Friday, July 7, 2017

The Dimwits Of Language Explored By A Book

After thumbing through The Dimwit’s Dictionary:  Third Edition by Robert Hartwell Fiske, a copy I bought at the great indie bookstore, McNally Jackson, I conclude that the author may be a snarky, even mean-spirited language policeman who delivers a terrific look at what’s overused, abused, and misunderstood about the English language.  The linguistics curmudgeon hits it on the head when he says this:

“Whereas a witticism is a clever remark or phrase – indeed, the height of expression – “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.

The Dimwit’s Dictionary is a compilation of thousands of dimwitticisms (clichés, colloquialisms, idioms, slang, and the like) that people speak and write endlessly."

The book is mostly filled with idioms that are still used today, even though he derides their usage.  He offers substitute words or phrases that could be used in place of the tried and true.

He also shows us how our society has developed in how one speaks.  He notes that “Everyday English is marked by an ignorance of both the structure of sentences (grammar) and the meanings of words (usage).”  All too often people pollute our ears when they say things such as this:

·         He did good last night (should be “well”)
·         It’s like déjà vu all over again {delete “like”)
·         I shouldn’t have did it (use “done”)
·         I gots a lot of thinking to do (use “have” or “got”)

He easily spots and assaults our many abuses of language, especially when it comes to the speaking and writing of what he calls “uneducated English.”

He breaks down our linguistic transgressions into several areas, including these:

Grammatical Gimmicks
Examples: Whatever
                 This, that, and the other thing
                  You had to be there

He notes:  “These are devices that we resort to whenever we are unable to adequately explain our thoughts or feelings.  Grammatical gimmicks attest to just how dull and dimwitted we have become."

Ineffectual Phrases
Examples:  It has come to my attention that
                   The fact of the matter is
                   The thing about it is

He notes: “How a person speaks often reveals how he thinks.  And how he thinks determines how he behaves.  A person who speaks ineffectually may think ineffectually, and a person who thinks ineffectually may behave ineffectually – perhaps badly.  Ineffectual phrases add only to our being ineffectual people.”

Morbid Metaphors
Examples:  Get all their ducks in a row
                   Singing from the same hymn sheet
                   Go down the drain
                   The jury is still out on that

He notes:  “We rely on metaphors not because we feel they make our speech and writing more vivid and inviting but because we fail to learn how to express ourselves otherwise, we know not the words.

“In truth, the more of these metaphors that we use, the less effective is our speech and writing.  Neither interesting nor persuasive, their expression fatigues us where we hoped it would inform us, annoys us where we believed it would amuse us, and benumbs us where we hoped it would inspire us.”

He goes on to complain about overworked words such as amazing, really, ongoing, basically, and awesome saying:  “Words, when overworked, diminish the meaning of all that they are used to describe.  Our thoughts and feelings both are enfeebled by these tired terms.”

He goes on to admonish the uttering of popular prescriptions – actions speak louder than words or a picture is worth a thousand words.  He says: “Dull-witted speakers and writers depend on prescriptions like these to guide them through life…popular prescriptions endure not for their sincerity but for their simplicity.  We embrace them because they make all they profess to explain and all they profess to prescribe seem plain and uncomplicated.”

He certainly is good at complaining but he makes many good points and doesn’t shy from giving specific examples of floored speech and then substituting suggested words, terms and phrases.  But isn’t there a place for some of the very things he vomits over? Isn’t there a reason why some of these phrases have survived for centuries?

Sometimes we need clichés and idioms to precisely explain a situation.  Sure, we could tackle the expression of a feeling, thought or moment in a creative, alternative way, but maybe it’s unnecessary to do so.  There are times when we simply need to convey something and these old phrases like “in the wrong place at the wrong time” summarize things perfectly.

But Fiske believes the world is self-destructing and he is not necessarily wrong but perhaps there’s a solution that allows us to balance things and to transition from these idioms but not completely abandon all of them quickly.

Still, he concludes with this:

“Life is measured by its meaning and a good deal of that meaning is inherent in the words we use.  If so, many of our words are superfluous – and thus do not signify – so much of our life is, ineluctably, meaningless.  In the end, we are no more superfluous than are the words we use…

“Soon, it is clear, we will be a society unable to distinguish one word from another, sense from nonsense, truth from falsehood, good from evil.  We will soon utter only mono- and disyllabic words, be entertained only by what pleases our peers, and adore whatever is easy or effortless.  Unfamiliar wording and original phrasing will soon sound incoherent or cacophonic to us, while well-known inanities like have a nice day, what goes around comes around and hope for the best but expect the worst will serve as our mantras, our maxims, or mottoes.”

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog 2017©. Born and raised in Brooklyn, now resides in Westchester. Named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby 

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