There’s no entry for “curmudgeon” in Robert Hartwell Fiske’s new Dictionary of Unendurable English, but no matter—the entire book might well serve as the definition. Lest you turn right around and call me curmudgeonly, let me clarify that I mean that as a compliment.
Fiske, the language-obsessed creator of online journal The Vocabula Review, does not mince words. Nor shall I: His dictionary is one of the grumpiest, most self-righteous intellectual exercises I’ve ever had the genuine pleasure of reading. In the appendixes alone, he defrocks one of academia’s most trusted resources (“Merriam-Webster’s definitions of peruse nicely illustrate how useless this book has become”), charts his own ranking system for dictionaries and recommends that “this essay...could be printed on the dust jacket flap of each dictionary,” and provides a form letter for his readers to send to “the editors of descriptive dictionaries” that begins “Dear Sir: I am appalled” and closes with “Do be sensible.”
He’s right, of course. And there’s the rub. Those of us who earn our keep by reforming errant English would love—more than that, would celebrate with unseemly dance moves and quantities of liquor—if everyone around us used the language a little better. Should you opt to spend some time with Fiske’s dictionary, you’ll be well on the way. Bring an open mind, a thick skin, and a sense of humor.
Photograph © Mia R. Lipman