sides of the opening, often brick-cladded with a metal covering that deflects heat outward.
Clerestory: For once, as simple an origin as it appears in the word itself: clerestory = clere, clear + story. The architectural term refers to the upper part of a large church featuring a line of windows to bring light into the interior of the structure. In a modern house, it's an upper floor of a structure with a row of windows. More ...
by Richard Lederer
At the 2012 London Olympics, Usain Bolt, the jet-propelled Jamaican dash man, retained his title as the fastest man ever to sprint upon our planet. The surname Bolt is wonderfully spot on and target perfect for a human flash, the electrifying holder of world records in the 100- and 200-meter dashes.
Shortly after the recent Olympic Games, long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad made a gallant attempt to swim from Cuba to Key West without the protection of a shark cage. Echoing her last name, we learn from classical mythology that a naiad is a water nymph. Naiad is also an anagram of Diana.
Margaret Smith Court maritally acquired the perfect surname for one who has won more grand slam singles titles in tennis (twenty-four) than anyone else who has ever played the game. In fact, at the Australian Open in Melbourne, I have watched matches played on the Margaret Court court. More ...
Vocabula RevisitedReflections on the Death of Learning
by Carey Harrison
It's seventy years since Christopher Caudwell's now (I imagine) largely unread Studies In a Dying Culture was published, posthumously, and sixty since Further Studies... followed it. Our culture seems not yet to have died. Or has it? We now have English students who don't read. Most people my age seem still to be in shock about this. It's happened so fast: in the space of one generation we've gone from widespread reading to almost no reading at all, leaving self-understanding and an idea of how human society has evolved to the few who care to know about more than pop culture in its various manifestations, the bread and circuses of our era. Never have the future rulers and ruled seemed so ill-equipped to question their economically allotted roles; never have they seemed more vulnerable to collective madness, to messiahs true or false, to wholesale despair and indifference. Back in the safe old days, the literati of my generation had Marshall McLuhan's vision of the coming global village to look forward to, a peaceful revolution (the early days of the Internet revived this pipe dream) in which information trumped politics. Oh, there were a few facile, unthreatening jokes about global village idiots, but the jokes missed the point. We still believed in the coming era of universal proximity. What strikes me today is that our susceptibility to McLuhan's enticing idea was a form of refusal to accept the ineradicable nature of class divisions in human society. We were all post-Marxists then, even those of us who thought we were still Marxists. Especially those of us, indeed. We were longing to transcend Marxism, infected as we were by the ideas of progress and the dissolution of class society inscribed in Marx's Enlightenment-derived utopianism. As Britons for I am only an adoptive son of the New World we also thought we were hard-bitten, cynical even, heirs to a tragic sensibility distinctively European, by contrast with the perennial hopefulness of North American sensibilities. In truth, we were all innocents, on both sides of the Atlantic. 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 ...
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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