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Calendar    September 2015, Vol. 17, No. 9 Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher     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 September 2015 Vocabula
 The October 2015 issue is due online October 25.

Richard Lederer

This past June 6, American Pharoah outraced the field and the spellchecker to become the first horse in thirty-seven years to capture the Triple Crown. His epic feats of legerdemain have inspired me to maintain my equanimity by exploring how horses figure prominently in the figures of speech that canter — neigh, gallop! — through our English language.

I'm full of horse power and feeling my oats — champing (not chomping) at the bit and eager to give free rein to talking horse sense with you. So prick up your ears and listen to how often we compare people with horses — disk jockeys, coltish lasses with ponytails, dark horse candidates who are groomed to give the frontrunners, and old war horses a run for their money and work horses who, although saddled with problems of galloping inflation, can't wait to get back in harness at the old stamping (not stomping) ground.

Now, straight from the horse's mouth, here's a parade of horsey words and expressions stabled in our vocabulary. Learning the origins of these equine phrases will help you see that English is really a horse of a different color, and not a mare's nest: More ... 

William, by the grace of God etymologist, purveyor of verbal origins to the gentry, word jester clad in scribe's motley before the court of English, sole proprietary legatee of this website's residuum, redactor of a delectable word chronicle, composer of its manifold wealth and its singular repository of our tongue's word hoard ── to loyal readers, devoted fans, fawning toadies, lick-spittle flatterers, abject cringers, stooped fart-catchers, ass-kissing lackeys, butt-bussing adulators, suck-up flunkies, door-mat sycophants and sundry persons of life stations too low to be here denominated — greetings!

I thought it apt to begin with a parody of the opening lines of Magna Carta, since today we will examine the history and cognateness of words like card, carton, cartoon, chart, charter, carta, carte blanche, cartel and cartridge.

The Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh and The Duke of Cambridge visited Runnymede, site of the signing of the charter, on 15 June, 2015 to mark the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. More ... 

David Williams

Suddenly there it was, snapping at me again where I least expected it, in an obituary in the Washington Post for the great German novelist Gunter Gras. Is nothing sacred?

There I was reading the Washington Post's obituary for Gunter Grass, caught up happily in the safe world of literature and biography when this short paragraph swam up out of the depths and bit me in the butt:

The influential German weekly Der Spiegel said that Mr. Grass had "jumped the shark. His words have lost much of their weight."

I could only hope that millions of German readers of Der Spiegel shook their heads in wonder and moved on, mystified by another peculiar Americanism that had swum into their language.

How does one say "jump the shark" in German, anyhow? And what in the world does it mean? This had been bothering me for years, since 2010 when I read a column by Kathleen Parker in which she said the political season had "jumped the shark." A month later, Newsweek concluded a brief review of a TV show with, "Please, let this be the moment when this fad finally jumps the shark." No explanation needed apparently.

My students, who tend to be up on pop culture, knew the source. The 70s hit tv show Happy Days in a desperate bid to hold an audience, broadcast a scene in which Fonzie attempts to waterski over a caged shark. Fonzie survived; the show didn't. The moment, however, lives on in several different videos on youtube, for those who don't remember the 70s. Just type "jump the shark." More ... 

If the earliest advocates of clear discourse lived "BC," I am "BT," "Before Twitter." Nevertheless, I can fire off an email at light speed and begrudge those who check their mail but once a day. I once earned a merit badge in part by flashing a mirror in the sun, but I do not tweet. I can send you an SOS in Morse code, but you cannot page me. I telephone, snail mail, voice mail, Facebook, and text, but I do not Instagram. However, given that my first text was sent less than a year ago, I may yet be swept up by the "smart mob."

I may have inherited my communication skills from my father. I don't think they originated any earlier because "sittin' and rockin'" was my grandfathers' idea of communicating with the grandchildren. However, in 1927, Dad built a crystal radio set that he placed on the floor of the living room, the family "museum." He covered his device with a large metal bowl from his mother's kitchen, so he and up to three of his four siblings could press an ear to the bowl and listen to the Cardinals' games broadcast from across the river. Suddenly the museum had a new exhibit, and it was live.

