Scarcely Used Words

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Calendar    June 2015, Vol. 17, No. 6 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 June 2015 Vocabula
 The June 2015 issue is due online June 21.

Kevin Mims

When I was a lad, I reveled in reading disreputable literary genres: crime fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, western, film novelizations, true crime, etc. Back then, serious books tended to be published in hardback editions and in so-called quality paperback editions, the latter being larger than traditional paperback books and printed on paper that wouldn't turn yellow with age. Disreputable literature, on the other hand, was almost always consigned to small paperback books. These were called "mass market" paperbacks or "pocket books" because they could literally be stuffed into the back pocket of one's jeans. Thin collections of short stories by the likes of Ray Bradbury, Frederic Brown, Ernest Haycox, and H. P. Lovecraft were staples of my literary diet. Likewise paperback novels by such luminaries as Alistair MacLean, Agatha Christie, Isaac Asimov, and John D. MacDonald could frequently be seen bulging in my back pockets.

One problem these days is that there are no disreputable literary genres any more. Grown women unashamedly sit in the bleachers and read semi-literate softcore porn (Fifty Shades of Gray) inspired by silly juvenile fantasy fiction (the Twilight books) while waiting for their daughters' soccer practice to end. Grown men avidly read books that recast Abraham Lincoln as a zombie hunter. In the 1960s and 70s only nerds could be seen carrying around tattered paperback copies of J.R.R. Tolkein's fantasy novels. Now respectable businessmen and -women eagerly devour the latest installment of multivolume fantasy cycles by the likes of George R.R. Martin and Diana Gabaldon in an effort to stay one step ahead of the prestigious big-budget television miniseries based on those tomes. Many of these pillars of the community are reading their Fifty Shades books and Vampires vs. Zombies books on e-readers that make it impossible for the person sitting across from them on the subway to determine if they are reading Stephane Mallarme or Stephanie Meyer. Thus you might conclude that one advantage of the e-reader is that it has made it possible to read disreputable literature in public without fear of being caught at it. But I don't think this fact is important to most of those who use an e-reader. The truth is that few people these days are ashamed to be caught reading trashy books. .... More ... 

English department faculty will probably not like this essay. They will also probably not like me. Anyway, I will start with my own unethical behavior.

In my first semester as a PhD candidate at the University of Massachusetts (UMASS) I taught one section of freshman writing as a teaching assistant. It was so long ago that my memory may have just failed me. Maybe it was one section, and maybe it was two.

The number of students matters: 36. That first semester I struggled to teach writing to that many students and keep up with my own studies.

But I found a solution, albeit an unethical one, at the end of that semester and put it into effect at the beginning of the next.

At the first meeting with my second semester students, I gave something like the following speech:

The average grade in my classes is a C– to a C. I count tardiness as lateness, and for each lateness I lower your final grade one level. Now, please brush up on the Middle English you learned in high school because we'll try to get through at least a third of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.

Now, other sections are less rigorous. For example, Tim _____ and Ray _____ give all A's, do not take attendance, and require some, but not much, writing or, I've heard, none at all. More ... 

Michael Gorman

I had never taken any interest in the etymology of the English words for various fish until …

… perhaps I am easily annoyed (I am, after all, an old man) but many things irritate me about my interactions with restaurant and shop employees. The top two are, in ascending order:

• Being told that I have made a good choice, as if I required or would welcome their validation of my choices.

• Being "corrected" on a pronunciation that is, in fact, correct.

I am fond of a white Italian wine called Verdicchio. I cannot tell you how many times this exchange has taken place (phonetic version):

"We'll have the Ver-dicky-oh, please."

"Ah, good choice, the Ver-ditch-ee-oh."

I always want to say, but up to now, have restrained myself from saying, "I see, as in Pin-otchy-oh?"

I thought I had encountered another version of the incorrect (and unwittingly rude) correction of my pronunciation recently. At the well-stocked fish counter of my local Whole Foods, I surveyed the goods and liked the look of the turbot.

Me: "I'll have about 3/4 of a pound of the ter-bot, please."

Nice looking young woman with a nose ring: "About three-quarters of a pound? Of the ter-boh?"

(I ask you, would PG Wodehouse have invented a children's book called Herbert the Turbot if the latter were pronounced "ter-boh"?) More ... 

Summer's advent is at hand. Travel whims tiptoe up and playfully lick one's ear. Winter-weary wordlovers dream mayhap of a Parisian bistro, of sipping a glass of Château qui sait? a wine we might afford, while we improve our French accent. Tu parles! That is to say: Fat Chance!

I, Bill Casselman, have a good French vocabulary and an accent halfway between Ontario High School French and the Marquis de Sade encountering a nude croissant twister in an eighteenth-century convent bakery. So I am not illiterate but I stand out as a foreigner in France trying to speak their language.

Through many decades of humiliation and subsequent chagrin, it has been my experience that, to language beginners or foreign students, the continental French are rude, impatient and nasty, quite in contrast to Italians who will smile at your verbal mistakes in beginners' Italian and cheerfully correct them.

The Germans, after you commit a small error in a German sentence, stare at you, natürlich, and then scream, "Aber das is kein Deutsch!" after which they make furtive attempts to administer a blood test to see if you are an Aryan. Such a test must be firmly refused. It only encourages them.

