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January 2013, Vol. 15, No. 1 There are now   95   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

A fascinating article. I just wanted to add that in Quebec, dolphins are often called marsouins (sea swine) rather than dauphins. — What do you say?

What a preposterous, linguistically naive and snobbish essay! Ms. Anderson's is a fascist view of language that ignores how living languages operate. She posits that vocabulary items must not stray outside their originating specialties. Poppycock! — What do you say?

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 Language of 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?

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.


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.



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 In the January 2013 Vocabula
 The February 2013 issue is due online February 17.

by Bill Casselman

When alarum, later alarm, first resounded to English ears, it was a shout exhorting civilians to go to war. An Italian phrase to begin with, all'arme! "to arms!" meant, in other words, "Men, take up your weapons whatsoever they may be."

Fisher, seize that trident.

Farmer, grasp that pitchfork.

Woodsman, heft that broadaxe.

Reaper, hone a sickle's blade until it slices soldier-neck wide-open.

The Italian battle-cry arose from the simple Latin plural noun arma, which even to the Romans signified the implements of war: swords, spears, shields, daggers, and all the armaments of combat.

Then, in English, alarum came to mean the sound itself, perhaps a trumpet's blast or a drum's roll. Soon after, alarm named the feeling stirred in human hearts by bugle's blare, and, erelong, the hurried actions of men caused by hearing such alarms, leading to one of Shakespeare's choice stage directions: alarums and excursions. This instruction called for soldiers or crowds to dither and flither to and fro across the stage indicating preparation for battle departure, done amid drum trill and trumpet screech. The hullabaloo and brouhaha of hubbubbed rumpus has brought many an otherwise hushed scene of Shakespeare to a finale more spirited than the actors' wan performances may have merited. More ... 

by Bill Casselman

Several months ago, while I was administering an exam, a student neared my desk to ask a question. I'm not a dignified presence at the front of the classroom — I tend more toward friendly and untidy — but something in the student's respectful demeanor made me murmur, "You may now approach the bench." The locution is charmingly antiquated, as if based on a matter of supreme gravity, and I were wearing a powdered wig. It was all I could do, as the woman retrieved her information, not to intone some more instructions for the exam: "Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?"

The incident got me thinking about the ritualistic utterances during a trial. The court of law, as opposed to the food court in the mall, remains a bastion of decorum, at least judged by its elaborate procedures and turns of phrase. Never mind the Latin tags that most lawyers learn, from nolo contendere to habeas corpus. I prefer the modest wish that begins, "May it please the court ...." More ... 

What we talk about when we talk about Nature, then, is anything but simple. The great historian of ideas A. O. Lovejoy called the word "this verbal jack-of-all-trades" and "the most sacred and the most protean" of philosophical terms ("Nature," 69). Modern science, in its spectacular rise, tends to take control of the term and empty it of emotional and moral content. But then come repeated, determined attempts to reabsorb new science into larger philosophical frameworks, effectively reasserting the dominion and complexity of old moral Nature. The upshot is that in one breath we use nature to mean "what is known scientifically," but in the next are back to intending something more vague and grandiose, something like "God's plan for the universe."

To make matters still more complicated, there is a longstanding argument as to whether Nature in the capital-N sense a thing mysteriously charged with design and intention — is a positive or a negative. Lovejoy points to this uncertainty as a major tension that runs through western intellectual history: More ... 

Welcome to a cruciverbalistic centennial.

The very first crossword puzzle was concocted by one Arthur S. Wynne, a journalist from Liverpool and games section editor of the New York World. On December 21, 1913, Wynne's poser appeared in the Sunday edition of the New York World, radiating into a diamond and containing no black squares. He modeled the puzzle after the traditional British word square, a group of words whose letters are arranged so that they read the same horizontally and vertically. No surprise, then, that Wynne christened his creation word-cross.

Four weeks later, typesetters at the newspaper inadvertently switched the two halves of word-cross and dropped the hyphen, and — presto! change-o! — the crossword puzzle was born. More ... 


