Thursday, May 05, 2016

`Dull Our Reason and Dim Our Insight'

Joseph Epstein pays his respects to the late Robert Hartwell Fiske, “an unknown soldier in that most glorious and hopeless of wars, that against the ignorant and abusive use of language.” Fiske’s arsenal, in addition to the obsessiveness noted by Epstein, included a fine-tuned ear, a healthy respect verging on love for language and its rules, and a readily deployed wit. See his “Opening Comments” to Thesaurus of Alternatives to Worn-Out Words and Phrases (Writer’s Digest Books, 1994):

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

If the reader is about to mutter “elitist,” note the final phrase and reconsider. Threadbare language is more than merely tedious, lazy and frequently incoherent. Shoddy words signal shoddy thinking. If your reaction to a piece of music, for instance, is an automatic Awesome! you haven’t been listening or thinking. I’m surprised to discover that by 1994 Fiske had already diagnosed the now ubiquitous “awesome.” In his entry for it in the Thesaurus, Fiske writes: “An overworked word. Like awful and terrific, the word awesome has been made ridiculous by those who are bent on using it solely in its most popular sense.” “An overworked word” is one of Fiske’s more diplomatic epithets. Most of the entries in his Thesaurus are described as a “moribund metaphor,” “insipid simile” or “dimwitted redundancy.” Of “have a good (nice) day (evening),” Fiske writes:

“A plebian sentiment. We are dimwitted creatures who find that formulas rather than feelings suit us well enough; indeed, they suit us mightily. How pleasant it is not to have to think of a valid sentiment when a vapid one does so nicely; how effortless to rely on triteness rather than on truth. Dimwitticisms veil our true feelings and avert our real thoughts.”  

In other words, thoughtlessly borrowed language is often dishonest, a verbal smokescreen. For clarity, see the always amusing and instructive Vocabula Review, founded by Fiske in 1999. In 2002, he published the first edition (with two to follow) of his Dimwit’s Dictionary: 5,000 Overused Words and Phrases and Alternatives to Them, to which Epstein supplied a foreword. It concludes with this:

“Mr. Fiske is, in short, a fanatic, an extremist who apparently believes that clear language is our only hope for clear thought, that dull language deadens the mind and dampens the imagination, that a felicitous phrase is good news, that a strong prose style is a gift to be cultivated and cherished, that nothing, no, nothing in the world exceeds language in its significance to the human enterprise. As it happens, I believe in all this, too, which makes it an honor to salute a fellow fanatic and wish him and his book the great good fortune both deserve.”

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