|Sunday, September 21, 2014||Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher|
|September 2014, Vol. 16, No. 9||There are now 102 people reading Vocabula.||ISSN 1542-7080|
Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English
A compendium of mistakes in grammar, usage, and spelling with commentary on lexicographers and linguists
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
To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing
The essential guide to writing succinctly
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.
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 ...
by Bill Casselman
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
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 ...
by Skip Eisiminger
Myth is nothing more than ancient gossip. Stanislaw Lec
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 ...
by Ken Bresler
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 ...
Culture and SocietyOn the Right Side of History, or on the Side of the Angels?
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
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 VocabulaBest 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 VocabulaWorst 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 ...
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