Robert Hartwell Fiske's
Dictionary of Disagreeable English

Click here to read Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Disagreeable English.

Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Disagreeable English is a continuing project to compile a dictionary of misused, misspelled, and mispronounced words and phrases. Today's popular dictionaries often fail to define these words correctly or to distinguish between them; some dictionaries even maintain that one word means the same as another simply because people who do not know the correct meanings of the words confuse them. Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Disagreeable English — a supplement to whatever dictionary you own or use — is an attempt to combat this nonsense, to return meaning and distinction to the words we use.

Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Disagreeable English is free for Vocabula subscribers to read.

This will be an expanded version of Fiske's Dictionary of Disagreeable English; we will continually add entries and commentary to this online version.

Here are a few reviews of the book on which this online version is based:

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

(For) people who get a delicious kick out of getting incensed at loosey-goosey usage. — William Safire, New York Times

I recently purchased your Dictionary of Disagreeable English, a delightful little book with a somewhat depressing, big message. I find myself chuckling from page to page. Thanks for the entertainment! — Teresa Jones

We will continue to look to you for guidance and help in preserving the elegance of the English language. — Christel Marin

Please accept my congratulations on a wonderful and very useful book. — Frank Boccia

I'm enjoying the heck out of Disagreeable English. — Ron Harris

As a technical writer, I consult your Dictionary of Disagreeable English often, to "insure" that my documents don't fall "pray" to lazy language. — Tristan MacAvery

The Dictionary of Disagreeable English was one of my favorite Christmas presents this season. — Ralph Shelton

This reference book is excellent! Thank you, Robert Hartwell Fiske. — Gary B. Larson

As Fiske illustrates in his book, dictionaries are not what they used to be. Prominent dictionaries, including the vaunted Merriam Webster, have increasingly resorted to including nonstandard English, i.e. improper English, in their texts, all in the name of recording English as it is used, rather than how it should be used. Fiske attacks this concept of "descriptivist" as inexcusable. Although I admit that English does evolve, I am firmly in Fiske's camp — dictionaries should champion proper English, not popular English. After reading this book, you may find yourself taking up arms in Fiske's war as well. ... In The Dictionary of Disagreeable English, Fiske has compiled a rogue's gallery of painfully incorrect English. If you love acerbic sarcasm, you're in for a treat. Fiske's acidic commentary is frequently laugh out loud funny, as are the truly hideous examples of murdered grammar which Fiske has culled from journalists, celebrities, and politicians. As much fun as this book is to read, The Dictionary of Disagreeable English is also a handy, informative guide to avoiding the most common grammatical pitfalls. Fiske lists frequent misspellings, misuses (my favorite being "grisly" for "grizzly"), mispronunciations, and non existent words which are used with alarming frequency. ... If you are a fellow grammar geek/word nerd, you will adore this book. You will laugh at Fiske's biting wit and you will cry at some of the most foul atrocities that were committed against the English language in the examples provided. The Dictionary of Disagreeable English is the perfect way to both amuse and educate yourself. — Zella Kate Solomon


Laxicographers All

The slang-filled eleventh edition of "America's Best-Selling Dictionary," Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (Frederick C. Mish, editor in chief), does as much as, if not more than, the famously derided Webster's Third International Dictionary to discourage people from taking lexicographers seriously. "Laxicographers" all, the Merriam-Webster staff reminds us that dictionaries merely record how people use the language, not how it ought to be used. Some dictionaries, and certainly this new Merriam-Webster, actually promote illiteracy.

Several years ago, the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary ("America's Favorite Dictionary") caused a stir by deciding to include four-letter words in their product. Since the marketing strategy of including swear words has now been adopted by all dictionary makers, Merriam-Webster, apparently not knowing how else to distinguish its dictionary from competing ones that erode its marketing share, has decided to include a spate of slang words in its eleventh edition. There's nothing wrong with trying to distinguish their product, of course, but when it means tampering with the English language — by including idiotic slang and apparently omitting more useful words — it's reprehensible.

Merriam-Webster proclaims it has added some ten thousand words to its Collegiate Dictionary (though there is some reason to question the staff's ability to count well; see note 7). To do so, as a company spokesman admitted, "some words had to be kicked out" of the earlier edition. More interesting than this new edition would be a book of the words abandoned. Were they sesquipedalian words that few people use or know the meaning of; disyllabic words that few people use or know the meaning of? It's quite true: people are increasingly monosyllabic; after all, many people today prefer dis (included in the Collegiate tenth and eleventh) to disparage or disrespect or insult. And now, in the eleventh, there is also the equally preposterous def, another word, Merriam-Webster assures us, for excellent or cool (which among many younger people today, is also spelled kool and kewl, and though both words may have as much — or as little — currency as def, neither, curiously, Merriam-Webster saw fit to include in their compilation).

