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  Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
March 2015, Vol. 17, No. 3 ISSN 1542-7080
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The Dictionary of Unendurable English

Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English

Today's popular dictionaries often fail to define 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 Unendurable 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.

You can order The Dictionary of Unendurable English from Simon & Schuster or Amazon or elsewhere.

To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing

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

Elegant English: Second Edition

Elegant English

This is a Vocabula Book. As the superfluity of uninspired, careless, grammatically incorrect, slang-ridden English makes plain, elegant English is English rarely heard, English seldom seen. Countless occasions where elegant English might have been used — indeed, ought to have been used — by a president or politician, an author or other notable, have passed with bland, if not bumbling, speech or writing. The point of this book is to show that the language can be spoken or written with grace and polish — qualities that much contemporary English is bereft of and could benefit from. Elegant English is exhilarating; it stirs our thoughts and feelings as ably as everyday English blurs them.

You can order Elegant English from Vocabula or Amazon.

The Dimwit's Dictionary: Fourth Edition

 The Dimwit's Dictionary

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.

You can order The Dimwit's Dictionary from Vocabula.

 In the March 2015 Vocabula
 The April 2015 issue is due online April 19.

Bill Casselman

One of the adjectives most beloved of intellectual snobs, namely, "highbrow," originated in the utterly discredited quackery of phrenology or reading the bumps on a person's head as a method of analyzing personality, talent, and intelligence.

The bigger the bump near the "talking surface of the skull," the more adept one was at speech and words and writing. Try as I may, I keep feeling the bumps on my head but am able to locate only the evidence of the time I fell off the back porch during an unwise and immoderate imbibition of plum wine. Phrenology was a fallacious fad that reached the zenith of its popularity in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

"Highbrow" began as a simple descriptor of a human physical reality, a brow that was high. But in phrenology the incorrect belief was that a high forehead denoted extra brain material packed into that high forehead. We even know the ding-a-ling who made the word highbrow a part of our English language. It began in 1902 when a reporter for the Baltimore Sun newspaper, Will Irvin, began using the notion that high foreheads betokened deep thoughts.

What balderdash, piffle, and nincompoopery! Phrenology bears the same intellectual heft as palmistry or divination of the future by reading the cooked entrails of sacred hamsters. A high forehead could just as well be a symptom of a difficult birth during which the mother's narrow birth canal made little Jimmy emerge with a skull reminiscent of a cucumber, hardly a sign that Mensa would be telephoning any time soon. Or Wee Jimmy might be merely the scion of a long line of dingbat coneheads. More ... 

Culture and Society
Back to Top  Tortured Arguments
John Kilgore
I was waterboarded in SERE school .... Survival, Escape, Resistance, Evasion. It was required, prior to going into the combat zone ... It IS torture.... Let me put it this way: you give me a water board, Dick Cheney, and half an hour, and I'll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders. — Jesse Ventura, author, actor, pro wrestler, Navy Seal, former governor of Minnesota.

There is no requirement to refute an argument that has not been made in good faith. One is entitled to dismiss it, perhaps with mockery. — The Philosopher's Field Manual, 3rd ed. (Charleston, IL: Soybean State UP, 1984).

Does torture "work"? Of course it does, you fool, you fraud, how could it not? I am no expert on life in other galaxies; but in this one, a basic law is that pain overpowers everything: love, hate, loyalty, honor, good intentions, reason, conscience, anger, iron discipline and long training, religious fanaticism, you name it. If you insist on repeating your foolish mantra, "torture doesn't work," then, in the spirit of Jesse Ventura on The Larry King Show, deploring Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib (not, as might seem more logical, defending them), I propose the following test. Have your friends deliver you to me, bound and hooded, and let me have a screwdriver, a hammer, or a pair of pliers (I will let you choose). Give me five minutes. If I do not succeed in making you scream, "Yes, torture works!" — well, I will admit that I am completely wrong and you are completely right, will swear never to raise the subject again, and will admire you deeply for the rest of my life. I'm not worried about losing this bet, though.

Ridiculous, you say. Completely unfair argument. Given the right incentive (the life of a loved one in the balance; the danger of the launch codes falling into the hands of Dr. Foul) you know you could withstand whatever I am going to do with my screwdriver or hammer or pliers. But why on earth should you have to, merely to win an argument?

1. How Many University Presidents Does It Take to Make Sense?

On January 14, 2005, Lawrence Summers, then President of Harvard University, delivered an address in which he offered conjectures about the scarcity of women in scientific work, conjectures that caused so much controversy that he soon afterwards resigned the presidency. Shortly after his address, three presidents of other leading American universities — Susan Hockfield of MIT, John Hennessy of Stanford, and Shirley Tilghman of Princeton — issued a joint statement on Summers' remarks. That statement is reproduced below, together with my interspersed comments on it. To make it easy to distinguish my comments from the text, they are preceded by [MH].

President Lawrence Summers' recent comments about possible causes of the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering have generated extensive debate and discussion — much of which has had the untoward effect of shifting the focus of the debate to history rather than to the future.

[MH]: You begin with a grossly question-begging term: how are women suffering from "underrepresentation"? What has the idea of representation got to do with the subject under discussion? Are you trying to turn the question of women in science into one about political rights and suffrage, as if women are being disenfranchised because not present in science in numbers equal to men? (I assume here that women will continue to be "underrepresented" in your view if less than half of American scientists and engineers are women — if you have some other ratio in mind, you fail to mention it.) You offer your reader no reason to believe that in a completely fair world, women would be as numerous as men in those roles. And why was Summers' conjectures about the reason for women's small numbers in science "untoward"? The past is something we know something about, while we know nothing of the future — not even whether there is to be a future. When controversialists urge us to ignore the past, we suspect — usually correctly — that there are some facts they want us to ignore. Or are you taking the Marxist position that our task is not to interpret the world, but to change it?

