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Saturday, February 13, 2016   Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
May 2014, Vol. 16, No. 5 There are now   4246   people reading Vocabula. ISSN 1542-7080
 Discuss This Article

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.

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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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 In the May 2014 Vocabula
 The June 2014 issue is due online June 22.

In a lecture delivered at the New York Public Library in 1946, the distinguished publisher Louise Bechtel recommended a book she had been talking up for years. "I have yet to meet one parent, one librarian, or one bookmaker who has read it," she said. "It is The Training of Secondary School Teachers, Especially with Reference to English, the authors a joint committee from the faculty of Harvard College and its graduate school of education."

I read it. The Harvard report is full of bold opinions, but I lingered on a commonplace: "The student must begin, not with a rule instructing him how things are to be said, but with something to say. An important task of the composition teacher is to teach the students how to have something to say." In a superb little book on teaching fourth grade, Ronald Bazarini makes the same italicized point: a child "must have something to say. That's why writers write. The helper helps the kid explore an idea and in time the child realizes he has something to say!"

What about college students? Are they, or should they be, unlike all other writers? Not according to Wayne Booth's "Boring from Within: The Art of the Freshman Essay": "If and when [students] discover something to say, they will be interested in learning how to say it better." It is not enough, Booth insisted, to give students a purpose (an idea, a controversy, a text): it must become their purpose, and in some way connected with their own experiences and interests. More ... 

Words are inherently weak and fallible creatures (or, I should say, creations). They are unstable and prone to failure. Every word born of a man or woman is a tragic figure that begins life with the finest intentions (or so their creators would insist), but soon succumbs to the gravity of base associations and the downward pull of human nature itself. Even the word sublime finds itself too often in the company of common food items and women's shoes. Born with high hopes, many a word gets its baptismal dress rudely and quickly soiled by people who don't like its cut or its whiteness, and who decide sadistically to sour its fresh new flavors into a mess of foul pottage. In other words, words go bad — not so much because they are born with bad chromosomes, but because they are forever in the hands of creatures who themselves are unstable and prone to failure — and who, it must be said, rather like diving into the deep end of rank associations, shady innuendos, and single entendres.

There are many examples in linguistic history of words degenerating over time — that is to say, of words acquiring a disreputable suit of clothes as they age. They become seedy, subfusc, unkempt, and untidy. They lose whatever nobility or wholesomeness they once possessed, and slink about the borderlands of language, cadging drinks where they may, scaring off younger children, and lending the neighborhood a generally shabby air. A good example of what I mean can be found in a word that — taking its sound from the name of a person — began life on the highest plateaus of honor, arrayed in glory, but wound up spending its later years lounging about in bordellos. I refer to the word pander. More ... 

An anthology is a collection of literary, musical, or artistic works gathered in a single setting. The Greek forebear is anthologia: anthos, "flower" + lego, "gather" = "a gathering of flowers." Our English language is made more exquisite and colorful by an anthology of flowery words.

• The English used to call the yellow, shaggy weed a "lion's tooth" because the jagged, pointed leaves resemble the lion's snarly grin. During the early fourteenth century, the lion's-tooth plant took on a French flavor and became the dent-de-lion, "tooth-of-the-lion." Then it acquired an English accent: dandelion.

• In Greek mythology, the blessed spent their afterlife in the Elysian fields, which were carpeted with a flower the Greeks named asphodelos. Over time the word gained an initial d and eventually became daffodil. More ... 

by Mark Halpern and Robert Lane Greene

Dear Lane,

You begin your second contribution to our debate by providing a great deal of evidence that bad books on grammar and usage, like that by Truss, greatly outsold Fowler. I fully accept this. When you first cited the fact, it surprised me, but not for long; we all know that mass popularity and high quality seldom go together. But the amount of work you've put into documenting their sales records suggests that you, however, do attach a good deal of significance to it; you think it will help convince me that the people we agree on calling Folk Prescriptivists (FPs) are very numerous, hence very important, hence worth rebutting season after season, year after year, as Descriptivists (D's) have been doing for at least the last fifty years. Apparently you feel that I still don't realize how needful it is to keep hammering these people, who will otherwise, presumably, do the language some harm. I don't myself find FPs much more than minor sillies, but if you and other D's feel it worth your while to keep rebutting them, I have no quarrel with you. I do quarrel with you, however, at the point where you move insensibly from attacking FPs to attacking real, modern Prescriptivists (P's), such as those I named in my last installment.

I'm sorry that the P you chiefly attacked in your You Are What You Speak was me, but only because that may make my objections seem to be no more than personal defensiveness, when they are no such thing. You did not hurt my feelings or offend me; as should be evident, I welcome spirited, even heated, debate, and would not in the least mind the most ferocious attack on my position — but I do want the attack to be on my position, not that of the FPs, which we agree in dismissing. My fundamental quarrel with your treatment of me is that it was not a treatment of me, it was an attack on FPs, using my name as a convenient shorthand for all their blunders. Did you not notice, in reading my Language & Human Nature (L&HN), that what I said there — and what I did not say — was quite different from what one gets from FPs? Did you not notice, to begin with, that I nowhere attacked split infinitives or double negatives or any of the other bugbears of the FP? Apparently not; the distinctions you now make between FP and middlebrow and highbrow Prescriptivism were clearly not in your mind when you reported to your readers what you saw as my views. More ... 

by Bill Casselman

I could begin with a common derivative of pneumon, πνεύμων, the Greek word for lung. Apt might be a term like pneumonia whose basic meaning is inflammation of the lungs. But so minimal an onset betrays my late father's dictum of "Always use the rarer word. It befuddles the untutored ninny, while adding to the word-lover's hoard."

