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Tuesday, November 25, 2014   Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
June 2014, Vol. 16, No. 6 There are now   133   people reading Vocabula. ISSN 1542-7080
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Three cheers for this excellent peroration to what has been a very stimulating and worthwhile debate, revealing, on both sides, intellectual swordsmanship of a high order. I have previously read Mark Halpern's book with profit and pleasure, and look forward to getting to Lane Greene's. Any readers of my own TVR offerings (i.e., both of you guys) will know that I incline more toward Halpern's position than Greene's. With that by way of caveat, and with no illusion that I will be settling anything, three quick points on Greene's argument here: 1) The WSJ evidence for a new meaning of "beg the question" is very impressive up to a point. Many readers will be fully convinced that the new meaning has permanently obliterated and replaced the old. But two other possibilities have not been fully considered: a) the current prevalence of the new meaning is a fad, overwhelming for the moment, but destined to die out in time; or b) the new meaning now coexists with the old, as happens with countless other words and expressions, and the meaning that applies in a particular instance will be determined by context and the speaker's evident intention. 2) Greene declares that "I know the language has not gone downhill" because "no language ever has or will." That statement in itself seems worth another 3-part debate perhaps, as there is so much to be said on both sides. It is in its way an admirable statement of principle, comparable to "All Men are Created Equal." But it flies in the face of much everday experience that teaches us that language is an extremely fragile body of convention, demanding constant cultural work (education, editing, style guides, the writing of dictionaries, debates like this one) if it is to go on functioning optimally. To the Ds, only what Steven Pinker calls "The Language Instinct" matters, and it will always set things to rights: we will find ways to communicate no matter what gabble we happen to be speaking. But Ps feel that the language ITSELF is a precious resource and achievement that can never easily be replaced, so that change, up to a point, is worth resisting: a project comparable to conservationism in regard to the natural world, perhaps. Standing at our great historical remove, it makes sense to observe, happily, that Latin never died out but just changed into a gaggle of successor languages. But such a perspective is perfectly useless if you are a Latin editor in 300 AD, struggling to come to terms with a host of ominous neologisms. Nor is it helpful if you are a third grade teacher in 2014, trying to decide what language habits you should encourage in your students early on in their long lives. (Pure Descriptivism could give no answer but "It doesn't matter.") 3) It is not just upper-class snobs who get annoyed by others' errors and want to correct them. Debates over usage arise quite spontaneously at every level of usage and education, and cry out for resolution somehow. Lane's observations about needlessly wounding rhetoric are for the most part well taken I think. But a good Prescriptivist (e.g., Garner) is no arbitrary aggressor, but a helpful judge and guide to difficulties he or she did not invent. — What do you say?

Yes! I frown with you upon all your examples. Only a few days ago I found myself frowning on "advocate for" and wondering if I was the only one who found the "for" unidiomatic and semi-redundant so I am glad for the company. And I have never quite become used to the transitive "grow" applied to things other than plants. I would like to add "wait on" as a substitute for "wait for." I think you struck just the right tone here. Languages drift. The drift consists of ebbs and flows, of out and back experimental excursions. On the other side, I smile upon some of the newer slang idioms and coinages that add vibrancy to the language -- like "selfie" -- but may or may not survive. — What do you say?

Mr. Morrow's excellent article seems to me rather oddly to neglect George Orwell, to me the most passionate chronicler of penury, at least in English and in the last century. Orwell avoids Sinclair Lewis' cynicism and universal scorn (quickly boring, as Mr. Morrow accurately says). But where else (certainly not in Dickens, surely not in Thackeray, not even Balzac that I know) do you get the dismal experience of having a bug fall in the milk that was all your supper? That is Down and Out in Paris and London (a sort of grand Guignol of poverty, let us not forget the restaurant kitchen where the food was stored on the dirt floor and eaten by rats). But poverty runs all through Orwell. There is the representative lower-upper-middle-class fellow who (I don't have Orwell to hand and can't quote) theoretically knows how to order in French at a good restaurant or a suit from Savile Row, but can never, ever hope to afford either. Or the class-consciousness of growing up in a house with a maid-of-all-work and one bathroom. One could go on all too easily. It lacks the poetry that somehow hangs over Dickens or Balzac and Frenchness (which may incude his romanticism). But it is powerful stuff. Not boring, but depressing as hell. — What do you say?

