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  Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
April 2015, Vol. 17, No. 4 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 April 2015 Vocabula
 The May 2015 issue is due online May 24.

In previous TVR essays, such as my recent serial debate with Lane Greene, and my Prescriptivist Manifesto [henceforth PM], and in my book Language & Human Nature [L&HN], I've remarked that virtually every publishing season since the mid-twentieth century has seen the publication of at least one attack on Prescriptivism — each one exactly like the last, down to the last error of fact, fault in reasoning, and failure of common sense. And the first entry of 2015 in that annual parade of nonsense is now here — it's Oliver Kamm, There Is No "Proper English," The Wall Street Journal (March 13, 2015), page C3. Mr Kamm, "an editorial writer and columnist for the Times of London," is remarkable for having collected in one brief paper nearly every fallacy that has ever been offered as a refutation of Prescriptivism (he does not use the terms Descriptivist and Prescriptivist, but he is the former, and is attacking the latter). Here are his chief points, boiled down to their gists (note that when I say "Kamm says," what follows, unless in quotation marks, is my paraphrase of his words; please consult his actual words to assure yourself that I've been fairly representing his views):

Kamm says

Prescriptivists are always saying that the English language is in decline, or is under assault, but the language has survived very nicely, showing that they're wrong.

My comment More ... 

Bill Casselman

Wizards, adepts of sorcery, stirrers of strange cauldrons, don your pointy hats and star-flecked robes, wave wands and hold bubbling beakers high! For today we examine the origin of words associated with alchemy, precursor of modern chemistry and metallurgy during medieval times and the early Renaissance. Under the etymological microscope come words like retort, alembic, crucible, athanor, and the word chemistry itself whose root may hark back to pharaonic times.

Alchemy, of course, was not scientific, being encumbered with ancient magic, Hermeticism, astrological gibberish, and hidden symbols. The pseudo-science's principal fallacy was universal transformation, a fancy that base metals like iron could be turned into gold and silver, through the discovery of a preternatural catalyst called a "philosopher's stone" or "the alkahest," a universal solvent.

I claim a side path here to mention the man who gave us the word alkahest. He was a Swiss German alchemist who called himself Paracelsus (CE 1493–1541). He had very little Arabic, but was sufficiently acquainted with Arabic forms to name his universal solvent. So he simply made up an Arabic-sounding word, alkahest! More ... 

He was, according to his biographer James Boswell, a huge man. When he was barely out of infancy, he contracted scrofula, a disease that severely impaired his eyesight and left his face horribly disfigured. He attended Oxford University but, because of family finances, did not take a degree. For a while he operated a private school, but that failed.

Yet 260 years ago, on April 15, 1755, Samuel Johnson — fat, ugly, blind in one eye, and incompletely educated — produced the first modern dictionary. "Languages are the pedigrees of nations," he proclaimed, and, in compiling his wordbook, Johnson conferred a pedigree on the English-speaking nations. In garnering the rich, exuberant vocabulary of eighteenth-century England, the Dictionary of the English Language marked a turning point in the history of our tongue.

There had, of course, been earlier English dictionaries, the first being one Robert Cawdray's A Table Alphabeticall, compiled, as he described it, for "ladies ... or any other unskilfull persons." Published in 1604 and consisting of but 120 pages and just 3,000 words, A Table Alphabeticall had as its purpose, as did the other lexicons that appeared during the seventeenth century, the treatment of only the hardest and most scholarly words in our vocabulary. More ... 

In every sculptor, there's a blond vandal
who'll clear the woods to find an ax handle. — The Wordspinner

You can milk a dead horse till the feathers fall,
but an unmixed trope is no fun at all. — The Wordspinner

My Georgia grandmother, beloved for her pot roast, urged her children and grandchildren to "cook and serve that which is within" or suffer the consequences. I've taken that advice to heart, yet the pot's bottom is not in sight. Indeed, the more I serve, the greater the contents grow.

Prior to writing this piece, I marinated myself in as many relevant ideas as I could locate. Then I put myself to sleep for several nights sampling the "roast," the "vegetables," and the "juices." Over several days, I basted the meat, savoring the aroma as I adjusted the flame. The results lie before you. Bon appιtit.


In 1939, one of Peter Ustinov's masters at Westminster School reported that his pupil was showing "great originality which must be curbed at all costs." Though only eighteen but already acting on the London stage, Ustinov was mature and knowledgeable enough to ignore his master's warning. He knew that individuality and creativity had been regarded as signs of mental illness for centuries. He may also have heard that people drawn to the stage, the chisel, and the pen were often thought to be celibate, stuttering urbanites.

Nineteenth-century Romantic writers had done their best to change the stereotype, but as Ustinov's master demonstrates, the ancient bias endured well into the twentieth century. As the famed actor and writer later observed, "I was not irresistibly drawn to the drama. It was an escape road from the dismal rat race of school." In the twenty-first century, we know that artists and artisans are thirty-five times more likely to seek psychiatric help. But we also know that they tend to be diligent polymaths who are inclusive, self-taught, and adventuresome. As children, they tend to be hard to discipline, hooked as they are on the pleasures and discomforts their creativity brings.

