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The Vocabula Review

Ask Fiske

Available for syndication

I had another very enjoyable session with your column this afternoon. It's as addictive as popcorn. Keep it up! — John Kilgore

Wow! What a prompt reply to my grammatical question! Thank you very much! I have enjoyed reading over your column and think that this must be a great resource for students. — Vicki Gewe

Thanks Mr. Fiske. That was fast! I'm impressed. Donnie Duchin

I loved the article ("Ask Fiske — Thirty Questions"). I do not recall seeing it before. Is it new? Will there be more? — Richard Flynn

1. I am in the habit of using & instead of and. Does this meet with your approval, and if not, why not? — A. Hardy

Use an ampersand (&) only in proper names — business names, book titles, and the like — that use it themselves; never use it in place of the word and. Aside from the hurried, the only people inclined to use & in place of and are those who have scant sense of self and scant sense of style, and believe using & somehow swells them both.

• The complete first & second season is available now on a DVD 4-volume set.

• The Goldman Sachs Foundation announces $2.5 million in grants for international education projects in Europe, Africa, Asia & South America.

• Read about our responsibilities and find passport information, visa regulations, travel tips, & voting procedures.

• My idea is also to turn you on to writers' efforts, flaws & fortes, & my interviews reveal some of the passion, adventures & everyday labor that goes into making a book to happen.

2. Is it not true that there are more words in the English language than in any other language? And isn't it also true that a great part of any intelligence test depends upon ones understanding of words. Doesn't it stand to reason then that an individual absorbed in the English language would have a greater chance of enhancing his/her intelligence? Then why doesn't the United States concentrate on teaching English, instead of English and Spanish? — John King

It could very well be that the English language has more words than any other; certainly we embrace almost any imaginable mix of phonemes; that is, we seldom turn a word away. Fleeting though some of our newer words are, and forgotten though some of the older ones, we still manage a sizeable inventory of, perhaps, some one million words.

Of those million words, the average person may be familiar with 10,000, and uses fewer than that.

There are various types of intelligence; some intelligence is based on our ability to think well and clearly, which does depend, in large part, on our warehouse of words. Other kinds of intelligence depend on other things: numerical relationships or tonality and music or emotions and empathy or physical prowess, for example.

The English language strives to describe the world we are cognizant of; the Komo language strives to describe its known world. Though the world is ever smaller and much of our experience of it has been homogenized through print and electronic media, there may be words in the Komo language that we who speak English have no comparable word for. These words that we do not know — whether Komo or Spanish or, yes, English — are in fact parts of the world that we do not see. The English language does not provide the complete view or sole understanding of the world.

As for why the United States allows or encourages Spanish-language instruction instead of, I think you are suggesting, an "English-only" posture, it is a matter of ethics and good citizenship.

3. In a recent NPR report on attitudes toward head coverings in Muslim countries, the reporter used the phrase "the separation of Mosque and state." I take the reporter to intend an analogous phrase to the expression "the separation of church and state" as used in the U.S. However, in the latter usage, both church and state are institutions. Mosque, according to my understanding, refers to a building, not the religious institutions of a people group. Is the phrase "the separation of Mosque and state" properly analogous to "the separation of church and state"? — Andrew Henderson

It's not strictly analogous, but it also need not be. No one has trouble understanding the reporter's remark or reference. Even so, it is a troubling phrase, especially if used in a written report or article.

When idioms, metaphors, and other ready-made expressions — dimwitticisms I have called them — become stale, we often alter them in a way such as this. As the reporter used Mosque instead of church, so do many other writers substitute one word in a familiar phrase for another:

• Perris found itself stuck between a rock and a fire Wednesday night at Temecula Valley.

• While this may seem like putting the pirate ship before the horse, "Pirates" producer Jerry Bruckheimer has designs on filming the second and third installments simultaneously.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of fruit.

Democracy, it would seem, is only skin-deep; scratch the surface — draw blood — and it withers quickly.

• We tied the second ranked team, but that's the way the puck bounces sometimes.

Countless examples of this sort of writing can be found, and I doubt whether many are strictly analogous to the wording in the original expression.

This, to take it further, is what it is to write well and wittily today. Though these scribes may think their writing is clever and entertaining, it is dull and tiresome.

4. Could you tell me something about the word traipse? We were wondering how it got the negative connotation? Could it be connected to trespass? — Janice Wilson

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, trapes (later, traipse) first was:

1. an opprobrious name for a woman or girl slovenly in person or habits.

2. an act or course of trapesing; a tiresome or disagreeable tramp.

Later, the word evidently came to mean:

1. to walk in a trailing or untidy way; to walk or trail through the mud; to walk with the dress trailing or bedraggled; to walk about needlessly or aimlessly (usually said of a woman or child).

2. to walk or tramp about.

Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition offers this:

traipse, trapes: v. a to walk; trudge. b to wander or flaunt about idly; to gad. n. a a slattern. b a fatiguing walk ; a long dusty or muddy tramp. c a gadabout.

