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Friday, January 30, 2015   Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
December 2014, Vol. 16, No. 12 There are now   134   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?

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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 December 2014 Vocabula
 The January 2015 issue is due online January 25.

by Michael Gorman

One of the many ailments afflicting written texts and speech in English in both the United States and the United Kingdom is a phenomenon that I call the Pompous Prefix. When suffering from this verbal sickness, speakers and writers take an everyday word and add a prefix or a preceding word that, to their minds, conveys emphasis, makes their words seem more authoritative or scientific, or makes them appear more knowledgeable. In fact, the result is often bathetic, sometimes erroneous, and invariably otiose.

Epicenter. This widespread use of the Pompous Prefix has almost supplanted the word center and has led to a loss of a useful nuance. A restaurant in Brooklyn is said to be "the epicenter of a culinary revolution." A town in Kansas is said to be "at the epicenter" of that state. The word epicenter is not a synonym of center, nor is it an intensifier of the word center (for that "the very center" or even "the exact center" are preferable). Epicenter has a precise meaning — it is the point of the Earth's surface that is directly above the focus of an earthquake. Thus it may be far from and even miles above the "center" of an earthquake. If epicenter now means center, what do we call that point on the Earth's surface? More ... 

The poet Dana Gioia once wrote that Robert Fitzgerald, his professor at Harvard, developed a uniquely sensible system for grading student poems. "Part of its charm," Gioia noted, "was that he never explained it." Neither, in his Hudson Review essay, did Gioia, though he did hint: "In addition to his comments, each poem [Fitzgerald] returned bore a series of capital letters in the top right-hand corner. We recognized these abbreviations as grades, but it took a few weeks to figure out his system. His grading scale — from best to worst — ran NAAB, NB, NTB, and PB.... With a candor characteristic of its creator, Fitzgerald's system concedes that the absence of badness is the proper aspiration for a student poem."

I have long used Fitzgerald's system in my own writing classes, but these days I make sure to explain it. Am I anti-charm? That's what I tell the students, but the real reason is that higher education is increasingly anti-mystery. On syllabi, professors must spell everything out — even the most self-evident "learning outcomes" — or jeopardize the institution's accreditation. On evaluations, they are rated on how well they tell students what they're going to tell them (and too bad, newly minted PhD, if you'd hoped to patiently show them). Many teachers, to be sure, are happy to comply. "There's absolutely nothing wrong with transparency in the classroom," someone recently wrote in response to a Chronicle of Higher Education article that dared to take issue with grading rubrics. Though I recognize that transparency — terrible word — is here to stay, I submit that there's also nothing wrong, and a great deal right, with a little mystery. More ... 

by John Kilgore

I am not eager to recklessly join in this outworn controversy. Wouldn’t it be better judiciously to refrain? But the calendar advances, I have no article, and this is what floats up on the muddy pond of reverie.

“Split infinitives” (arguably a misnomer, since to is separate from the verb in any case) are to grammar instruction what “To be or not to be” is to Shakespeare studies: the cliché anyone can cite, the supposed profundity that comes instantly to mind. In the nineteenth century there really was a rule against split infinitives, put forward rather diffidently by authorities, then caught up enthusiastically by journalists and folk grammarians. According to Wikipedia, “by the beginning of the 20th century the prohibition was firmly established in the press and popular belief.”

Since then, though, the breeze has blown in the other direction. In 1907 the Fowler brothers warned against “the curious superstition that the splitting or not splitting makes the difference between a good and a bad writer" — not quite rejecting the rule itself, notice, but worried about the problem of overemphasis. In the much fuller discussion in Modern English Usage (1926), Henry Fowler again takes a mainly skeptical view, directing his fire less at split infinitives themselves than at awkward or incoherent attempts to avoid them: More ... 

Some words spurt from the lips with such labial defiance and susurrant delight that they must be put to use no matter how sporadic their frequency, no matter how tenuous their continuance. Such an obsolete rarity is the noun spissament.