Scholarly etymology is always is a pleasure. Mr Casselman's errudition is admirable, and his subject unusally interesting in itself. I neither knew nor had guessed anything of it of it, though I read old French and Old English sources (the latter always in translation, I regret), and, having an Austrian wife I am quite aware of German. It was pleasant to be reminded of Mr. Casselman's French "trash." We encountered that very parade going to luncheon on a dreary day in Paris. Our hearts sank at the thought of another ghastly French mob of Socialists and antinomians. It was a great relief to find ourselves among such pleasant and well-conducted people. — What do you say?

The point about role terms is spot on I think, and deeply relevant in these days of constant questing after nomenclature that is more progressive and p.c. and fair than what tradition affords. The quest sometimes succeeds, but too often the only result is nomenclature that is gaseous, canting, inane, unwieldy, or in some other way beset by unforeseen problems far worse than the one it solved. "Consumer" for "patient" would be such a case, surely. "Patient" has a very long history in English, as both noun and adjective, and an attempt to displace it, based only on some PR department's vague sense that it is not sufficiently complimentary and effusive, will likely fail. If not, its success will come at the expense of clear speaking, clear thinking, and honest dealing. The term comes from the present participle of the Latin "pati," to undergo, suffer, bear, experience. The core sense is "one who undergoes" — or "one who suffers" — but Ms. Anderson is surely right that in older usage this idea was more honorific than it is, at least in some quarters, today. In Latin the participle was often joined into a doublet, "agens et patiens," that was translated into English as "doing and suffering" to make a slogan that was very popular and common at least up to the end of the eighteenth century. The idea was that the two things, acting and being acted upon, neatly summed up life, and the part of wisdom was to recognize the necessity and inevitability of both. Acceptance of suffering was a key aspect of a life well lived. Only a fool would think he could be always agens and never patiens, captain of his fate and master of his soul in every circumstance, even on the way into surgery no doubt. These days, though, there seem to be plenty of fools who want to be told just that about themselves. Or perhaps the point is more that the Folks In Charge are always ready to tell us such flattering fibs in the process of manipulating and hoodwinking us. At all events, thanks to Janet Anderson for an insightful, illuminating discussion. — What do you say?

Jean Mallinson's essay on prepositions is instructive, deeply felt, and beautifully written. It leads me to think that the opposite of the old pedant's rule is the truth: sentences not just may, but must, end with a preposition, since that which determines structure, hence meaning, is conclusive. — What do you say?

Right ho for Mr. Morrow, and for his sentiments, which are spiffy in my view! I think he's dead on about the techie influence, but I would like to suggest another, more eldritch one, the speech of the British Upper Classes, already elevated to the voice of angels by Mr. Wodehouse before it became the dialect of my own youth. — What do you say?

Bravo! Mr. Halpern, your writings on this subject are an unfailing source of insight and pleasure. Thanks so much for the wit, will, energy, and patience you bring to this oddly important controversy. Enlightening enough on its own turf, Linguistics seems to insist on jumping the fence into the traditional fields of rhetoric, editing, criticism, and of course humanistic grammar (which I like to think of as language criticism), where its highly abstract methods and principles grow clumsy, unhelpful, and sophomoric. You do a better job than anyone of leading the bull back out of the corn, over and over. — What do you say?

Actually, there really are some good reasons to Google oneself, as page rank and visibility can have considerable importance. Thanks for a great article. And the word, fantasts, too. I have never used that one, but will correct that problem. Much appreciated. — What do you say?

Well written, and I totally agree. I have never found it irritating or offensive to read "he" as a generic pronoun for both sexes. In fact, what I find more irritating is the use of the two words (he/she, his/her) when one will do. When an author goes so far as to make attempts at political correctness by changing words like mankind, postman, or even policeman, I start stewing over how much of an influence a petty minority has had on contemporary writers. And I find that really, really, sad. — What do you say?

