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  Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
February 2015, Vol. 17, No. 2 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 February 2015 Vocabula
 The March 2015 issue is due online March 22.

Richard Lederer

Too-fore-sics-ate! Homophones we appreciate!

Homophones are pairs (pears, pares), triads, or more capacious clusters of words that sound the same but are spelled differently and communicate different meanings. Here (hear) are some (sum) beastly examples:

What do you call a naked grizzly? A bare bear. What do you call a pony with a sore throat? A hoarse horse.

Have you ever seen a dear deer, a grisly grizzly, a new gnu, a foul fowl, a towed toad, an ant aunt, and a gorilla guerrilla?

Have you ever seen a boar bore, a bee be, a whale wail, a flea flee, ewes use, and does doze?

Or take this homophonic tour de farce: Have you heard about the successful perfume manufacturer? Her business made a lot of scents (cents, sense). That's a triple play — three homophones nestled in a single syllable!

I have been able to snare well more than a hundred triple homophones (there, their, they're) and quadruple homophones (right, rite, write, wright), reaching as high as sextuple homophones (air, heir, err, ere, Eyre, Ayer).

Hear here. Let's start with 20 words that become their own homophones when their first letter is beheaded:

More ... 

The BBC's Radio 4 is a mostly speech-based channel of astonishing scope, range, and diversity. Plays; current events; and book programs; audio documentaries; quizzes; soap operas; programs on films, food, nature, the theatre, arts, science, information technology, and all the topics found on the green earth and in the seas are to be found there. I daresay there is nothing like it anywhere else. That daily torrent of words year in and year out provides insights and ideas of all kinds. One idea that I have derived from my assiduous listening to Radio 4 is that British English, the mother of all the Englishes, is now a patois of American English. In fact, it could be argued that British English has ceased to exist in anything but the same sense as one might speak of, say, Midwestern English — a matter of a few variations in pronunciation, a handful of dialect words and phrases, and a decreasing number of spelling variations. More ... 

Beloved of poets, spindrift names sea-spray stirred up by wind on thalassic and pelagic water. Spindrift is the conversion of tempest-chop, of ocean-wave crests, whipped tips and barmy tops roused into a driving salt spritz, then lifted and propelled across the surface of the briny main. Spindrift is the scud and spume of ocean's blown foam.

It began as a Scottish pronunciation of any earlier word speendrift from a verb to speen, "to drive a ship before a strong wind, itself a Scottish alteration of English to spoondrift, of that spoon's ultimate origin we have not the foggiest — or should I say spoondrift, of that spoon's ultimate origin we have not the foggiest — the windiest notion. More ... 

I have long found it unfair that music critics so often dismiss the poets set to music by great composers as more or less third rate versifiers, whose banal lyrics were “glorified” and “immortalized” by the likes of Schubert and Schumann and Gustav Mahler. Over the years I have come to the slow-witted conclusion that these poets — and Wilhelm Müller in particular — are in fact quite fine writers in their own respect. There is a reason, after all, why their poems were selected by the great composers (they inspired them), and a reason why Heinrich Heine was influenced by Müller.

By common consent the song cycle considered the greatest of all is Schubert’s Die Winterreise, the text of which is by Müller. The cycle of poems tells the story of a lover who is rejected by a girl he loves and is left desolate, to wander through the snowy countryside at random. It is the utter simplicity of the poet’s lines that make them so attractive to a composer: after all, it’s much easier to set to music something like

The Sun does arise,
And make happy the skies;
The merry bells ring
To welcome the Spring;
The sky-lark and thrush, The birds of the bush

than it is to set something like

That was a way of putting it — not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.
It was not (to start again) what one had expected.
What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,
Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity
And the wisdom of age?
More ... 


by Keith Gogan

I need to get with the program. Allow me to explain. It seems that I have been using classic forms of words instead of much shorter, truncated forms of words and, in doing so, I am out of step with the masses. As far as I can tell, it's cool to truncate words, reducing their number of syllables, apparently because using one or two more syllables creates intolerable work for today's speakers of English.

A few examples of this trendy truncation are in order. Today, it's common to hear "disconnect" (verb form) instead of "disconnection" (noun form), when the longer noun form is expected: “There's a disconnect of ethics and business," someone might say. (In fact, my computer just flagged the use of "disconnect" in the preceding sentence as an error.) Other examples include these: the use of "reveal" instead of "revelation" ("Get ready for the big reveal!"), the use of "fail" instead of "failure" ("His attempt was a big fail"), the use of "invite" instead of "invitation" ("Send me an invite"), and so on.

This bandwagon is rolling fast, so I've decided to jump on it. So, from now on, when I speak or write about foundations in American history, I'll refer to the "Declare of Independence." Concerning the termination of slavery in the U.S., I'll refer to the "Emancipate Proclaim." Moving onward in our history, I'll refer to the great "Civil Rights Move" of the 1960s. More ... 

Confusion over the proper use of "disinterest" comes from "interest" having more than one meaning. One meaning is the everyday one. We say, "Oh, that's interesting" or "That's a particular interest of mine." A less common meaning of "interest" is "a claim" or "a legal share."

Thus, "uninterested" refers to a person lacking interest. On the other hand, "disinterested" refers to a person lacking a conflict of interest, lacking self-interest, and therefore being impartial.

A New York State Supreme decision used both meanings of "interest" in one paragraph, possibly intentionally. The decision read: "[T]his court is outraged by the behavior exhibited by the interested parties — parties who were supposed to protect the person, but who have all unabashedly demonstrated through their actions ... that they are only interested in getting paid." (The decision was reported in The New York Times on January 26, 2015. By the way, the Supreme Court in New York is not the state's high court; it is a trial court.) More ... 

Instructions: Match each definition on the right with the most appropriate politely evasive term on the left. More ... 

Political Correctness (PC), a social phenomenon that came into prominence sometime in the 1960s, is a cluster of attitudes and habits that spring from liberalism in extremis. I think its root can be uncovered and its origins fairly well pinpointed, and I propose to do that here.

The Politically Correct (I'll use the term and its "PC" abbreviation both for the thing and for the individuals and groups who exhibit it; the context will make each usage clear) is one who acts as if he believes, and may indeed believe, that the world is divided into Persecutors and Victims, and that the membership of the two groups is a settled matter: as between the rich and the poor, the rich are P's and the poor are V's; likewise as between men and women, whites and "people of color," the mature and the young, the people of the industrialized countries and those of the third world, manufacturers and consumers, and so on. These matters are so settled, in fact, that a kind of revolution in morality and epistemology has taken place to reflect that settlement; for the PC, everything that seems to work in favor of the V's is good, everything that works against them is bad — and such older criteria as truthfulness, conformity to facts, and internal coherence are secondary at best. And much of American policy, domestic and foreign, is determined or at least heavily influenced by the PC — which means, driven by the near-hysteria that has gripped them since the middle of the twentieth century, which is when the phenomenon started. More ... 

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 This Month's Essays

Calling on the Homophone — Richard Lederer

The Strange Death of British English — Michael Gorman

Spindrift: Delving into Sea-Spray — Bill Casselman

The Song Cycle Poets: Better Than You Think — Clark Elder Morrow

If You Can't Beat Them — Keith Gogan

Disinterest in Using Words Correctly — Ken Bresler

The Mostly British Euphemism Quiz — Skip Eisiminger

Vocabula Revisited: The Root of Political Correctness — Mark Halpern


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