The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by Clark Elder Morrow

It's very odd, but when I think of a gentleman I think straightaway of that man I read about once who struck to the ground a feeble-minded laborer for not repaying a loan. This occurred, I believe, in the early nineteenth century. When the "gentleman" was castigated in newsprint for treating the poor half-wit so contemptibly, a writer came to his defense by pointing out that the blighter had at least treated the idiot like a human being — by demanding that he live up to his moral obligations. Which, the writer continued, was more than the idiot's handlers had done, who treated him more like an irresponsible animal. That, I thought as I read the account, nailed the matter precisely. It was the gentleman — not the lower class roughs who surrounded the idiot — who treated the half-wit like a man; treated him, indeed, as he would have treated a fellow gentleman. It has been said that a gentleman is a man "in whose presence a woman feels herself to be a lady." I would add: and in whose presence a common man feels himself belonging to a higher rank than before. Elevation is of the essence of the gentleman, even if the gentleman's justice is, on occasion, a bit more tumultuous than it perhaps needs to be. (Kazantzakis refers to this "elevation" when he says that "a certain loftiness of character" is all that is needed to be a gentleman.) More ... 

I work in a local independent bookstore. This is not my first bookstore gig. I've taken employment at bookstores at various times in my life. My knowledge of books makes me a reasonably helpful sales assistant. If I tried to sell cars, computers, or skiing equipment, I'd be of no help to anyone. I would have to bluff my way through every transaction.

Many people seem to think that books — the kind made of paper — are rapidly becoming extinct. The media attention lavished upon electronic readers (the Kindle, the Nook, and others) has created a myth that the paper book will soon be obsolete, an object sold mainly in antique stores and purchased only by nostalgia lovers. My own experience tells me otherwise, that paper books — as opposed to electronic books — have a bright future. More ... 

Book Excerpt
Back to Top  Words from the White House
by Paul Dickson

administration. The term during which a president holds office. George Washington from his Farewell Address: "In reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error."

alice blue. A pale greenish-blue created by a dress designer in homage to Theodore Roosevelt's daughter Alice, born in 1884; later she became Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Attesting to the popularity of the color was the song "Alice Blue Gown," recorded by various artists including Frank Sinatra. In his Browser's Dictionary, John Ciardi points out that the Roosevelts are the only family to have given the language two eponyms — Alice blue and teddy bear. More ... 

Film Review
Back to Top  Barbara
by Marion DS Dreyfus

With a time-frame starting back in 1980, the accumulating tension of time and place in Barbara begins as physician Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss) arrives at a modest rural pediatric hospital in East Germany, clearly transferred there not with her acquiescence, from a prestigious hospital in Berlin by never-named Authorities. Her "crime" is obliquely referred to as her having had the unmitigated gall to commit a request for an exit visa.

What comes to mind is Orwell's 1984 (1984), where remorseless monitoring and rewriting reality into an ersatz "history" are the norm. Adding to the nerve-rattling classics of life under surveillance (such as the German The Lives of Others (2006) and 2007's Romanian 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days), director Christian Petzold — one of Germany's leading contemporary filmmakers — visits the perturbed, seething yet everyday calamities and wastes of the East German totalitarian era: paranoia goes deep. But heavily draped with an Iron Curtain, paranoia is entirely justified. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Abomistrosities
by Valerie Collins

For months I have managed to ignore the hook carefully placed on the Merriam-Webster Online home page:

"Pleather" — The New Word in Fashion The latest version of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition has hit the runway in style! Ogle a sampling of our 2004 Collection of new words and senses (including "pleather") here!

Today, propelled by some mysterious linguistic force, I decided to investigate.

The entry is: "Pleather (noun) 1982 : a plastic fabric made to look like leather." I surfed a bit — even though the ever-so-friendly-and-concerned engines insisted that surely I meant leather. Pleather, I discovered, is faux leather, imitation leather, artificial leather. "Synthetic PU leather made to look like leather." And what is PU? Polyurethane film. Pamela Anderson calls it "the wild kingdom of synthetic leather." "It's breathable, pliable, and inexpensive. It's easy to clean. It's a cruelty-free [what?] coated fabric, as versatile as tofu." "It can be soft, hard, vividly colored, or ultra-conservative and made into everything from luxury car seats that don't stick to your rump like leather to shoes, sandals, purses, handbags, basketballs, footballs, sporting gear." Pleather is a fashion statement, allowing you to be high-end trendy while not alienating the animal rights activists. Again like tofu (as we shall see), pleather saves animals' lives. 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 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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