Language Guardian

JOSEPH EPSTEIN

An online journal fights for clear, expressive English.

If there is a better losing cause than the fight against slovenly language, I am unaware of it. The first rule of language is change, but why, those of us who have signed up for the fight never cease wondering, does 80 or so percent of this change seem to be for the worse?

Why, for example, do we need the word "icon" to describe hugely successful performers in show business, sports and elsewhere? We began with "star," which was replaced with "superstar"; and when it was discovered that too many superstars were floating around, icon was called in. After icon is used up, we shall, no doubt, have to go straight to "god."

I am myself writing a little book on Fred Astaire for a series of books called American Icons. When I reported this to a witty friend, adding that "icon" was of course a vastly inflated word, itself part of the vocabulary of hype, he, without losing a stroke, replied: "Whaddya mean? What about Ike and Tina Turner?"

In recent years I have written brief essays attacking the overuse and dopey imprecision of the words "icon," "multitasking" and "focus." The success of my attacks can be measured by the vastly increased use over the years of all three words. Cleaning up the language is a herculean job; unlike Hercules' assignment of cleaning up the Augean Stables, here it must be done with the animals still in them. It's a full-time job.

A man who has taken it on is Robert Hartwell Fiske, who runs an online monthly journal called the Vocabula Review (www.vocabula.com), which, as Mr. Fiske writes, "battles nonstandard, careless English and embraces clear, expressive English," and hopes to encourage its readers to do likewise. Vocabula means "words" in Latin, and words are the name of Mr. Fiske's game. Read the Vocabula Review, and you will be convinced that the battle ought to be yours, too.



Mr. Fiske is the latest — and let us hope not the last — in a line of language guardians that goes back, in English, to Jonathan Swift and has been continued, closer to our time, by H.L. Mencken, H.W. Fowler, George Orwell, F.L. Lucas and Sir Ernest Gowers. About the decay of language, Mr. Fiske is earnest without being humorless, strict without being scornful, and elevated without being snobbish.


Bad language is viral; it's in the atmosphere, and we all pick it up. Mr. Fiske diagnoses it and tells us, in the Vocabula Review and in his books, how to get well. His aim is a higher standard of linguistic health through the clear and precise use of language. A subscription to Vocabula Review is the intellectual equivalent of a monthly flu shot.


The third Sunday of every month, Mr. Fiske publishes a number of articles about "some aspect of the language and its effect on society." Running the operation out of his house in Rockport, Mass., he asks a $25 subscription fee from language lovers (renewing subscribers pay $15), of which — no great surprise here — there are all too few. The Vocabula Review had a high circulation figure of 1,400, but the number is now down to fewer than a thousand.

Mr. Fiske is on the job 24/7, a phrase I feel confident he would, rightly, loathe. Along with running his online magazine, he has produced three useful books — The Dictionary of Concise Writing, The Dimwit's Dictionary, and the Dictionary of Disagreeable English — and an anthology of pieces from the Vocabula Review called "Vocabula Bound."

Each issue of the Vocabula Review (of which there are now 87 — one every month since September 1999) is a miscellany of articles on English as it is used in America ("Singular They: The Pronoun That Came In From the Cold"), controversies of the day such as the teaching of English to immigrants ("José, Can You See?"), and various columns and departments, among them Shibboleths, Bethumped With Words, Scarcely Used Words, Clues to Concise Writing, Grumbling About Grammar, and letters from some of the language fanatics who are among Mr. Fiske's subscribers.

I read the Vocabula Review for amusement and as a prophylactic against falling into sloppiness in my own writing. The Vocabula Review is run on the prescriptivist principle that there are correct and incorrect uses of words; the descriptivists hold that any language used by the majority is automatically acceptable English. "Whatever!" might be the descriptivists' motto; "Not in my house you don't" that of the prescriptivists.

The Vocabula Review, in fact, has two mottoes: "A society is generally as lax as its language" and "Well spoken is half sung." Mr. Fiske believes that honest language is elegant language. His online magazine is neither a forum for prescriptivism nor for his prejudices, but deals extensively with the endless oddities and richness of language.

Mr. Fiske's own characteristic tone is perhaps best caught in his Dimwit's Dictionary. In that 400-page work a vast body of words and phrases are shown up for the linguistic ciphers they are. He has established a number of categories for "Expressions That Dull Our Reason and Dim Our Insight." These included grammatical gimmicks, which are expressions (such as "whatever," "you had to be there") that are used by people who have lost their powers of description; ineffectual phrases ("the fact remains," "the thing about it is," "it is important to realize") used by people to delay coming to the point or for simple bewilderment; infantile phrases ("humongous," "gazillions," "everything's relative"), which show evidence of unformed reasoning; moribund metaphors ("window of opportunity") and insipid similes ("cool as a cucumber"); suspect superlatives ("an amazing person," "the best and the brightest"), which are just what the category suggests; torpid terms ("prioritize," "proactive," "significant other"), which are vapid and dreary; not to mention plebeian sentiments, overworked words, popular prescriptions, quack equations, and wretched redundancies.



Behind Mr. Fiske's continuing project is the idea that without careful language there can be no clear thought. Politicians, advertising copywriters, swindlers of differing styles and ambitions know this well and put it to their own devious uses. The rest of us too easily tend to forget this central truth. All words and phrases, to fall back on what I hope isn't a plebeian sentiment, are guilty until proved innocent.

Bad language is viral; it's in the atmosphere, and we all pick it up. Mr. Fiske diagnoses it and tells us, in the Vocabula Review and in his books, how to get well. His aim is a higher standard of linguistic health through the clear and precise use of language. A subscription to Vocabula Review is the intellectual equivalent of a monthly flu shot. A shame we cannot write the cost of his excellent service off to Blue Cross or Medicare.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Joseph Epstein. “Language Guardian.” The Wall Street Journal (December 7, 2006).

This article reprinted with permission Opinion Journal from The Wall Street Journal and the author, Joseph Epstein.

THE AUTHOR

Joseph Epstein is a Chicagoan essayist, short story writer, and editor, best known as a former editor of the Phi Beta Kappa Society's American Scholar magazine and for his recent essay collection, Snobbery: The American Version. Currently, he is a Contributing Editor at The Weekly Standard. His most recent book is Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide.

Copyright © 2006 Wall Street Journal


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