Among the six dictionaries in the FRCD, only The Oxford American College Dictionary mentions the archaic sense of traipse, a slovenly woman. And only The American Heritage College Dictionary suggests traipse may have derived from trespass.

5. Do you favor email or e-mail? I see both usages, and it seems to me that the former, non-hyphenated usage is more common. To me the hyphenation makes better logical sense, however, since the e is not a prefix in the usual sense, but the abbreviation of an entire, long word.

And I know the New Yorker, to cite one authoritative publication, still keeps the hyphen. — J. K.

This is largely a matter of house style. The editors at the New Yorker may have decided to use e-mail, but Wired apparently prefers email.

The Chicago Manual of Style, always a few years behind and struggling hopefully for modernity, also recommends e-mail. But since they, for years, have recommended that their readers use the spellings found in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, I suspect the manual will fall into hopeless desuetude.

I prefer email for at least two reasons:

Email is as understandable as e-mail; that is, very few people misunderstand what the nonhyphenated word means or would pronounce it EM-ail.

• Many compound words evolve from two words to a hyphenated word to a single word: electronic mail, e-mail, email. By god, the language does evolve.

I prefer email to e-mail, and I find no fault with ebusiness, ebooks, and ecommerce. Yet I may not be so eager to write eindustry or emanufacturing; here, using the hyphens seems necessary, for without them, the words may not be immediately readable.

Four of the six dictionaries in the FRCD list the word as e-mail (email) — that is, they prefer the hyphenated spelling but allow the nonhyphenated. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary and Webster's New World College Dictionary allow e-mail only; neither mentions the spelling email, which to my mind, further illustrates how dictionaries are a hotchpotch of inconsistencies and absurdities.

Electronic mail, of course, is not alone in its evolution to becoming one word. Many words have changed similarly. For instance, lowercase was initially two words (the bottom or lower drawer in a cabinet that housed the small letters of metal type in a compositor's shop). Lower case became lower-case, became lowercase.

In the computer field, where a wholly unknown term may be widely known within months, we have data base, data-base, database, and on line, on-line, online, to name but two that have evolved speedily.

On Dimwitticisms

Available for syndication

1. actively The popular use of actively suggests that any verb not affixed to it is feckless.

We cannot simply consider an idea lest we be accused of not thinking; we cannot simply engage in a pursuit lest we be accused of not trying; we cannot simply participate in a conversation lest we be accused of not speaking. • Another possibility is actively being considered by the administration: the use of force. DELETE actively. • The core group of ASC founders worried that the membership was restricted too narrowly to policing, so they actively encouraged others to participate. DELETE actively. • I have no intention of mailing a second letter to anyone who does not actively show an interest in becoming part of my collectors club. DELETE actively. • Police are actively searching for the killer, actively looking in all areas, and actively examining all the evidence. DELETE actively. • Not only do many people not enjoy speaking in public, they actively dislike and even fear it. DELETE actively. • Seek them out actively. DELETE actively. • Right now we're not actively aware of what her true motivation was. DELETE actively.

Here is an example of just how absurd our fixation on actively has become: • Among the new features of WSF2 R3.3 that he is actively looking forward to is the statistical information that can be provided through SMF records. DELETE actively.

2. a good read This is a hideous expression that only the very badly read — those, that is, who read merely to be entertained — could possibly verbalize. The people who use this phrase are the people who read best-selling authors.

3. (for) a laugh This expression is spoken by people who tally their giggles and count their guffaws, people who value numbers and sums more than they do words and concepts, people who consider laughter a commodity and life a comedy.

4. alive and kicking One of the consequences of endlessly saying and hearing and writing and reading formulaic phrases is that, eventually, people do become weary of them.

But instead of expressing themselves differently — more eloquently or more inventively, perhaps — people will simply substitute one word in these selfsame formulas for another.

Thus, along with alive and kicking, there is, for instance, alive and well and even alive and thriving; along with a thing of the past, there is a phenomenon of the past; along with business as usual, there is politics as usual and life as usual; along with mover and shaker, there is mover and shaper; along with neck of the woods, there is the noisome portion of the earth; along with needs and wants, there is needs and desires; along with in no way, there is in no way, shape, or form and the preposterous in no way, shape, form, or fashion; along with remedy the situation, there is rectify the situation; along with out the window, there is out the door; and along with nothing could be further from the truth, there is, incomprehensibly, nothing could be further from the actual facts.

Would that it ended here, but there are also far too many people who begin with a hackneyed phrase and then transmogrify it into an ever-so-silly, garish one.

Thus, between a rock and a hard place becomes: • In the past decade, newspaper publishers have feet squeezed between the Net and a hard place. • The Al Queda fighters are between an anvil and a hammer.

From bad to worse becomes: • Moscow now has about 90 days to try to keep a bad situation from collapsing into something infinitely worse.

Doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell becomes: • There is nobody on Russia's political horizon who embraces Mr. Yeltsin's westernized brand of economic policy and has a Siberian snowball's chance of winning a presidential election.

An accident waiting to happen becomes: • The holidays are a cornucopia of awkward moments waiting to happen.