What word did Merriam-Webster decide to omit to make room for the all-important def? What word did they decide to omit to make room for funplex (an entertainment complex that includes facilities for various sports and games and often restaurants)? What word did they omit in order to add McJob (a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement)? What words did they omit in order to add headbanger (a musician who performs hard rock), dead presidents (United States currency in the form of paper bills), phat (highly attractive or gratifying), and Frankenfood (genetically engineered food)? Frankly, I rather like the coinage Frankenfood. But if people do not enjoy or feel comfortable eating genetically altered foods, which I suspect is likely, the word will be fleeting. Almost all slang, the people at Merriam-Webster should know, is ephemeral. Most of the slang added to the eleventh edition will never see the twelfth — or ought not to. Consider this paragraph from the Merriam-Webster website:

Many new words pass out of English as quickly as they entered it, the fad of teenagers grown to adulthood, the buzzwords of the business meetings past, the cast-off argot of technologies superceded [sic], the catchy phrases from advertisements long forgotten. It is likely that many such ephemeral coinages will never be entered in dictionaries, especially abridged dictionaries where space (or time or money or all of the above) are at a premium. That does not mean, however, that the words did not exist, simply that they did not endure.1

Odd that Mish and his minions would then agree to the addition of so much slang to the eleventh edition. (Odder still, perhaps, that slang like far-out and groovy, even though the popularity of these words has been much reduced over the years, are still entries in the Collegiate.2) But, as I say, it's a marketing strategy. It's not lexicography. These slang terms are not meant to improve the usefulness of their product; they're meant to help sell "America's Best-Selling Dictionary." Slang, Merriam-Webster believes, sells.

A Catalog of Confusions

Lexicographers are descriptivists, language liberals. The use of disinterested to mean uninterested does not displease a descriptivist. A prescriptivist, by contrast, is a language conservative, a person interested in maintaining standards and correctness in language use. To prescriptivists, disinterested in the sense of uninterested is the mark of uneducated people who do not know the distinction between the two words. And if there are enough uneducated people saying disinterested (and I'm afraid there are) when they mean uninterested or indifferent, lexicographers enter the definition into their dictionaries. Indeed, the distinction between these words has all but vanished owing largely to irresponsible writers and boneless lexicographers.3

Words, we are told, with the most citations are included in the Merriam-Webster dictionaries. Are then words with the fewest omitted, or in danger of being omitted? Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary includes alright,4 but what word was not included, or "kicked out," so that an inanity, an illiteracy like alright could be kept in? Boeotian is not defined in Merriam-Webster's; nor is diaskeuast defined; nor logogogue; nor nyctophobia; nor myriadigamous; nor ubiety; nor womanfully;5 nor hundreds of other words that a college student might find infinitely more useful than the entry, the misspelling and definition of, alright.

All it takes for a solecism to become standard English is people misusing or misspelling the word. And if enough people do so, lexicographers will enter the originally misused or misspelled word into their dictionaries, and descriptive linguists will embrace it as a further example of the evolution of English.

Merriam-Webster's laxicographers, further disaffecting careful writers and speakers, assign the meaning reluctant to the definition of reticent. Reticent means disinclined to speak; taciturn; quiet. Reluctant means disinclined to do something; unwilling; loath. Because some people mistakenly use reticent to mean reluctant, dictionaries now maintain reticent does mean reluctant.

There are many other examples of Merriam-Webster's inexcusably shoddy dictionary making. For example, according to the dictionary's editors:

accidently is as valid a spelling as accidentally

enormity means the same as enormousness

flaunt means the same as flout

fortuitous means the same as fortunate

get is pronounced GET or GIT

hone in means the same as home in

impactful is listed as an adjective of impact

incent means incentivize, itself ungainly

infer means the same as imply

less means the same as fewer

mischievous is pronounced MIS-chi-ves or mis-CHEE-vee-es

nuclear is pronounced NU-klee-er or NU-kya-ler

peruse means not only to examine carefully but to read over in a casual manner

predominate, a verb, is also an adjective meaning predominant

publically is a variant spelling of publicly

sherbert is as valid a spelling as sherbet

supercede is a variant spelling of supersede

tho is a variant spelling of though

transpire means the same as occur

where means that6

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, like other college dictionaries, actually promotes the misuse of the English language. Dictionaries are ever more a catalog of confusions, a list of illiteracies. Dictionaries acknowledge the errors that people make; by acknowledging them they, in effect, endorse them; by endorsing them, they are thought correct by the dull, duped public. Ultimately, all words will mean whatever we think they mean, indeed, whatever we want them to mean.

It's true that Merriam-Webster's, like other college dictionaries, does offer some usage notes,7 but "usage notes" is a misnomer for Merriam-Webster's are largely otiose. In virtually every instance, the editors at Merriam-Webster use these notes to underscore their descriptive bent and to rebut those who believe in maintaining standards of language use:

couple The adjective use of a couple, without of, has been called nonstandard, but it is not.

enormity Enormity, some people insist, is improperly used to denote large size. They insist on enormousness for this meaning, and would limit enormity to the meaning "great wickedness."

me Me is used in many constructions where strict grammarians prescribe I. This usage is not so much ungrammatical as indicative of the shrinking range of the nominative form.

nuclear Though disapproved of by many, pronunciations ending in \-kyah-ler\ have been found in widespread use among educated speakers including scientists, lawyers, professors, congressmen, U.S. cabinet members, and at least two U.S. presidents and one vice president.

so The intensive use of so is widely condemned in college handbooks, but is nonetheless standard.