Excellent. — What do you say?

Bravo! What a wonderful essay — I think it beautifully and elegantly captures a poignant moment of life. I found it very moving, and it reawakened old memories of the immigrant dreams of my parents. I also enjoyed the photos and learning about dirndles. — What do you say?

I thought at first that you were merely darkening counsel with a rather too-finespun casuitry, but I own now that your logic is irresistible. You stayed with your argument long enough to convince me (I'm ashamed to admit that if you had stopped your pen earlier I might have tossed the article aside with only a grimace, and an air of bemusement disguising my uncertainty). I am persuaded now that I have been guilty of using "or" as I do the word "and" when I have gone about negating; I had never noticed before the ambiguity involved. You have uncovered a very well hidden landmine in the language — one so well hidden that even when pointed out it remains difficult to see, camouflaged as it is under so many layers of accepted (though inexcusable) usage.

Your article is one more proof of the importance of The Vocabula Review. Thank you for it. — 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

However curmudgeonly, Mr. Fiske betrays a bluff humanitarian spirit. ... Fiske wants to save the English language. And he knows that he can count on little help. "Dictionaries have virtually no standards, offer scant guidance, and advance only misunderstanding." His own flogging of Merriam-Webster's is one of the many pleasures of this lovely, sour, virtuous book. — Wall Street Journal

You can order Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English from Simon & Schuster or Amazon or Vocabula or elsewhere.


To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing
The essential guide to writing succinctly

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To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing is the perfect reference book for anyone who wants to communicate more effectively through clear and beautiful prose. In this freshly updated edition that features hundreds of new entries, Robert Hartwell Fiske lays out multiple lines of attack against verbiage. He starts by training writers, new or experienced, to tackle wordy trends in their work. His "Dictionary of Concise Writing" helps them identify and correct — or delete — thousands of specific redundant phrases. In addition, writers can turn to the new "Guide to Obfuscation: A Reverse Dictionary" to build a more pithy vocabulary. Filled with real-world examples that provide clarity and context for Fiske's rules of concision, this is a writer's sharpest weapon against verbosity.

You can order To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing from Amazon or Vocabula or W. W. Norton.



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Elegant English
Elegant English is exhilarating; it stirs our thoughts and feelings as ably as everyday English blurs them.
Elegant English

As the superfluity of uninspired, careless, grammatically incorrect, slang-ridden English makes plain, elegant English is English rarely heard, English seldom seen.

The point of this book is to show that the language can, indeed, be spoken or written with grace and polish — qualities that much contemporary English is bereft of and could benefit from.

You can order Elegant English from Vocabula.


 In the June 2014 Vocabula
 The July 2014 issue is due online July 20.

by Jean Mallinson

Negative statements can be far reaching and compelling in a way that simple positive assertions cannot match; they command our attention.

The power of the hyperbole implicit in a negative statement is exemplified in the opening of a poem by Thomas Wyatt: "There was never nothing more me pain'd / Nor more my pity mov'd / As when my sweetheart her complain'd / That ever she me lov'd." The double negative makes the claim emphatic and the lovely contortion of syntax that follows assures us that we are in the realm of high poetic fancy, where such protestations are the rule. The large claim of "There was never nothing" lures us into the plaint that ensues.

D. H. Lawrence's poem in praise of Bavarian gentians begins "Not every man has gentians in his house." It seems an unpromising start, asking the reader to consider an absence, but the poem immediately embarks on an effusive description of gentians that elaborates into a compelling narrative. The opening line identifies the speaker as a fortunate being, one of the favored few who have gentians in their house, and lets us know that he is aware of his inestimable good fortune in having these flowers in his house, that he is rich, compared to the deprived others who are not so blessed. The negative predisposes us to like him — he counts his blessings, takes nothing for granted — and listen to what he has to say in praise of the flowers he is one of the select number to possess "in soft September, at slow, sad, Michaelmas." So the negative establishes his authority to address his musings to us, based on his sense of being honoured by the presence of the flowers. We feel his generosity in sharing his good fortune with us, the readers. The poem in praise of the flower that follows is ample reward. More ... 

by Richard Lederer

We think of carnivals as traveling entertainments with rides, sideshows, games, cotton candy, and balloons; but the first carnivals were pre-Lenten celebrations — a last fling before penitence. The Latin word parts, carne, "meat, flesh," and vale, "farewell," indicate that the earliest carnivals were seasons of feasting and merrymaking, "a farewell to meat," just before Lent.