Clark Elder Morrow

Speaking eloquently and articulately is very much like dressing an invisible man — or woman (I don't know why, but for some reason I prefer to think of myself dressing an invisible woman — but let's stay focused). Putting your inchoate thoughts, images, impressions and intuitions into words is a process of draping perceptible things on imperceptible things — much like throwing iron filings on a magnetic field in order to make it visible. It's causing the ghostly to become, in the case of speech, audible. In that sense it is something akin to taking necromancy a stage further than usual: when you summon forth immaterial spooks and spirits, you just barely see them (I assume, speaking as I am from anything but personal experience). But speaking well is the art — not just of making your gauzy thoughts faintly ascertainable — but in scaring them up so that they blaze forth solidly and brilliantly and colorfully. And with no significant gap between what you thought and what you expressed.

Now, just as in necromancy you have to select and pronounce your incantations precisely and according to rule if you wish to see the apparitions, so in writing and speechmaking you have to adhere to certain long-established formulas and rules if you wish to make your auditors grasp the "spirits" in your mind (where, spookily enough, science tells us all is pure silence).

I bring this up because Oliver Kamm has a piece in the on-line Wall Street Journal (dated March 13, 2015) in which he makes the ever-popular contention that there are — really — no rules in grammar that need to be adhered to, and language is whatever people speak and write. I repeat: there are no rules in English, and you can say and write any way you want to, and that is perfectly fine.

In other words, anything goes. Mr Kamm (without saying so explicitly) recommends chaos as a perfectly acceptable state of affairs when it comes to people expressing themselves. Does this make sense?

He would probably say that as long as individuals succeed in making themselves understood, then they have succeeded — period. That is all that is required of verbal or written communication. If you understand what I was expressing, then my job is done, whether I broke every so-called rule in the grammatical rule-book or not. Does this make sense? More ... 

Robert Hartwell Fiske

Here are a few of the more than one thousand examples of rhetorical English in Robert Hartwell Fiske's Elegant English, Second Edition. I've decided to offer these few hundred examples in two parts, to be published in the April and May Vocabula Review. As I say, the book contains many more than these few examples.

Rhetorical English adds effect and feeling to a sentence.

Rhetorical English is eloquent English; it is effective speaking and writing; it is the use of figures of speech to move or persuade, to emphasize or impress, to clarify or, even, conjure. It is the peak, the pinnacle, the high point of elegant English.

The following pages offer examples of ten rhetorical figures: amplification, comparison, correction, inclusion, inversion, juxtaposition, omission, parallelism, repetition, and substitution.

Not in the least is this list a complete catalogue of figures of speech, of which there are hundreds.

And, as you will notice, some of the examples, though listed under one rhetorical figure, clearly illustrate two or more rhetorical figures.

Less important than the name of the figure is the song, the sway of the sentence. Listen to that.


Where a person adds detail or emphasis to a word, clause, or sentence.

• She's got plans for herself, too. Horrible plans. — Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety

• Evil thoughts became my sole intimates — the darkest and most evil of thoughts. — Edgar Allan Poe, The Black Cat

• She wore a faded dressing gown and she carried a candle, holding it high, so that its light fell upon her face: a face quiet, grave, utterly unalarmed. — William Faulkner, Light in August


Where a person, using the word as or like, compares one thing with another, quite different, thing.

• Sid and Charity simply dropped out of sight like the weighted bodies in a pond. — Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety

• His heart danced upon her movements like a cork upon a tide. — James Joyce,A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

• Gooseflesh rippled like wheat along his flanks. His scrotum drew up tight as a slipknot. — Walker Percy, The Second Coming


Where a person amends, or corrects, what he says or writes while saying or writing it. • If you hear anything against your father — anything I mean, except that he's odious and vile — remember it's perfectly false. — Henry James, The Wings of the Dove

• Felt, seen, heard, not fully felt, most meagerly seen, scarcely heard at all, and still in me, rattling, like a receding footfall, or Count Dracula's swagger. — Edna O'Brien, Night More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Cleaning Up My Act
by Joseph Epstein
Roughly three months ago, I resolved to stop swearing. Not that I used profanity relentlessly, but I began to notice that I was availing myself of it more and more — and swearing in places I'd not previously sworn in, among what used to be called mixed company.

Lots of women have now taken to swearing. The right to use profanity is, I suppose, one of the side — some would say highly dubious — benefits of women's liberation. "When I was young," Tom Lehrer has said, "there were so many words you couldn't use in the presence of a girl. Now you can use them all, but you better not call her a girl." Too true.

I decided to banish profanity from my conversation because it began to seem indecorous, especially in a man who is a grandfather. A clue that it was time to cease was when I began to part words in the middle with the f-word: as in unf------believable. Besides, I don't want my deathbed words to include profanity. 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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