Today's column examines Greek breath-and-breathing words and their largely imitative or echoic origins, as well as their abundant derivatives in English. So I'll start with a rare medical word in the news this spring here in my native Canada. A national politician suffers from pemphigoid (pronounced PEM-fih-goid), an infrequent skin disease that produces wide, fluid-bloated blisters on skin areas subject to bending and flexing. It chiefly afflicts the lower abdomen, groin, upper thighs and armpits of people over 60. The worst form is bullous (BUL-us) pemphigoid. Bulla is a medical word for an oozy blister filled with liquid, borrowed directly from bulla, Latin for "bubble."

This auto-immune disease, pemphigoid, attacks a layer of tissue under the outer layer of skin. The pharmaceutical remedy is often prednisone or some other corticosteroid with a litany of hideous side effects, some of which, like bullous pemphigoid, can threaten life.

As is evident and although it is adjectival in form, the noun pemphigoid means "something that is like pemphigus." Pemphigoid is not a new word, being known by the Greek father of medicine, Hippocrates, he who was responsible for the famous doctors' oath. Although its original language was Greek, the first sentence of the Hippocratic Oath is often given in Latin: primum non nocere, "First: do no harm."

Hippocrates knew a disease called πεμϕιγώδης, pemphigodes, "malady like blisters." Pemphix, pemphigus was the Greek word for blister, pustule, air-pocket, breath, exhalation, to which was added eidos, "resemblance in form," a suffix that gives us the hundreds of English words ending in -oid, "like or similar to," as in dendroid, "shaped like or similar to a tree," from Greek dendron, "tree." More ... 

Back to Top  NIVH
by Michael Gorman

September 17, 2015: Washington D.C.: The unprecedented congressional hearing on the NIVH came to an abrupt end after thirteen minutes when none of the witnesses were able to produce a coherent answer to the almost invariably incoherent and unfinished questions of the congresspeople.

The National Institute for Verbal Health in Beauregard, Virginia, was the smallest, least known, but, by most accounts, most intellectually distinguished government research institute. Though fewer than three people are awarded doctorates in linguistic hygiene worldwide every year, the members of that select group are among the most highly regarded researchers in the esoteric fields grouped under the rubric of Anthroposemantics.

Researchers at NIVH study verbal (particularly spoken word) epidemics and publish papers on their findings that, despite being available on many open access systems, are read, if at all, only by the small group of their peers. Their relative anonymity has kept them safe from budget cutters, and the fact that their research is so little read and, until August 2015, never resulted in any actions, meant that they ruffled few feathers and had never been brought to the attention of even the most committed budget hawks in Congress.

This all changed when Dr. Sandrine Julep, holder of three doctoral degrees (Harvard, Sorbonne, Oxford) and two-time Olympian, was appointed as the 13th Director of NIVH in June 2014. Dr. Julep, a brisk, compact 47-year-old, called a staff meeting on her first day. She told the eleven other linguistic hygienists that she and they had not been put on this earth simply to diagnose verbal epidemics but to do something about them. Many weeks and meetings later, an initial list of forty-seven virulent spoken word diseases had been reduced to a Top Three. The question was, which of these was to be the focus of intensive NIVH research aimed to, in Dr. Julep's words, "not ameliorate but obliterate"? Our goal is, she said as now disclosed in a hitherto unknown document, to diagnose one of these scourges and to produce an antidote that will wipe it from the face of the English-speaking world. The Top Three were (all statistics from NIVH research papers): More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Too Wretched for Words
by Christopher Orlet

Perhaps nothing in the fetid grammatical atmosphere we are all breathing is more disturbing than the frequent presence of so-called singular they. This should be seen as plain error but is tolerated by some, perhaps to avoid the stilted, awkward he or she construction. As an example, consider the following sentence: "If a writer does not wish to offend the female reader, they should avoid male-gendered general pronouns."

I confess it hurt to compose that sentence even as an example of what should never be uttered or written. Nonetheless, this ungrammatical practice has been gaining unofficial cachet in the past forty years — indeed, it has a long history as an alternative usage even in a few passages in Shakespeare and other British and American classics, when grammatical rules were looser than they became in the eighteenth century. Avoidance may be the best solution. For instance, we might recast that offensive example as follows: "If writers do not wish to offend the general reader, they should avoid use of singular they."

As the Italians say, c'e sempre una terza via (there's always another way). Thus I deplore a willingness to deploy a solecism even if one can thereby "avoid sexism." Just last year, asked to write a recommendation for a student who wanted to enroll in a graduate program, I found myself reading the following from an admissions officer at one of the most respected universities in this country: 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 ... 

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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 ... 

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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 ... 

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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.

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