The question we must ask as a society is not "can women excel in math, science and engineering?" — Marie Curie exploded that myth a century ago — but "how can we encourage more women with exceptional abilities to pursue careers in these fields?" Extensive research on the abilities and representation of males and females in science and mathematics has identified the need to address important cultural and societal factors. Speculation that "innate differences" may be a significant cause of underrepresentation by women in science and engineering may rejuvenate old myths and reinforce negative stereotypes and biases. More ... 

It's possible, I suppose, that a few of you might find my poor title a bit — inflammatory? I beg — not your pardon — but a moment's indulgence so I may state my case. It was a particular train of thought that led to that title, not the title that prompted the supporting line of logic. Follow, if you will, this train of thought as it makes its shuddering and shambling way, not without danger of frequent derailings.

An element of buffoonery is always introduced as soon as someone puts on a mask, no matter how sophisticated and dignified that mask may be. To disguise oneself or anything else is to slip in (many times unawares) a note of mockery, of ridicule, of something being taken down a peg or two. But who or what is being taken down? The masquerader, of course. In a very attenuated and recondite sense, to hide something is to berate or degrade it, admittedly to an infinitesimal degree, because the act of hiding (whether behind a mask or by removal) seems to acknowledge some insufficiency in the object hidden.

The objection to this is that quite valuable items are often hidden — items that, far from lacking in any respect, are so replete with value that they must be protected. And certainly precious things will be hidden. But even that conveys a slight sense of their being ever so minutely shameful — of their needing a measure of protection out of all proportion to other invaluable objects (such as Redwood trees or stately mansions, which exult openly and seem to glory in being cynosures). Stashing the best jewels in an underground vault testifies, on some level, to their being a little pathetic — unable as they are to flourish and shine in the bright light of open day. There is always a whiff of the neurotic and weak about a closeted beauty, whether the beauty is Norma Desmond or Emily Dickinson.

Richard Lederer

When people misuse words in an illiterate but humorous manner, we call the result a malapropism. The word echoes the name of Mrs. Malaprop (from the French mal a propos, "not appropriate"), a character who first strode the stage in 1775 in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's comedy The Rivals. Mrs. Malaprop was a garrulous "old weather-beaten she dragon" who took special pride in her use of the King's English but who, all the same, unfailingly mangled big words: "Sure, if I reprehend anything in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!" She meant, of course, that if she comprehended anything, it was a nice arrangement of epithets.

From The Rivals, here are some more of Mrs. M's most malapropriate malapropisms:

• Then, sir, she should have a supercilious knowledge in account; — and as she grew up, I should have her instructed in geometry, that she might know something of the contagious countries.

• She's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile. More ... 

Ken Bresler

The adjective "housekeeping" in a legal context refers "to administrative, logistical, or minor procedural rules or acts to tidy up matters or keep them tidy, such as language, which are not substantive, adjudicative, or intended to affect or grant rights." That’s from my online dictionary, Bresler’s Law Dictionary at

An indication of the inconsequential nature of housekeeping is one appellate court's non-binding language: A "recused judge can enter ‘housekeeping' orders until a successor judge is assigned...." Moody v. Simmons, 858 F. 2d 137, 138 (3rd Cir. 1988)(dictum).

One state's high court categorized communications with a jury into substantive, such as a judge's supplemental instruction on the law; administrative, such a judge's order to continue deliberating; and housekeeping, such as a court order taking meal orders. People v. France, 436 Mich. 138, 143–44 (1990). More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Satire: Tool of the Surgeon
Jim Kittle

The difference between satire and sarcasm is the difference between surgery and butchery. — Edward Nichols

I took English 101 from Ed Nichols in the fall semester of 1964, and it was there, in my college freshman year, that I learned what satire was. Today, nearly forty years later, I regularly hear the term misused, and I can only surmise that, somehow, Americans have confused the art of satire with something else. I expect confusion in my classes, at least until we've studied satire, but I have heard parody, even in such lofty places as National Public Radio, introduced as satire. The standards of our English classes seem to have slipped over the years — even for the elite people of the national media who make their living as writers.

Parody is not the only thing that is confused with satire — sarcasm is another relative of satire that can be. The reason for the confusion between these forms is that all three poke fun at people. Their difference is a subtle one and lies mainly in the motivation behind the jests and jibes.

The intent behind parody, the kind of humor created by Weird Al Yankovic, is just to have fun — to make people laugh. There is nothing wrong with parody because it lacks any intent to do harm. Even so, after chuckling over the joke, there is nothing meaty left. Parody has no substance, and the parodist will not live long into literary history. Weird Al will fade away, just as has Ben Colder, Homer & Jethro, and Spike Jones. Their humor was fun, but since it has no substance — no depth — it has been virtually forgotten. More ... 

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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.

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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.

 Featured Essays

Highbrow — Bill Casselman

Tortured Arguments — John Kilgore

Three Variations on a Hymn to Reason — Mark Halpern

"Transvestite" and "Travesty": The Connection — Clark Elder Morrow

Modern-Day Malapropisms — Richard Lederer

Legal Housekeeping — Ken Bresler

Vocabula Revisited: Satire: Tool of the Surgeon — Jim Kittle

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