Click	here to	read about Language	Guardian Editorial Services

Click here	to read	The	Best Words

Click here to buy a	one-year subscription to Vocabula

Click here	to sign	up for The Daily Vocabula

Wednesday, October 01, 2014   Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
September 2014, Vol. 16, No. 9 There are now   57   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 sutdents 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?

Actually, there really are some good reasons to Google oneself, as page rank and visibility can have considerable importance. Thanks for a great article. And the word, fantasts, too. I have never used that one, but will correct that problem. Much appreciated. — What do you say?

Well written, and I totally agree. I have never found it irritating or offensive to read "he" as a generic pronoun for both sexes. In fact, what I find more irritating is the use of the two words (he/she, his/her) when one will do. When an author goes so far as to make attempts at political correctness by changing words like mankind, postman, or even policeman, I start stewing over how much of an influence a petty minority has had on contemporary writers. And I find that really, really, sad. — What do you say?

Excellent. — What do you say?

Bravo! What a wonderful essay — I think it beautifully and elegantly captures a poignant moment of life. I found it very moving, and it reawakened old memories of the immigrant dreams of my parents. I also enjoyed the photos and learning about dirndles. — What do you say?

Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English
A compendium of mistakes in grammar, usage, and spelling with commentary on lexicographers and linguists

Robert	Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary	of Unendurable English

However curmudgeonly, Mr. Fiske betrays a bluff humanitarian spirit. ... Fiske wants to save the English language. And he knows that he can count on little help. "Dictionaries have virtually no standards, offer scant guidance, and advance only misunderstanding." His own flogging of Merriam-Webster's is one of the many pleasures of this lovely, sour, virtuous book. — Wall Street Journal

You can order Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English from Simon & Schuster or Amazon or Vocabula or elsewhere.


To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing
The essential guide to writing succinctly

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 Vocabula or W. W. Norton.



  Next Page Back Issues
1999 | 2000 | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014

Elegant English
Elegant English is exhilarating; it stirs our thoughts and feelings as ably as everyday English blurs them.

In Stock and Available Now from Vocabula Books

Elegant English

As the superfluity of uninspired, careless, grammatically incorrect, slang-ridden English makes plain, elegant English is English rarely heard, English seldom seen.

The point of this book is to show that the language can, indeed, be spoken or written with grace and polish — qualities that much contemporary English is bereft of and could benefit from.


Elegant English arrived a day or two ago. What a splendid book. I wish that you could send it to Will Strunk or E. B. White. I especially liked the quotes from Sinclair Lewis and E. B. White. I wish that Lewis could know that the word "dude" has come back into circulation. I wonder if it has changed its meaning. And I liked the part in White about backyards worth knowing about. — A. David Wunsch

• ... judicious and delightful. — Maurice Posada

• I must have another copy of Elegant English, please! — Tom McGlinn

• I have received my copy of Elegant English and I wanted to tell you how much I am enjoying the volume. Fabulous work. Truly insightful. I carry it with me and dip into it at various moments during the day. I have yet to be disappointed with anything that I have found in the work. — Steve Hill


 In the September 2014 Vocabula
 The October 2014 issue is due online October 19.

by Joseph Epstein

In past years I have taken to print to attack two words — focus and icon — that drove me bonkers. Focus, a metaphor from the world of cameras and microscopes, replaced the words concentrate and emphasize. Suddenly everywhere ballplayers lost their focus; students were encouraged to find theirs; schools, companies, nations began focusing on this or that problem. Hokus pokus, I used to mutter to myself, please, drop the focus. Nobody did, and the word today has still not lessened in popularity.

In its original meaning, icon was a small religious painting used as an aid to devotion. In its new meaning, persons, cultural events, inanimate objects became iconic. To be an icon was, apparently, a step up from being a superstar, as superstar was a step up from being a mere star. The word icon became part of the vocabulary of hype and was used so often that it no longer carried any weight or absorbed the least truth. Awesome, you might say, but then again the matter mightn't be of any interest to you. Whatever.

Focus, icon, awesome, whatever, all are among what H. W. Fowler, in his great but surely not iconic book Modern English Usage, calls vogue words. According to Fowler: More ... 