Carnival is one of hundreds of words and expressions that began in religion (from Latin religionem, "respect for what is sacred"). Because our society has become secularized, we overlook the religious foundation of our everyday parlance:

bonfire. Originally the bone fires that consumed the bodies of saints burned during the English Reformation.

enthusiastic. From the Greek enthusiasmos, "a god within," first meant "filled with God," as did giddy, from Anglo Saxon gydig, "god-held man."

excruciating. The Latin word for "cross," crux, is embedded in the words crux, crucial, and excruciating, which has broadened from denoting the agony of the crucifixion to any kind of torturous pain. More ... 

by Skip Eisiminger
Advertising: hullabaloo; speculation and a mad dash for profits have made advertising a means of swindling the people and of foisting upon them goods frequently useless or of dubious quality. — Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 1941 edition

Advertising: the popularization of goods with the aim of selling them; the creation of demand for these goods. — Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 2014 edition

Born in 1941, I grew up with the jingles on Mother's kitchen radio like: "My beer is Rheingold, the dry beer; think of Rheingold whenever you buy beer!" In the 1950s, traveling between Virginia and Georgia, my sisters and I would vie for the right to read aloud the next set of Burma Shave signs: "Said Farmer Brown / who's bald on top / wish I could / rotate the crop. / Burma Shave!" In high school, a young friend thought I was the bees' knees because I threw The Washington Post for the man who drew the Coppertone ad showing a girl's bare bottom. That passed for sex in the 1950s. And finally, seduced by posters of Bavaria, I enlisted in the army because they promised to send me to Germany. Technically, they upheld their end of the bargain, but I was stationed 400 miles north of the Alps in a Wehrmacht ammunition factory on "Gallows Hill" for most of my enlistment. Winter in Germany had looked a lot cooler on the posters; Heidwinkel/Bahrdorf was just cold.

All-day suckers such as my younger self are what cartoonist Robert Mankoff was aiming at when he drew a consumer at a cigarette kiosk asking the clerk, "Oh, just give me a pack of whatever the guys in marketing are targeting for jerks like me." Mankoff's colleague at the New Yorker Jack Ziegler gives the ad maker his comeuppance at a chaotic press conference where he's explaining: "Yes, but take away the rodent droppings and the occasional shard of glass, and you've got a damn fine product." Somewhere between that ad man and the consumer lies a multi-billion-dollar industry. More ... 

by Clark Elder Morrow

Is the United States beginning to see its Decline and Fall? The question is interesting from a cultural and artistic point of view, if from no other. Leaving aside politics, it might be entertaining (if nothing else) to take a look at a few cultural indicators of what might provocatively be entitled The Final Stage of America.

Here is what I have in mind. W. H. Auden, in his exquisite little poem "The Fall of Rome," lists several symptoms of the Empire's internal and external collapse. Among them are these:

Caesar's double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
On a pink official form.

Now consider this news report (I clipped it from Softpedia) from early April of this year:

Instead of recording actual court dialogue during a high-profile criminal trial, an alcoholic Manhattan stenographer kept writing "I hate my job" over and over again.

The New York Post tells us that Daniel Kochanski's actions, which also included hitting random keys during trials, jeopardized the outcome of more than thirty Manhattan court cases, by giving defendants the opportunity to claim that essential evidence is missing. More ... 

Here's a motley toolbox of terms derived from the classical Latin word for hammer, malleus.