Even a usage note that does uphold the differences in meanings between commonly misused words is written begrudgingly:

mitigate Mitigate is sometimes used as an intransitive where militate might be expected. Even though Faulkner used it and one critic thinks it should be called an American idiom, it is usually considered a mistake.

No Longer Harmless

Some months ago, in The Vocabula Review, I offered the following TVR Poll:

Dictionaries should be much more prescriptive, far less descriptive, than they now are.

• Yes! More than that, laxicographers promote the dissolution of the English language (and even society) with their misguided liberality: 19%

• Quite so. Dictionary compilers need to maintain, and perhaps even decide, distinctions between words; they need to guide us on matters of usage: 27%

• A mix of guidance and license is probably the best course — it's also the commonest course: 22%

• Lexicographers are necessarily descriptivist for their job is simply to record how people use the language: 28%

• Obviously, we all must bow to the definitions and spellings found in the dictionary: 4%

As you see, 68 percent of the respondents rejected the strong descriptivist idea of dictionary making. Still more heartening to me is that only 4 percent of the people who participated in this poll believe that the definitions and spellings a dictionary offers are those we are necessarily bound to. More than that, though, the new Merriam-Webster is a sign that dictionaries, at least as they are now being compiled, have outlived their usefulness. Dictionaries are no longer sacrosanct, no longer sources of unimpeachable information. Dictionaries are, indeed, no longer to be trusted.

That a president can ask Is our children learning? a basketball star can use the word conversate, a well-known college professor can say vociferous when he means voracious, and another can scold a student for using the word juggernaut because she believes it means jigaboo is disturbing. But these are precisely the sorts of errors, if enough people make them, that the staff at Merriam-Webster will one day include in their dictionaries:

child n, pl or sing children.

conversate to exchange thoughts or opinions in speech; to converse.

vociferous 1 marked by or given to vehement insistent outcry. 2 voracious.

juggernaut 1 a massive inexorable force, campaign , movement, or object that crushes whatever is in its path. 2 usu offensive jigaboo; black person.

Over the last forty and more years, linguists and lexicographers have conspired to transform an indispensable reference work into an increasingly useless, increasingly dangerous one. Lexicographers are no longer harmless.

Robert Hartwell Fiske


1. From the Merriam-Webster website: Passing Fancies. (This webpage, I discovered only in February 2004, has been removed from the Merriam-Webster website. Now what do you suppose this suggests — that Mish et al. do not know what they are doing?)

2. Merriam-Webster does publish a number of "specialty dictionaries," including Merriam-Webster's Biographical Dictionary, Merriam-Webster's Geographical Dictionary, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms, The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Quotations, but they have not published a dictionary of slang. Since the editors at Merriam-Webster are so enamored of slang, let them publish a specialty dictionary of it.

3. Lexicographers often try to justify the inclusion of solecisms like disinterested (in the sense of uninterested) in their dictionaries by citing examples from authors who have used these words solecistically. The obvious response to this is that authors — well known or not — are not immune from misusing and misspelling words and have forever done so. In the seventeenth century, disinterested did have the meaning "without interest or concern," but for the last three hundred years, the word has meant "impartial or without bias."

4. Though Merriam-Webster's is very likely the most descriptivist dictionary on the market today (see The Fiske Ranking of College Dictionaries), many of my criticisms of it are also applicable to other popular college dictionaries. The American Heritage College Dictionary, The Oxford American College Dictionary, Webster's New World College Dictionary, Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary, and Random House Webster's College Dictionary, for instance, all include, and thereby sanction, the solecism alright.

5. Boeotian: of or like Boeotia or its people, who were reputed to be dull and stupid; diaskeuast: someone who makes revisions; logogogue: one who legislates over the use of words; nyctophobia: an abnormal fear of darkness or nighttime; myriadigamous: pertaining to someone who marries all kinds; ubiety: the condition of being in a particular place; womanfully: with the characteristic grace, strength, or purposefulness of a woman.

6. Of course, it's in the financial interest of dictionary makers to record the least defensible of usages in the English language, for without ever-changing definitions — or as they would say, an evolving language — there would be less need for people to buy later editions of their product.

7. Merriam-Webster boasts that their eleventh edition contains "4,000 usage notes" though they may have miscounted. The book itself has 1,623 pages, so we might expect an average of two or three usage notes a page, but this is hardly what we find. Perhaps, by "usage notes," Merriam-Webster also means synonyms (or "syn" as they abbreviate the word). The editors at The American Heritage College Dictionary may count more carefully — or better know the meaning of the word usage — for they speak of their 300 usage notes, and the Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary advertises its 600 usage notes.

 You can order The Dictionary of Disagreeable English from Vocabula or Amazon.

We also welcome your suggestions of misused, misspelled, and mispronounced words and phrases. Email your suggestions to Robert Hartwell Fiske.

Click here to read Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Disagreeable English.

Note: We are still coding the dictionary. In a couple of weeks, this material will be better organized in a database with a search feature.

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