Crossing the Rhine in 1945, Dad's self-taught skills may have saved his life and the lives of his men. Fortunately, he'd memorized the radio frequency the British were operating on that night, so when the "friendly" guns on the west bank lit up, he placed an urgent call to the battery commander and the firing ceased. In 1959, Dad called his Northern Virginia home from a radio telephone while flying over Turkey in a military plane. I thought that 5,000 mile transoceanic call was the squirrel's pearl until President Nixon, sitting in the Oval Office, conversed with two astronauts, standing on the moon.

Yet for all his communication skills, Dad fit the prototype defined by Hans Jurgens: after eight years of marriage, the average Western couple reaches a state of "almost total speechlessness." I should have suspected my parents' stalemate, for when I telephoned home and Dad answered, he'd often say, "Hi, Skip — let me get your mother." The truth dawned when Mother lay in bed following a stroke, and I flew to Arizona for eleven days to see her for the last time. Once as Dad and I were approaching her hospital room, he said, "You speak to her today; you know what to say." I was shocked that after sixty years of marriage any husband didn't know what to say. More ... 

Clark Elder Morrow

Genius (or at least the public recognition of it) is not just 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration — it's also 100 percent luck. What I mean is that the appearance of your work in front of the eyes and ears of other people can be an entirely haphazard, chancy sort of thing. From manuscript to editor (or researcher, or scholar), from editor to public, is a road fraught with a thousand mishaps and roadblocks. And who is to say that genius has always maneuvered that road with success? We've heard of "many a mute inglorious Milton" who lies unacknowledged in a neglected graveyard, but how many of the acknowledged Miltons in the past have managed to get all their masterworks into the hands of their admirers? I have collected a few instances that just might demonstrate how terrifying the accidents of history can be.

My favorite example is the case of Mozart's piano concertos. When he died in December of 1791, Mozart had published just 7 of his 23 piano concertos — those unpublished included the greatest (the D minor K 466 through the C major K 503) — all irreplaceable masterpieces. Following his death, the unpublished works were lying around his apartment in manuscript. His wife, Constanze, found herself widowed, impoverished, and without her erstwhile source of income. It is one of the miracles of musical history that she did not simply burn the manuscripts in the grate to keep warm. Some of the autographs had been lying around, or had been passed from hand to hand among Mozart's admirers, for more than a decade. It would have been the simplest thing in the world for their loose leaves to have found themselves scattered about the world, or their notes to have become smudged and indecipherable. Instead — and to the eternal gratitude of thousands of the unborn — Constanze gathered them all up (with two exceptions) and sold them in 1799 to a man named André, who had fairly recently established a publishing concern in Vienna. If André; had not been interested in these relatively unknown pieces, they probably would have been eaten away by the accidents and mishaps of time. And — to make the hair stand up even further on the necks of music lovers everywhere — not only the piano concertos, but Mozart's woodwind concertos, his sinfonie concertanti, and his violin concertos were all unpublished at his death, leading a very precarious life in the dusty trunks and cabinets of the Master. Music historian Friedrich Blume says the string quintets were in jeopardy as well, which is just too much to contemplate. (Incidentally, Mozart was extraordinarily unfortunate in this respect: Haydn's works from the 1770s onward were almost all published in his lifetime, and most of Beethoven's were from the age of 12!) More ... 

Diagramming sentences is one of those lost skills, like darning socks or playing the sackbut, that no one seems to miss. Invented, or at least codified, in an 1877 text called Higher Lessons in English by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg, it swept through American public schools like a measles germ, embraced by teachers as the way to reform students who were engaged in (to take Henry Higgins slightly out of context) "the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue." By promoting the beautifully logical rules of syntax, diagramming would root out evils like "it's me" and "I ain't got none," until everyone wrote like Ralph Waldo Emerson, or at least James Fenimore Cooper.

Even in my own youth, many years after 1877, diagramming was serious business. I learned it in the sixth grade from Sister Bernadette. I can still see her: a tiny nun with a sharp pink nose, confidently drawing a dead-straight horizontal line like a highway across the blackboard, flourishing her chalk in the air at the end of it, her veil flipping out behind her as she turned back to the class. "We begin," she said, "with a straight line." And then, in her firm and saintly script, she put words on the line, a noun and a verb — probably something like dog barked. Between the words she drew a short vertical slash, bisecting the line. Then she made a road that forked off at an angle — a short country lane under the word dog — and on it she wrote The. More ... 

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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.

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