Published May 14, 2007
Every writer, working or aspiring, should read, and reread, William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well.” I’ve read it twice and return to it now and again to revisit favorite passages. I love Zinsser’s uncompromising comments on simplicity and clutter: “Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”
Zinsser quotes a 1942 federal blackout order, followed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s clarification: “Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination.” “‘Tell them,’ Roosevelt said, ‘that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something across the windows.’”
I first noticed prepositional clutter in high school when my younger brother got upset about the phrase “Where’s it at?” He said the “at” is superfluous. Needless prepositions seem especially prevalent in computer talk, attaching themselves to words like mosquitoes: people “kill out” pages, “delete out” words and “print out” copies. In every case “out” is unnecessary.
I visited Zinsser while browsing my bookshelf of books about language. I enjoy specialized dictionaries that treat a specific part of speech, allowing me to get specific in my writing, as commanded in “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, the latter the author of “Charlotte’s Web.” “Use definite, specific, concrete language” they say. Rather than writing “A period of unfavorable weather set in,” write “It rained every day for a week.”
You can’t get much more specialized than “Zounds! A Browser’s Dictionary of Interjections” by Mark Dunn, who lists “toy! toy!” as an alternative to the overused “break a leg” in theaters. Dunn says it means the same thing and comes either from the act of spitting, considered good luck, or the sound of knocking on wood. “Zounds!,” with drawings by “Mad” magazine artist Sergione Aragones, is a mostly alphabetical list of interjections old and new, breaking sometimes from the abecedarian order to group words by subject, such as the list of interjections popularized by movies. If you’re a fan of “The Music Man,” you’ll understand “Ye gods!” and “Great honk!”
Peter Novobatzky and Ammon Shea in “Depraved and Insulting English” define arcane and archaic words, such as fumosities, the ill-smelling vapors from a drunken person’s belches; antithalian, disapproving of laughter or festivity; snollygoster, an unprincipled person, especially a politician; and snivelard, someone who speaks through the nose; a whiny person.
Novobatzky and Shea say in their introduction that every word is a genuine English word, the three-page bibliography citing sources from Nathaniel Bailey’s “An Universal Dictionary,” 18th edition, published in 1761 in London; to Eugene Ehrlich’s “The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate” and Jeffrey Kacirk’s “Forgotten English,” both published in New York in 1997, the latter author also producing the page-a-day calendar that graces my desk. In this year’s calendar, Kacirk explains the origin of the term “Hell on Wheels” on the page for May 10, the day the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah: “As Ramon Adams noted in his ‘Dictionary of the Range, Cow Camp, and Trail’ (1946), ‘This expression originated during the building of the Union Pacific Railway in 1867. As the rails were laid westward, the honkytonks, gambling halls and harlots were loaded on flatcars and moved to the new terminals.’”
James Rogers in “The Dictionary of Cliches” writes that the origin of the term “get one’s goat” has been lost, but he says the term began as American slang in the early 20th century and first appeared in print in Christy Mathewson’s “Pitching in a Pinch,” (1912): “Then Lobert … stopped at third with a mocking smile which would have gotten the late Job’s goat.” H.L. Mencken writes in his masterwork “American Language” (1945) that he was told the phrase originated with horse trainers who kept a goat in a stall to soothe a nervous horse. A person who wanted the horse to lose a race stole the goat, and the nervous horse wouldn’t run well.
- American Indians
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- E. Clothing
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- Ohio History
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- World War II