A fool and his synonyms are soon parted. The reason is simple. English has a sparse stock of insult words. Consequently, those few abusive terms our language does possess are used and reused and become stale clichés quickly. Shouting "asshole!" at the committer of some moronic act gets lame quickly. Insult does not bear repetition. The wimpy-gripped stumblebum who dropped the rare Limoges dinner plate and smithereened it on the tile floor of your kitchen will hardly even hear your calling him a fool. But if you machine-gun at him "You fucky-fingered fonkin!" he will at least pause to scratch his furfuraceous noggin, wondering what precisely you meant. Half the superior joy of insulting those who err is their not understanding the very insult.

Thus stands English ever in need of fresh invective. By inventing new insults and exhuming buried verbal treasure of yore, it is my humble hope in this wee essay to rescue tongue-lashing from letterless clods and return it to purveyors of high word art.

"I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad," says Rosalind during her pleasantly stichomythical meeting with Jaques in the forest of Arden, at the top of Act IV in Shakespeare's As You Like It.

So, first, a brief peek at fool's interesting lore. It began as follis, Latin for a sack of flour, a bellows or an inflated ball that Roman gentlemen used as part of their exercise at the baths. Already by the time of late Latin, it was used as an insult for a windbag or blatmouth. Entering Old French, follis became fol and in modern French, fou, "mad, insane," but note that fou, the adjective, is still fol before a vowel, and its feminine is folle. More ... 

by Mark Halpern and Robert Lane Greene

Dear Lane,

I've now read your third installment to our debate, and have some thoughts about it that I want to pass on to you (not "share with you," an expression that nauseates me).

1. Your inaccuracy in paraphrasing

I have the same problem with your new installment that I've had with earlier ones, and with your book: when you paraphrase my views, you do it so inaccurately that I feel you're talking about someone else. A good example of what I mean is to be found in the first few sentences of this latest piece, in which you attribute to me the suggestion that P's and D's should "leave each other alone for a while," and follow immediately with "Though you don't quite support this idea …." This is all wrong. What I said is that if the P's and D's were both following their explicitly announced programs, they would never confront each other; they would leave each other alone of necessity, and not "for a while," but for all time. But in fact, as I went on to expound at some length, one party — the D's — does not follow its announced program (which is to observe "non-invasively" how language is used, and attempt to find, by analyzing their observations, the laws that presumably underlie language development). If the D's followed this program, they would see us P's as just another of the many factors that determine the course that language takes, and something no more to be regarded as an "interference in the natural course of a language" than any other of those factors. In short, in the words I actually wrote, I suggested no course of action for either party — certainly not for the P's — but simply pointed out a glaring inconsistency between the formal policy of the D's and their actual behavior. More ... 

Myth is nothing more than ancient gossip. — Stanislaw Lec

The goal of the myth is to [affect] a reconciliation of the individual consciousness with the universal will. — Joseph Campbell

If "an anecdote is the first draft of myth, / a lump of cold steel awaiting its smith," as I have argued elsewhere, here's a story for you to hammer on. Maybe there was and maybe there wasn't a beauty named Calypso, an embittered mother who named her daughter Arethusa after the toxic orchid or the nymph of the sacred spring; opinions differ. What is known is that the girl's father was a brawling sailor from the Greek isles, and her mother was a flower peddler from Kingston. However, after drowning his wife and molesting his daughter, the nameless sailor abandoned the girl and returned to his sea mistress. With skin the color of rum caramel and jet-black eyes, the orphaned girl was raised a Rastafarian with dreadlocks into which she wove skins of Jamaican boas. With her waist-length hair, she seduced and strangled the men who bore a close resemblance to herself. Perhaps she succeeded in finding her father; perhaps not.

One of the beauties of myth is the way in which past and present are united. Anyone who recalls the pre-Christian punishment of Sisyphus, for example, will understand the allusion whether the modern sufferer is an unhappy vacationer pushing a beach ball up a sand dune or an office worker deleting "tons of spam" only to see it return. Myth, then, is a bridge we cross to discover that what it meant to be human in Homer's day is essentially the same for Homer Simpson.

Of course, if one has never been exposed to literature beyond the Bible as is the case with many in our scientific-Christian culture, one cannot be expected to understand the foreign mythic reference. When a Christian neighbor complained that the rain kept washing the rocks down the slopes of her rock garden forcing her to carry them back up, she could only frown when I called her "Miss Sisyphus" and accused her of loving her labors. The greater punishment, of course, is watching a place of beauty wash away and being unable to fix it. Just ask anyone confined to a bed. More ... 

A wave of ambiguous pronouns appeared in The New York Times recently. Just who exactly did "his," "them," and "they" refer to?

