Read Vocabula Books

Click here to buy a one-year subscription to Vocabula

Click here to sign up for The Daily Vocabula

Saturday, December 20, 2014   Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
October 2014, Vol. 16, No. 10 There are now   87   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 students 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?

  Next Page Back Issues
1999 | 2000 | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014

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 November 2014 Vocabula
 The December 2014 issue is due online December 21.

Pappus is the botanical name of the kind of air-borne, wind-blown seeds of plants like milkweed. Such aerial seeds in flotillas of tiny, silky parasols are dispersed by the winds of autumn. Filament-topped thistle-tufts and the velutinous and plumose pappi of dandelions belong also to this family of sky seeds.

The word pappus is a Latin form of an ancient Greek term for white down or fluff on certain seeds. Before that developed meaning in ancient Greek, πάππος, pappos was a word for grandfather. Gramp's white hair probably suggested this second meaning of a white-haired seed.

In form, πάππος is an affectionate diminutive in which the root *pa, "dad, father," is duplicated, for example πάππος, pappas, was a Greek child's word for father, much like papa in English and some European languages. More ... 

The rhythm we learned rolling in the womb
is a beat unlearned only in the tomb. — The Wordspinner

It is no small joy watching Ferlingetti
hunting rime on the Serengeti. — The Wordspinner

Wystan Hugh Auden claimed that "poetry makes nothing happen," and William Carlos Williams claimed that it contains information that, when absent, people die from. So which is it? After reading of Dr. Alain Bombard's brave experiment in which he drifted across the Atlantic with the trade winds but without food or water, I figured Dr. Williams had the upper hand. So I thought if I could just versify what Bombard learned on his voyage, I could achieve immortality and save lives simultaneously. And so I have written:

One may survive
a wreck at sea
if one starts to drink
a pint of brine per day for thirst
and a squirt of plankton
seined in a shirt.

I wanted to write this
that along the way
a poem may be said to have saved the day.

Perhaps this is immodest of me, but if these verses have any legs, it's not so much my substance as the style, the rhythm and rime, that will propel them into the future. More ... 

by Clark Elder Morrow

In 1774 an English Unitarian minister and moralist by the name of William Enfield published a book called The Speaker. It was a collection or anthology of what Enfield thought were the finest passages available in the English language — passages that would, he felt, teach elocution to the young. The book is a rich pastureland of nourishing tufts fit for the choicest grazing. It is a forerunner, of sorts, of Bill Bennett's The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories, in the sense that the vignettes, fabliaux, fables, speeches, and allegories found in Enfield are designed to inculcate basic morals as much as fine speech.

I will give you a sample of the kind of story found in The Speaker, and — since it is brief — I can share with you a tale in its entirety. What I would draw your attention to is the craft of the storytelling, and the concision of the language used throughout. There is hardly an extraneous word in the anecdote. You will notice, I hope, the balance and symmetry of the story, and how it could scarcely have been told in a more perfect manner. And because this particular story is representative of many of the others in the book, it tells us a great deal about what was thought of as eloquent in the late eighteenth century. I will dilate on that after the piece. It is called (somewhat awkwardly for we who come so long after Enfield) "The Old Man and His Ass": More ... 

Grammar is not everybody's idea of a good time. Thanks to the remarkable inefficiencies of the Chicago public school system, I was able to steer happily clear of the subject until going off to college. Until then the entirety of my grammatical knowledge included beginning a sentence with a capital letter and ending it with a period and never using the word ain't. Commas to me were so many gnats strewn upon sheets of printed paper, a colon was an internal organ, and a dash a synonym for just a touch of ketchup or mustard. As for the semicolon, my understanding of it was equal to my understanding of Mandarin Chinese, in which, for all I knew, it might have passed as a letter.

Part of the problem here is youth, which is often unprepared to receive knowledge that does not immediately excite. How, after all, could a male adolescent, hormones churning, care about a dangling participle when his own participle so seldom dangled? I could scarcely have told you what a split infinitive was because I had no notion of what an infinitive might be. If a sentence wished to run on, hey, that was fine by me. Ask me the meaning of the genitive, the ablative, or the gerundive and I would probably reply that it is not nice to mix with Mr. Inbetween. Grammar, fair to say, was not my long suit. More ... 

Culture and Society
Back to Top  Race: The New Prudery
by Mark Halpern
Everyone's a little bit racist — it's true
But everyone is just about as racist — as you!
If we could all just admit
That we are racist a little bit
And everyone stopped being so P.C.
Maybe we could live in — harmony!

— Song from the musical Avenue Q by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx

In June of this year, the owner of a professional basketball team had his privacy invaded, or somehow violated, and he was revealed as having made some ugly and offensive racial remarks to one of his intimates — and unintentionally, to the whole world. The reaction to this revelation was massive and instantaneous: the man was heavily fined by the commissioner of the NBA, was practically ordered to sell the team, and was all but read out of the human race by many columnists, commentators, and writers of letters-to-the-editor. But offensive and stupid as his remarks were, they were only remarks, and privately made (he thought) at that — they broke no bones. So it is instructive to compare the public reaction to his offense with that to the atrocities of all sorts taking place in the world every day — see The New York Times, any issue, passim — which do break bones, and massacre captives, and routinely rape, torture, and decapitate. These the public seem able to take in their stride, without outbursts of outrage and revenge-seeking. What the disparity between the public reaction to the two sorts of offense indicates, I think, is that racism is badly misunderstood by much of the public; I hope to shed some light here on the subject. More ... 

Thanksgiving is a delicious time of year to nibble on a spicy, meaty, juicy honey of a topic that I know you'll savor and relish. Feast your eyes on the veritable banquet of mushrooming food expressions that grace the table of our English language and season our tongue. As we chew the fat about the food-filled phrases that are packed like sardines and sandwiched into our everyday conversations, I'll sweeten the pot with some tidbits of food for thought guaranteed to whet your appetite.

I know what's eating you. I've heard through the grapevine that you don't give a fig because you think I'm nutty as a fruitcake; that you're fed up with me for biting off more than I can chew; that you want me to drop this subject like a hot potato because I'm a spoiled-rotten weenie; and that you're giving me the raspberry for asking you to swallow a cheesy, corny, mushy, saccharine, seedy, soupy, sugarcoated, syrupy topic that just isn't your cup of tea. More ... 

Principle: Always a noun. It means a guiding rule. A mnemonic (the memory device) is that "principle" and "rule" both end in "le."

Principal: A noun (sometimes). It means a leading figure, a partner, or a school head. Contract law and the law of agency discuss the relationship between a principal and agent. Criminal law discusses a principal in the first degree and second degree. Mnemonic: The principal is my pal.

Principal: An adjective (sometimes). It means leading, primary. Examples: A principal goal, the principal dissent in a Supreme Court case.

Principal: A noun (sometimes). Assets, money, capital. Example: A guideline of investing is: Spend the interest, but don't touch the principal. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Mashie-Niblicks of the World, Unite!
by Carey Harrison

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 ... 

Free in Vocabula
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 ...