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Thursday, October 30, 2014   Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
October 2014, Vol. 16, No. 10 There are now   187   people reading Vocabula. ISSN 1542-7080
 Discuss This Article

As a writer and a retired teacher of composition I whole-heartedly agree with what you say. The summary paragraph beginning "Yet to neglect those papers ... is particularly fine. Thanks for stating so clearly the case for helping sutdents learn through practice the essentials of essay writing. — What do you say?

Three cheers for this excellent peroration to what has been a very stimulating and worthwhile debate, revealing, on both sides, intellectual swordsmanship of a high order. I have previously read Mark Halpern's book with profit and pleasure, and look forward to getting to Lane Greene's. Any readers of my own TVR offerings (i.e., both of you guys) will know that I incline more toward Halpern's position than Greene's. With that by way of caveat, and with no illusion that I will be settling anything, three quick points on Greene's argument here: 1) The WSJ evidence for a new meaning of "beg the question" is very impressive up to a point. Many readers will be fully convinced that the new meaning has permanently obliterated and replaced the old. But two other possibilities have not been fully considered: a) the current prevalence of the new meaning is a fad, overwhelming for the moment, but destined to die out in time; or b) the new meaning now coexists with the old, as happens with countless other words and expressions, and the meaning that applies in a particular instance will be determined by context and the speaker's evident intention. 2) Greene declares that "I know the language has not gone downhill" because "no language ever has or will." That statement in itself seems worth another 3-part debate perhaps, as there is so much to be said on both sides. It is in its way an admirable statement of principle, comparable to "All Men are Created Equal." But it flies in the face of much everday experience that teaches us that language is an extremely fragile body of convention, demanding constant cultural work (education, editing, style guides, the writing of dictionaries, debates like this one) if it is to go on functioning optimally. To the Ds, only what Steven Pinker calls "The Language Instinct" matters, and it will always set things to rights: we will find ways to communicate no matter what gabble we happen to be speaking. But Ps feel that the language ITSELF is a precious resource and achievement that can never easily be replaced, so that change, up to a point, is worth resisting: a project comparable to conservationism in regard to the natural world, perhaps. Standing at our great historical remove, it makes sense to observe, happily, that Latin never died out but just changed into a gaggle of successor languages. But such a perspective is perfectly useless if you are a Latin editor in 300 AD, struggling to come to terms with a host of ominous neologisms. Nor is it helpful if you are a third grade teacher in 2014, trying to decide what language habits you should encourage in your students early on in their long lives. (Pure Descriptivism could give no answer but "It doesn't matter.") 3) It is not just upper-class snobs who get annoyed by others' errors and want to correct them. Debates over usage arise quite spontaneously at every level of usage and education, and cry out for resolution somehow. Lane's observations about needlessly wounding rhetoric are for the most part well taken I think. But a good Prescriptivist (e.g., Garner) is no arbitrary aggressor, but a helpful judge and guide to difficulties he or she did not invent. — What do you say?

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?

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.

To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing
The essential guide to writing succinctly

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 Vocabula or W. W. Norton.

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Elegant English
Elegant English is exhilarating; it stirs our thoughts and feelings as ably as everyday English blurs them.

Available in November — The Second Edition of Elegant English
Elegant English -- Second Edition

As the superfluity of uninspired, careless, grammatically incorrect, slang-ridden English makes plain, elegant English is English rarely heard, English seldom seen.

The point of this book is to show that the language can, indeed, be spoken or written with grace and polish — qualities that much contemporary English is bereft of and could benefit from.

You can order Elegant English from Vocabula or Amazon.

Have you bought Elegant English? Have a comment to make?

Elegant English arrived a day or two ago. What a splendid book. I wish that you could send it to Will Strunk or E. B. White. I especially liked the quotes from Sinclair Lewis and E. B. White. I wish that Lewis could know that the word "dude" has come back into circulation. I wonder if it has changed its meaning. And I liked the part in White about backyards worth knowing about. — A. David Wunsch

... judicious and delightful. — Maurice Posada

I must have another copy of Elegant English, please! — Tom McGlinn

I have received my copy of Elegant English and I wanted to tell you how much I am enjoying the volume. Fabulous work. Truly insightful. I carry it with me and dip into it at various moments during the day. I have yet to be disappointed with anything that I have found in the work. — Steve Hill

Your book is all I wanted it to be, if not more. ... I emailed a friend of mine, told him about your book, urged him to procure a copy. ... I told him your book was a cornucopia of splendid prose. — Bruce Floyd

 In the October 2014 Vocabula
 The November 2014 issue is due online November 23.

by Richard Lederer

The largest category of last names began as descriptions of the work people did. In the telephone directories of the world's English-speaking cities, Smith, which means "worker," is the most popular last name by a large margin over its nearest competitors, Jones and Johnson, (both of which are patronymics, "son of John"). And it is no wonder when you consider that the village smith, who made and repaired all objects of metal, was the most important person in the community. Two common expressions that we inherit from the art of blackmithery are strike while the iron is hot and too many irons in the fire.

International variations on Smith include Smythe, Schmidt, Smed, Smitt, Faber, Ferrier, LeFebre, Ferraro, Kovacs, Manx, Goff, and Gough. Versions of Tailor (Taylor) include Schneider, Sarto, Sastre, Szabo, Kravitz, Hiatt, Portnoy, and Terzl. More ... 

by Bill Casselman

To paraphrase that well-known nursery song: if you go down in the woods today, you'll find a bounty of equivalence in wood words. Indeed, were I not a quasi-Quaker-like devotee of plain speech and down-home verbal modesty, I might say you will encounter a plethoric copiosity of sylvan synonymy.