"Mr. Bucklew was convicted of the 1996 killing of a man in front of his children." We can be pretty sure that Bucklew did not commit murder in front of his own children. But don't make us guess even for a moment. Bucklew committed murder in front of his victim's children. (That's from May 21, 2014, "Supreme Court Halts Missouri Execution and Sends Case Back to Appeals Court.")

An article about President Obama contained this excerpt: "By training and equipping regional allies, he is increasingly turning the war with terrorists over to them...." He's turning the war over to allies, not to terrorists. But the closest noun to "them" is "terrorists." (That's from May 28, 2014, "Rebutting Critics, Obama Seeks Higher Bar for Military Action.") More ... 

by Richard Lederer

In long-ago England, gold was appraised at a building named the Goldsmiths' Hall. If the gold content was acceptable, the gold was stamped with a seal that became known as a hallmark. That's why today any mark, object, or action denoting quality and excellence is termed a hallmark.

Another golden word is touchstone, a criterion or standard, whose meaning goes straight back to goldsmiths, who kept hard stones in their shops. When a customer brought in some gold, the goldsmith would rub it against the stone, usually composed of jasper or basalt, With his practiced eye, the goldsmith could determine from the streak left on the stone the purity and quality of the gold. Hence, touchstone.

And here's a compound that's as good as gold: In bygone days, wandering peddlers were a familiar part of the American scene. A typical member of the class carried a few household items in a pack, while better-established peddlers pushed or drove wagons.

An essential part of the peddlers' business was the buying and selling of old gold. If the traveling salesman had the slightest doubt about the value of an item, he would file a shallow groove in that item and touch it with nitric acid. Color reactions from the acid would reveal the approximate gold content, and inferior metals would be decomposed by the treatment. This procedure was known as the acid test; by extension, any exacting method designed to reveal hidden flaws has come to be known by this term.

To the ledger of words once reserved for business alone, we can add a number of verbal products now shared in our common language: More ... 

by Clark Elder Morrow

I find it amusing that when it comes to an old theme of Western European history — the famous translatio studii, the ”translation of studies,” or of learning, from one nation to another — the writer of the account always makes his own nation the final recipient of wisdom. The general idea behind translatio studii is that the first great blaze of learning arose in Greece, was transmitted to Rome, and wound up in the country of whatever scribe is describing the route of “chivalry” (by which is meant “the arts of civilization”). But of course liberal arts studies (as far as we in the West are concerned) have been moving steadily westward since the inception, in the Levant, of writing.

Here is an example of the theme from Chrétien de Troyes, who gives us his own poetic slant on it from the late twelfth century (you’ll notice that he places the ultimate goal of the translatio in his own beloved France):

In books the ancient tales are told —
The works of men, the deeds of old.
The Greeks, so says our book, were first
In chivalry; they were most versed
In laws and things divine. And next
Passed chivalry to Rome, our text
Declares. At last to France, we pray,
These arts have come to stay.

Les Grandes Chroniques du France, a mishmash of history compiled by the monks of St. Denis, largely in the fourteenth century, agrees with Chrétien, and adds a few more details to the journey taken by the liberal arts: More ... 

by Jim Sanderson

For a while, way back maybe in the earlier seventies, we creative writers had the hidden meanings book. We knew the truth. We knew how to invigorate students. We had the one true pedagogy: the workshop. I think that we stole it from the new critics. Then we creative writers learned that the author was dead, that we were just a construct of society, and for a while, the literary theorists had the conduit, the fast track, the high-speed Internet connection to the hidden meaning, the secret decoder ring. Now the composition theorists have "my precious." I had lost my grasp on the secret decoder ring; like Golum, I had fumbled the damn thing.

At my age, with my academic background receding into a hazy past, I am learning that what I knew is definitely unfashionable, certainly archaic, and probably irrelevant. Among the things that I learned were unfashionable, archaic, and irrelevant were the teaching of traditional grammar and maybe grammar itself. But given my unfashionable, archaic, and irrelevant knowledge, I can become a member of the Old Fart School, which is more of a school of attitude than knowledge. So as an Old Fart, I write to praise teaching grammar in the composition classroom and thereafter. 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 ... 

 Featured Essays

 Departments and Diversions

 Other Business

 Recent Issues






Click the image to orderVocabula Bound Quarterly — Vol. 1, No. 1 by Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor

The Vocabula Bookstore Is Now Open.
(click the image to order)

Vocabula Bound Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 1, includes the contents of the January through March 2005 online Vocabula Review. VBQ was discontinued in March 2006.


Click to see another book.

Questions?