Perhaps the most familiar English derivative is mallet, a percussive implement that one might wish to apply every now and then to the forehead of Rand Paul. Alas, such a restorative fillip has been deemed by our judicial betters to be a tort, to wit, a wrongful act, however conducive to Rand's mental correction said mallet might prove. Of course, none of us want to be low tortfeasors. Let us therefore settle for sending Rand a few eye-drops, mayhap a wet teabag, to assuage the twin shiners that a just electoral fate has in store for him.

However that stern goddess, Focus, now bids us, for the purpose of this wee divertissement, to press onward. A more pertinent exigency summons us mallet-wielders into the spark-dense smithy of etymology, where the acetylene torch of history noisily breaks words asunder. And then our gained knowledge of a verbal origin lets us weld words together, their prime meanings refreshed, their definitions restated and conjoined in pristine and tidy newness. More ... 

"Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?" — Attributed to Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, 1781, on receiving a volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Here is the recurring scenario: I stand before the class, take in the generally happy faces of the students seated before me, and announce an in-class thirty-minute essay. The result is as predictable as yesterday's rain: a fog of gloom descends on the room, and as my students equip themselves with paper and pen, they look as if I have just suggested removing their wisdom teeth without a sedative.

The irony here is that nearly all of these same students daily write more than I ever did at their age, if we loosely define writing as putting thought into print. They text their family and friends, they chat online, they send emails, they post messages on Facebook. Many of them doubtless write more than a thousand words a day. Yet when the time comes for more formal writing — an essay in school, an entry in a journal required by their teacher, even a thank-you note for a birthday present — these same young people stiffen with apprehension, as if anticipating dungeons and dismal torments.

For the past fifteen years, I have taught Latin, history, and literature courses to homeschool students living in or near Asheville, North Carolina. The students come to me weekly for a two-hour seminar, then return to their homes with an additional four to seven hours of work. These courses range from early middle-school literature and composition to Advanced Placement subjects taken in hopes of gaining college credit. This past year, approximately 120 students attended these seminars, and since many of them sat in more than one seminar — a few brave souls even registered for three — the number of attendees grew to about 180. More ... 

by David Russinoff

In April 2009, hoping to improve on an average annual sales rate of 200,000 copies over a span of fifty years, Longman Publishers released a black faux leather-bound, gold-embossed anniversary edition of The Elements of Style.1 This handsome volume comes adorned with politically correct "gender-fair" language unknown to either of its credited authors and includes several pages of gushing approbation from various public figures past and present, from Dorothy Parker to Ben Affleck, all for $19.95.

Such a spectacle of prescriptivism is bound to draw fire from the academic left. Catherine Prendergast, a self-described "composition scholar," escalates the language war to an unprecedented level of vehemence in her fanciful essay, "The Fighting Style: Reading the Unabomber's Strunk and White,"2 in which she posits that the copy of the manual that "tells us most about [its] legacy" is the one found in Ted Kaczynski's Montana cabin.

Taking off on Andy White's fond memory of his Cornell English professor — "Sergeant Strunk snapping orders to his Platoon" — Prendergast solemnly warns us of the mortal danger that attends "Sergeant Strunk's warlike, exhortative style, his up-tempo apocalyptic railings against the paucities of modern life": More ... 

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Love a word? Tell us what it is and perhaps we'll add it to our list of Best Words. There need not be any well-reasoned analysis of your high regard for a word; emotional reactions to the sound or meaning of words are welcome. If a word you love is already listed, you are welcome to tell us why you, too, love the word. The Best Words have an aura of fun or majesty. More ... 

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Hate a word? Tell us what it is and perhaps we'll add it to our list of Worst Words. There need not be any well-reasoned analysis of your distaste for a word; visceral reactions to the sound or meaning of words are welcome. If a word you hate is already listed, you are welcome to tell us why you, too, hate the word. The Worst Words have an aura of foolishness or odium. More ... 

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Each ten-question Vocabula Quiz briefly discusses a specific topic, such as history, science, literature, or philosophy. Of course, you are quizzed not on content but on grammar or usage, vocabulary or spelling, punctuation or style. More ... 

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