December 23, 2006

WORD GAMES:

Language Guardian: An online journal fights for clear, expressive English. (JOSEPH EPSTEIN, 12/07/06, Wall Street Journal)

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.


Posted by Orrin Judd at December 23, 2006 5:26 PM
Comments

Speaking of word games, what happened to Kwanzaa this year? Nary a mention did I see anywhere.

Posted by: erp at December 24, 2006 11:22 AM
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