Most pertly shall I treat these less than customary words for woodland, terms like spinney, frith or firth, bosk, weald, dingle and chaparral. If you know all these ligneous lexemes well, then, mes élèves, you may leave the classroom and play with utter abandon upon the margins of that sinkhole out in the recess yard.

The basic etymon here arose in the speech of Roman soldiers posted to defend Rome's northern Gallic territories, where they used a Late Street Latin adjective, the commonly spoken adjective meaning "wooden" or "made of wood," boscus, bosca, boscum. This is an example of Latin borrowing a term from a foreign language that was not Greek. Boscus is a Latinizing of a Frankish (a Germanic language) word for woods or forest, *busk, related to a later Germanic form, namely, our English word bush. More ... 

Once was a father who was so disappointed after reading his son's Who's Who account that he photocopied, amended, and mailed it to his slighted namesake. Junior, who had no illusions about his fame, measured the single-column entry, then measured his penis, and decided six inches was tolerable given that some he knew had seven or more.

Taking the measure of oneself in print with tongue in cheek or out is not easy. After Rome fell, it was not just difficult, it was well-nigh impossible for about a thousand years. One notable exception is Augustine's Confessions in Thirteen Books, which is not so much an autobiography as a lapidary description of how a rough gem came to be polished. Though later canonized, Augustine regretted that he could not recall any more of his sins than he did. But as the sun rose again on Western Europe about 1350, the Zeitgeist murmured, "Enough about you; it's time for me." Soon Benvenuto Cellini produced an autobiography in which he boasted of killing his enemies while working for the Pope. And soon the relatively flat, unsigned canvasses of Giotto, who left us one disputed self-portrait, deepened into the perspectival works of Albrecht Dürer, who left us at least seven, most signed. Actually they were initialed as if to say, "I don't need to spell it out; you know who I am." More ... 

There's no such thing as "12:00 A.M." or "12 P.M." Stay with me as I walk us through this.

The prefix "ante" means "before." (We're not talking "anti," which means "against.") "Ante," as in "antebellum mansion" or "antebellum plantation."

"Antebellum" as in "before the war," more specifically, the Civil War. So an antebellum mansion predates the Civil War. It antedates it, if you will. And this antebellum mansion might have an anteroom.

Now onto "diem," which is Latin for "day." You might get paid by the day, per diem. If you get a daily meal allowance, you're getting a per diem. "Carpe diem" (pronounced "car-pay dee-em") is the admonition to "Seize the day."

"Meri" means "mid. Thus, "meridiem" means "midday," in other words, noon. Meridiem = noon.

"P.M." stands for "post-meridiem," the time after noon. "Post," of course, means "after," as in "postseason play." More ... 

by Susan Lear Weisgrau

A minor quibble: I've stopped asking students how their recent trip was (usually a semester abroad). The two a words are all I get — amazing and awesome. I now know nothing about their trip, and I'd just as soon not see the pictures, if you please. Can't we come up with words that succinctly tell us about a trip that another has enjoyed?

I ask the students to describe one concrete thing that stays in the mind — the sweet smell of the plums in the market, the rocky climb to Masada or Machu Picchu. Tell me about one person you met who will stay in the memory. Talk about the senses. What did you hear? Touch? Taste? Smell? I like Rudyard Kipling's dictum, "The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it." More ... 

by Richard Lederer

Recently, Simone and I lost our dear friend, Bart. He was our gentle, companionable black lab mix, and his mighty heart beat for more than sixteen years. Despite rickety back legs and a battalion of tumors, he greeted each day with bright eyes, waggy tail, and unconditional trust.

Bart showed Simone and me our finest selves. He loved us more than he loved himself. I think of our fallen boy when I read what the romantic poet Lord Byron wrote on the tomb of his Newfoundland: "Near this spot are deposited the remains of one who possessed Beauty without Vanity, Strength without Insolence, Courage without Ferocity, and all the Virtues of Man, without his Vices. This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery if inscribed over human ashes, is but a just tribute to the Memory of Boatswain, a Dog." More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Doctoring Language
by David Isaacson

Doctors usually deserve to be called doctors at least as much as bricklayers deserve to be called bricklayers. Many of us, especially if we have worked hard to earn a professional degree, are upset when we think someone isn't paying us the respect our professional status deserves. Even in such an apparently egalitarian society as ours, titles have a lot of clout. If job and professional titles were not important, the word entitlement would not have moral as well as literal significance.

Most physicians expect people they don't know to address them as "Doctor" rather than with the over-familiar and potentially insulting "Doc." On the other hand, the average American hates what he perceives to be false gentility; we are very quick to castigate anyone who seems to be putting on airs. This sometimes leads to a frustrating dilemma in choosing the appropriate way to address a physician, psychologist, judge, professor, or other person whose profession entitles him or her to be called "Doctor," "Judge," or "Professor." Even if we don't think much of the person holding the degree, polite convention suggests that we honor the person's profession with the appropriate title. But, being Americans, we don't want to seem to kowtow to bigwigs. Unfortunately, this often admirable skepticism toward people in power can lead some of us, often unwittingly, to be too informal in the way we address people whose professional identity is hard to detach from their names. If we are too informal, we may insult people whose office, at least, deserves the respect associated with titles like Doctor, Judge, and Professor. 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 ... 

Free in Vocabula
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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Cliches. Once they were so original, so fresh. Now, everybody uses them, and if your work depends on lively prose, they're a problem. This book is the solution. Fiske takes you on a tour of the world of "dimwitticisms"; moribund metaphors, torpid terms and wretched redundancies that have all the impact of foam-rubber cannonballs. Fiske's comprehensive thesaurus lists hundreds of problem phrases along with witty commentary and useful synonyms.

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