A spissament is a thickener, any substance that increases density or viscosity. In cooking, a specimen of spissament is roux, flour added to a little fat and cooked until brown, used to thicken French sauces and world soups. One of the Latin adjectives applied to thick liquids was spissus, "thick." From it sprang the later Latin noun spissamentum, "thickening agent."

In the Romance languages derived from Latin, spissus provided a general word for "thick." Consider Italian spesso, Portuguese espesso, and Spanish espeso. Modern French for "thick" is épais, but it began in older French as espes, espies, and espais, a direct borrowing from Latin spissus. More ... 

At the zoological gardens I saw:

A pack o' pandas
in jacarandas,

who eat cantaloupe
but who can't elope,

sans cyan dresses
and flyin' tresses,

named Van and Rhonda,

who limp and seize
limb, pan, knees —
anything at hand; primp and "Cheese!"
is their daily jolly lot; a nervous wimpanese
is all their polyglot, More ... 

by Skip Eisiminger

If I said I had an albatross around my neck, and you had not read "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," would I still be guilty of a cliché? If you'd never heard of Damocles' sword or Achilles' heel, is that my problem or yours? If Samuel Johnson thought "hoisted by his own petard" was a platitude because Shakespeare used it a hundred years earlier, is it off limits today because no one knows the "petard"? Some of these questions could be answered if we just followed Samuel Goldwyn's advice delivered about 1935: "What we need are new clichés."

Ogden Nash offered "duckbilled platitudes," but Goldwyn was referring principally to the film industry, not light verse. In many respects, film makers have taken his advice because, from Sundance to Bollywood, film has flowered in ways Goldwyn never dreamed. Likewise fiction, poetry, and the stage are as original today as they have ever been. Our everyday speech and prose, however, is another matter, but I'm not sure we should be worried because, like a well-worn stone, the well-worn phrase is a fine resource. As a rule, editors do not tell writers to be more derivative, but perhaps they should. More ... 

Film Review
Back to Top  The Imitation Game
by Marion DS Dreyfus

Benedict Cumberbatch has an astringent face — high-planed cheeks, small eyes, soft small mouth — one that seems particularly English. His ascetic, near-obnoxious imperviousness fits well with the part he plays in The Imitation Game. Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing, the flinty British mathematician, logician, cryptologist, and paradigmatic pre-computer scientist who led the charge to crack the German Enigma Code. His having done so turned the tide for the Allies during WWII.

Other films have related this history with varying degrees of accuracy and interest, but this iteration seems for many reasons to be most compelling; and even if some celluloid has been given to the subject heretofore, millions still have no idea of the remarkable efforts that went into deciphering the "unbreakable" machine that transmitted orders to the German juggernaut, submarines and air fleet, over the deadly years of the war. More ... 

Remember run-on sentences from when we first learned to write? We took what should have been two or three sentences, stuck "and" between them, and constructed chains of words and thoughts.

Adults construct run-on sentences by misusing "however."

Here's an example of the proper use of "however": "The new regulations allowed it to raise interest rates. However, the bank declined to do so."

Another proper use of "however": "The new regulations allowed it to raise interest rates. The bank, however, declined to do so."

Yet another proper use of "however": "The new regulations allowed it to raise interest rates; however, the bank declined to do so." More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  A Defense of Adjectives
by Christopher Orlet

It all started with Mark Twain.

I don't mean American Literature, despite what Hemingway said. I mean the scornful vilifying and belittling of the adjective. Writing to a promising young scribe, Twain had this advice:

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English — it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them — then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.

Thus did the adjective acquire the same low reputation "as any other vice," including whoring, gambling, and drinking to an excess. Elsewhere, under the alias Pudd'nhead Wilson, Twain is more Jacksonian (as in "Jesse" Jackson), but no less brutal: "As to the Adjective: When in doubt, strike it out." Note the verbs the author employs: "strike," "kill," "weaken." Goodness, why such hostility toward the poor adjective? 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 ...