Foreword to The Dimwit's Dictionary

When Robert Hartwell Fiske confronts Saint Peter, I hope he remembers to tell the man that he is the founding editor of The Vocabula Review, the online magazine devoted to contemporary language, its delights and its disasters. Saint Peter will immediately understand that Mr. Fiske has been on the side of the angels and therefore been doing the Lord's work. My worry is that, in reply, Saint Peter will commit one or another of the solecisms, illogicalities, or barbarisms that Mr. Fiske spends his days excoriating and that he will feel the need to correct him, causing him to lose his place on the other side of the gates.

Meanwhile, on this side of the gates, to hew to this theological metaphor a bit longer, Robert Hartwell Fiske has been doing a hell of a job.

Mr. Fiske has signed on, evidently for life, for that best of all losing causes, the battle to keep language clear, fresh, free from the pollution of empty jargon, idiotic euphemism, self-serving imprecision, comic redundancy, nonsense generally. He has many famous comrades from among the dead in this battle: Jonathan Swift, H. L. Mencken, George Orwell, H. W. Fowler, Sir Ernest Gowers, and others. And, as I am sure he has discovered, many unknown, still living allies in unexpected places who get quite properly worked up over politicians, advertisers, social scientists, so-called educators, and others attempting to swindle the rest of us through nicely calculated verbal fog.

You are what you eat, the old food faddists used to say. As I read him, Robert Hartwell Fiske is saying that we are, or soon become, what we say and write. Use language slovenly, dully, dopily and we soon ourselves become sloppy, dull, dopey. In The Dimwit's Dictionary, he explains his reigning idea in the first paragraph of his first chapter, when he announces that "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." We know soon enough what makes them "dim"; the witticism comes into play because most people who adopt such overworked words as "scenario" or such cumbersome academic locutions as "in terms of" think they are being clever, if not highly sophisticated.

Language mavens come in various intensities of aggression. Some come as a recent graduates of the Gestapo school of language correction; one has only to read them to feel the leather glove sting across one's cheeks, the word schweinhund ringing in one's ears. Some come on as school masters, simply unable to understand why anyone would wish to split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition. Some come on as pussycats passing along to us their amazement at the wild and wayward curiosities of language, but always attempting to avoid seeming either formidable or forbidding.

My own favorite among the great language mavens is H. W. Fowler, whose tone I should describe as superior commonsensical. Here, for example, is the great man on those damnable split infinitives: "The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish." Such is Fowler's elevated superiority. Here is his commonsense: "We maintain, however, that a real split infinitive, though not desirable in itself, is preferable to either of two things, to real ambiguity and to patent artificiality." In other words, the Fowler line is, split away before writing anything stupid. But then he adds: "We will split infinitives sooner than be ambiguous or artificial; more than that, we will freely admit that sufficient recasting will get rid of any split infinitives without involving either of those faults, and yet reserve to ourselves the right of deciding in each case whether recasting is worthwhile." Superior, as I say, with a saving commonsense.

Robert Hartwell Fiske's desire — it informs his tone — is to bring us to our senses, to make us understand that "our knowledge of the world expands as our familiarity with words increases" and contracts when we fall back on the categories of ineptitude he has designated the Moribund Metaphor, the Overworked Word, the Plebeian Sentiment, all of which may be said — he, in fact, does say — "blunt our understanding and quash our creativity. They actually shield us from our thoughts and feelings, from any profound sense of ourselves." He is, au fond, a reformer who wants us to be the fully developed men and women we "were meant to be."

But Mr. Fiske's reforming impulse doesn't get in the way of his scorning clichés and trite sentiments. His lists of Overworked Words and of Torpid Terms — "off-putting," "operative," "prioritize," "pursuant to," qualify for the latter category — are there because they "keep us dumb and dispassionate. They elicit the least from us." He also suggests words that he thinks worthy of being revitalized — lovely words such as "bedizen," "bootless," "quondam" — while what he calls Withered Words ought, in the phrase of Paul Valery, the great French critic, to be turned over to the "numismaticians of language" to be put "away in their Cabinets, with many another verbal coin that has passed from circulation."

Robert Hartwell Fiske is a verbal trainer, the linguistic equivalent of the personal trainer one sees in gyms and health clubs. He wants us to trim the fat off our mental life; to knock off those Ineffectual Phrases, Inescapable Pairs, Infantile Phrases, and Wretched Redundancies. He has the relentlessness but none of the dogmatism of the drill sergeant.

Reformer, verbal trainer, drill sergeant, in the end Robert Hartwell Fiske is a fisher of souls, a catcher in the wry, a man who, through looking carefully at language, understands its potency and loathes its power, when misused, for making life more dreary than it ought to be. After noting the spread of flat and predictable language in the contemporary world, he exclaims: "No wonder so many of us feel barren or inconsolable, there are few words that inspire us, few words that thrill or overwhelm us. Persuasion has lost much of its sway, conviction, much of its claim."

Mr. Fiske is, in short, a fanatic, an extremist who apparently believes that clear language is our only hope for clear thought, that dull language deadens the mind and dampens the imagination, that a felicitous phrase is good news, that a strong prose style is a gift to be cultivated and cherished, that nothing, no, nothing in the world exceeds language in its significance to the human enterprise. As it happens, I believe in all this, too, which makes it an honor to salute a fellow fanatic and wish him and his book the great good fortune both deserve.

— Joseph Epstein

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