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Friday, December 19, 2014   Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
January 2014, Vol. 16, No. 1 There are now   104   people reading Vocabula. ISSN 1542-7080
 Discuss This Article

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?

Bravo to Kerr Houston and Ingrid Pimsner! Their essay on art criticism is pellucid, learned and elegant. — What do you say?

I like this article. I have probably 3,000 books in my home (I hope I never have to move). In a moment of weakness I bought a Nook. I read one book, then gave it to be my niece. Bless her for taking it off my hands. I like the heft of a printed book. I like to turn the pages. I enjoy reading it. Had ebooks never been invented, my life would be just as enjoyable — so long as there are books. — 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 Vocabula or Simon & Schuster or Amazon or elsewhere.


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

To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing

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 preorder To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing from Amazon or W. W. Norton.



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 In the January 2014 Vocabula
 The February 2014 issue is due online February 23.

Plenty of people have written plenteous articles on words that have dropped from our speech. The tone is often ruefully nostalgic, a middle-aged word-lover sad that a cherished term has either faded from use or else been somehow tainted. At the risk of generalizing, though it's what I love to do, I'd say that words in the modern era leave common parlance for one of three reasons. First, a term may have become archaic, usually a victim of technological progress. How many people know what a greave or a creese is? Since our fights no longer involve suits of armor or swords, this ignorance isn't surprising. Social change also leaves certain words in its wake, such as serf or fief. Second, political correctitude and its euphemisms have forced certain words to hide for shame: no more bums or cripples, for instance. A related trend abducts words for "enlightened" labels that obliterate the old uses. Decades after the gay pride movement delivered its message, it isn't uncommon to hear an old gent annoyed that he can't use the words queer or gay anymore in their old senses. Third, slang and other up-to-the-minute vocabulary quickly become dated. Few people nowadays talk about moxie or pizzazz. More ... 

by Mark Halpern and Robert Lane Greene

You and I have engaged in debates on the subject of Prescriptivism and Descriptivism before, both with each other and with others — I read with interest your recent debate with Bryan Garner (although it read more like a exchange of love letters than a debate), for example. I'm all in favor of the achievement of peace, or at least an armistice, if it can be done without ignoring or suppressing the issues between us. I don't want a phony peace based on a decision to pretend that if only both sides were reasonable, and agreed to look the other way when necessary, we'd find that there was no real conflict between Descriptivism and Prescriptivism. No doubt some of the issues between us reflect mere misunderstandings — more on this later — but I believe there are real differences between our two positions, differences that cannot be papered over; on these, one side or the other must yield if the conflict is to end. More ... 

Back to Top  Louis
by Bill Casselman

Many, many French given names like Édouard, Gérard, Guillaume, Louis, and Richard are pure German in origin. Equally Germanic are thousands of French surnames like Baudin, Géroux, Lambert, and Roget.

Many, many, uneducated French citizens explode into chauvinist rage when told that indisputable historical fact. Mais non! Ce n'est pas possible! These are the same French trash who paraded their bigotry so proudly and so recently in Paris, marching to no avail against gay marriage. One must remind these know-nothings that the Franks were German. Ohé, you know, the people after whom your country is named. Get it? Franks. Les francs. La France. Français. More ... 

by David Cay Johnston

Let us praise copy editors — and mourn their dwindling numbers.

Copy editors are to writers as nets are to trapeze artists, saving us from typos, careless mistakes, and metaphors so slippery that no reader can grasp their meaning.

Today's Internet is rich with snarky observations highlighting mistakes that, until the last decade, copy editors were paid to catch and block.

As the ranks of copy editors shrivel, the frequency of linguistic crimes will increase, eroding the structure of language and our ability to communicate with one another.

I think of copy editors as the word police, the plainclothes enforcers of the rules of grammar, syntax, and publication style, as well as the checkers of dubious or unattributed fact.

Most of these offenses are unintentional. Still, without copy editors to catch and correct written infractions and felonies alike, our English language will be the victim.

Unpoliced, languages deteriorate. Linguistic anarchy just makes for misunderstanding. More ... 

Diogenes (412?–323 BCE) of Sinope was an ancient Greek philosopher who rejected the hollow values he saw in Athenian society. One sign of that integrity was his practice of carrying a lantern around Athens in the daytime as he looked for an honest man. He never found one.

I come to you bearing the lantern of language learning. I am pleased to report that, more successfully than Diogenes, I do find men and women, many of them readers of my column, who ...

• say and write "Where is he?" without tacking on a gratuitous at

• distinguish between the verbs lie and lay, avoiding sentences such as "The book is laying on the table"

• after someone says, "Thank you," actually reply, "You're welcome," instead of "No problem"

• in their speech, keep their ughs and ums to a minimum and avoid hiccoughing you knows

• never toss a like into their conversation unless it's a verb — "I liked you on Facebook" — or a preposition — "There's no other city like San Diego"

More ... 


The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

Jurisdiction is a concept basic to every legal system. It refers to the authority and the power of government. Let me phrase it this way: Jurisdiction concerns whether the government can enforce its laws, where, over whom, and over what subjects.

Where. One aspect of the government's jurisdiction is the geographical area over which it exercises its authority. Cuyahoga County, Ohio is a jurisdiction; it has, within its borders, the city of Cleveland, thirty-seven other cities, nineteen villages, and three townships — a total of sixty jurisdictions. There are eighty-seven other counties in Ohio, and forty-nine other states in the Union. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Dorothy Parker and Clapping
by Richard Carter

In this essay, I reflect on one of Dorothy Parker's love poems, "The Small Hours":1

No more my little song comes back;
And now of nights I lay
My head on down, to watch the black
And wait the unfailing gray.

Oh, sad are winter nights, and slow;
And sad's a song that's dumb;
And sad it is to lie and know
Another dawn will come,

comparing it favorably with Sappho's lovely poem of the deep night's longing for an absent lover:

The moon's set,
and Pleiades;
Midnight is come
and I lie alone

and comparing both of these unfavorably to Andrew Hudgins's counterfeit of a poem, "The Funeral Service,"2 where he rejects the natural silence of a son's grief at his father's death with a disorderly account of the way his particular poetic brilliance trumps a son's feelings: 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 ... 

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 ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back to Top  Best Words

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 ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back to Top  Worst Words

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 ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back to Top  TVR Radio 2

We welcome your submitting MP3 recordings of literary essays or poems to TVR Radio 2. If we like your recording, we'll add it to our database. More ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back to Top  Vocabula Quizzes

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 ... 

 Featured Essays

Plain Talk, or the Case of the Vanishing Vocabulary — David Galef

A Debate with Lane Greene on P. vs. D. — First Installment — Mark Halpern and Robert Lane Greene

Louis — Bill Casselman

Honoring the Word Police — David Cay Johnston

The Lantern of Diogenes Illuminates Proper Usage — Richard Lederer

Legal Jargon — Part 5: Jurisdiction — James Csank

Vocabula Revisited: Dorothy Parker and Clapping — Richard Carter

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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 Dimwit's Dictionary is a compendium of clichés and other overused words and phrases, and sharp alternatives to them. Price: $18.95


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