Not with a bang but with a whimper becomes: • This week started out with a bang and ended with a whimper for bank stocks. • Hurricane Bonnie hit New England with a whimper, not a bang. • After beginning my career there with a bang, I cannot end with a whimper. • It could end with a whimper or a wallop.

Walk softly and carry a big stick becomes: • The guiding principle in foreign policy of this administration seems to be speak loudly and carry a twig.

Snatch victory from the jaws of defeat becomes: • In the end, Republicans will simply snatch defeat from the jaws of victory if they successfully oust a president they loathe but lose their majorities in both houses of Congress as a result.

Light at the end of the tunnel becomes: • Is it possible that we're actually seeing a light at the end of Star Trek's TV continuum?

Not worth the paper it's written (printed) on becomes: • Consumers can put their trust in a few of these Web site seals, but in many cases they aren't worth the pixels that they're painted with.

Going to hell in a hand basket becomes: • The good news, culturally speaking, is that if we're going to Hell in a Saks shopping bag, at least we are going there slowly.

People propagate these monstrosities. Equally distressing is that, in doing so, they think they are being clever and inventive. Among pedestrian people, this is what it means to be thoughtful, this is what it means to be creative.

Is it any wonder that speech is so often soporific, writing so often wearisome?

5. a living hell The force and colorfulness of this metaphor is no longer evident. An uncommonly used word — such as chthonic, insupportable, plutonic, sulfurous, stygian, or tartarean — is often more potent and captivating than a commonly used metaphor.

6. an amazing person An amazing person is so only in the eyes of another who, we can be confident, is not.

7. (it's) a nightmare How impoverished our imaginations are. Nightmares ought to be terrifying, but this metaphor — so popular has it become — is hopelessly tame. It was a nightmare instills in us as little compassion as it does interest; it makes us yawn rather than yell. No longer is there terror to it.

Though an incident might well be agonizing, alarming, appalling, awful, disgusting, disquieting, distressing, disturbing, dreadful, excruciating, frightening, frightful, ghastly, grisly, gruesome, harrowing, hideous, horrendous, horrible, horrid, horrific, horrifying, monstrous, nauseating, nightmareish, petrifying, repellent, repulsive, revolting, shocking, sickening, terrifying, tormenting, traumatic, saying it was a nightmare makes it sound as though it were no more than an annoyance, no more than a mere inconvenience.

It was a nightmare, the metaphor, has hardly the force of a sweet dream.

Altogether remarkable about this expression is that people use it to describe something that tormented or terrified them. They describe an extraordinary event with an ordinary phrase. How can we not doubt the sincerity of their words, the terror of their experience? Is this then what it is to be human — using platitudes to express what affects us most deeply?

8. (a) piece of cake Evoking only the silliest of images, a piece of cake ought to tell us that those who use it have nothing serious to say, and perhaps little thoughtful to think. [[ADD]]

• Choosing the menu for the wedding reception isn't always a piece of cake. REPLACE WITH easy. • Setting up a Palm device to use GoType! is a piece of cake. REPLACE WITH simplicity itself. • At my high school, preparing for college is not a piece of cake. REPLACE WITH effortless.

9. (take) appropriate (corrective) action This ponderousness phrase will stem one person's drive while it saps another's desire. From such a phrase, only dull-minded deeds and uninspired acts may result, which is quite likely all that the user of it, bureaucrat he routinely is, either wishes for or can imagine.

10. (like) a (an emotional) roller-coaster (ride) Without relentless amusement, endless diversions, people might manage to speak tolerably well. As it is, the need to be entertained so overcomes us that we can speak in little but laughable images. The expression (like) a (an emotional) roller-coaster (ride), one such image, results from and gives rise to only carnival-like conversation, sideshow prose.

• The progression of feline CRF has been compared to an emotional roller coaster ride by those who have gone through it, and, indeed it is. • It's an emotional roller coaster that doesn't end until the final scene, and there aren't a lot of roles that can be described that way. • It has been an emotional roller coaster for members of the Marbledale Baptist Church, two years ago fire destroyed the house of worship.

11. avid reader An avid reader suggests someone who reads little more than mysteries, gothic novels, and self-help books. These are people whose avidity is more for how many books they read than it is for any meaning in books — people, that is, who prefer counting to reading.

• The book festival, sponsored by the Library of Congress and hosted by first lady Laura Bush, an avid reader and former librarian, was created to promote literacy and a love of books. • She's also an avid reader and enjoys hanging out at the beach. • I am an avid reader, and I've read thousands of books.

12. best-selling author Best-selling authors, of course, are often responsible for the worst written books.

13. celebrity As the most popular books are sometimes the least worthy of being read, so the most public people are sometimes the least worthy of being known.

If we must acknowledge these creatures — these celebrities — let us better understand them for who they are. All dictionary definitions of celebrity should include: 1. a mediocrity; a vulgarian; a coxcomb. 2. a scantly talented person who through shameless self-aggrandizement and utter inanity becomes widely known. 3. a repellent person.

If you are possibly interested in buying the syndication rights to "Ask Fiske" or "On Dimwitticisms" or some other feature of The Vocabula Review, let us know.

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