So, years ago there I was in southern France, in the pleasant town of Grasse, lolloping through fields of flowers grown to scent French perfumes.On that sensuous summer morning the little marketplace of fragrance was odorous with mimosa, the very air tinctured with jasmine and the fresh-linen aroma of highland-loving lavender.

Noon came, hunger panged, and, in knead of bread (some puns are irresistible), I entered a small grocery store. "Bon jour. Avez-vous du pain, monsieur?" I said pleasantly to the owner who had fresh baked loaves lovingly ovened and wreathed in homey wheaten bouquet sitting in rows along his wooden counter.

The grocer/baker pretended he could not understand my French. More ... 



Clark Elder Morrow

Too many people are saying incidences when they mean incidents. As you listen to such a speaker, you can almost hear (in your own mind) what is going on in the speaker's mind:

Todd Huggermugger: "I was reminded today of several similar inciden….." [hmmmm, that doesn't sound long enough — I'll just continue the word until I can't continue it any longer]…ces — yes, incidences — which transpired over the weekend…."

The poor sod just elongated a word he never really thinks about in order to "fill it out" to what he feels should be an acceptable length. If Mr. Huggermugger had paused for only a moment to reflect on the word incidents, he would have seen in a flash that it was the perfectly clear, neat, concise, unambiguous term he required. The world is awash with this sort of unwitting pretentiousness — the desire to use the longest possible incarnation of a thought, among all its differing verbal avatars.

Part of the problem, of course, is that people are just as often betrayed by the rhythm of the phrases and sentences they're using — not just the rhythm of the words. We frequently get the impression — while we're talking — that we should flesh out our sentences so that they seem to be a "proper" length, or we volubly tack on a wandering phrase that seems to balance the fragment of a sentence we began with. Thus we have the bane of English teachers at every level: the run-on sentence — sentences that keep growing additional parenthetical and dependent clauses, like the Lernaean Hydra sprouting heads. More ... 

Legendary St. Louis Cardinals pitcher and baseball announcer Dizzy Dean was famous for his idiosyncratic relationship with the English language. Dean peppered commentary with ain'ts and double negatives.

When an offended interviewer exclaimed, "Mr. Dean, don't you know the King's English?" Dizzy shot back, "Sure I do, and so's the queen." On another occasion, when Dean was accused of slaughtering the King's English, he riposted, "A lot of people who don't say ain't ain't eating."

Then there's the story of the farmer who mortgaged his place in order to give his daughter a college education. At her graduation, the daughter confessed, "Dad, I'm sorry, but I have to tell you that I ain't a virgin anymore." Father wrung his hands, hung his head, shed rueful tears and replied, "To think that after all our sacrifices, you still say ain't!"

A clutch of readers have asked if ain‘t is a word. Ain't is most certainly a word, employed by millions of English speakers and writers around the world. You can't simply legislate these folks out of existence by insisting that one of their words doesn't exist.

But ain't is labeled nonstandard English. Its use, outside of simulating dialect, raises eyebrows and evokes mean sneers in educated company. Say ain't at your peril; it could lower your social standing. Like the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, ain't "don't get no respect." That's a shame. More ... 

Fredd Culbertson

Ablutophobia — Fear of washing or bathing.

Acarophobia — Fear of itching or of the insects that cause itching.

Acerophobia — Fear of sourness.

Achluophobia — Fear of darkness.

Acousticophobia — Fear of noise.

Acrophobia — Fear of heights.

Aerophobia — Fear of drafts, air swallowing, or airbourne noxious substances.

Aeroacrophobia — Fear of open high places.

Aeronausiphobia — Fear of vomiting secondary to airsickness.

Agateophobia — Fear of insanity.

Agliophobia — Fear of pain.

Agoraphobia — (1) Fear of open spaces or of being in crowded, public places like markets. (2) Fear of leaving a safe place.

Agraphobia — Fear of sexual abuse.

Agrizoophobia — Fear of wild animals.

Agyrophobia — Fear of streets or crossing the street.

Aichmophobia — Fear of needles or pointed objects.

Ailurophobia — Fear of cats.

Albuminurophobia — Fear of kidney disease.

Alektorophobia — Fear of chickens.

Algophobia — Fear of pain.

Alliumphobia — Fear of garlic.

Allodoxaphobia — Fear of opinions.

Altophobia — Fear of heights.

Amathophobia — Fear of dust.

Amaxophobia — Fear of riding in a car.

Ambulophobia — Fear of walking.

Amnesiphobia — Fear of amnesia.

Amychophobia — Fear of scratches or of being scratched.

Anablephobia — Fear of looking up.

Ancraophobia — Fear of wind.

Androphobia — Fear of men. More ... 

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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.

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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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 This Month's Essays

How to Read Disreputably — Kevin Mims

Tales from Inside English Departments' Linen Closets — Frank E. Keyes, Jr.

A Lost T and Flat Fish — Michael Gorman

Learn to Speak French in France? Ha! — Bill Casselman

Two Acts of Grumbling — Clark Elder Morrow

I Amn't One of Those People Who Condemn "Ain't" — Richard Lederer

Vocabula Revisited: Specialty Dictionary: Glossary of Phobias — Fredd Culbertson


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