, Gloucester, MA

April 28, 2011

A man and his words: Rockport writer's 'Vocabula' strikes new chords

By Gail McCarthy
Staff Writer

A growing list of universities, from coast to coast, are signing up for lifelong word fanatic andRockport resident Robert Hartwell Fiske's website, which is all about the English language.

He is creator, editor, and publisher of The Vocabula Review (, a monthly online journal about the English language, which he started in 1999.

Institutions that have bought site licenses to Vocabula include Columbia University, National University of Singapore, Boston University Law Library, Editorial Freelance Association, George Mason University, Eastern Kentucky University, Syracuse University, Princeton University, Creighton University, Northeastern University, and, most recently, Stanford University.

But The Vocabula Review is also available to individual readers, and nearly 1,000 people now subscribe.

The mission behind the website is to promote the richness of the English language, said Fiske.

"In sum, The Vocabula Review battles nonstandard, careless English and embraces clear, expressive English," he said. "We hope we can encourage our readers to do as much."

Fiske is the author of a dozen books on the English language, his latest titled "The Best Words."

Including some 200 words that people might profit from knowing and using, the 175-page book includes sidebars with further explanation, derivations, and literary asides, providing a tool for students, writers and word-lovers alike. The book concludes with six quizzes to test comprehension.

Fiske engaged in a questions-and-answer session with the Times:

Q. Can you tell me about your educational and professional background, and how these influences may have led to the creation of the website and books?

A. I went to a quirky college, Friends World College, whose ethos, in the 1960s and 1970s, was to promote one world and understanding among people. Students traveled around the world, and I, as a transfer student, traveled halfway around the world.

I spent six months in East Africa and a year and a half in England and Western Europe. When I returned to the United States (the day after the Kent State killings), it was as though I were hearing people for the first time.

I was thunderstruck by how people spoke, by the nonsense of so much of what we say. I became preternaturally conscious of how people express themselves. That, ultimately, led to my writing plays; and then to working as an editor at a publishing house; and then to writing my first book, "The Dictionary of Concise Writing"; and then to beginning The Vocabula Review.

Q. How did the latest book come to fruition?

A. "The Best Words" includes some of the best words the English language has to offer. Perhaps half the words in this book are regarded as "best" by Vocabula Review readers who nominated them, as well as others, for inclusion in The Vocabula Review's "Best Words" Web page (

Others I myself regard as best, whether for their meaning, their pronunciation, or, as is perhaps most likely, both their meaning and pronunciation.

Q. What would you like a reader to know about this book?

A. What I say in the introduction to the book:

The point of learning new words is not to impress your friends or to seem more intelligent than they. The point is to see more, to understand more. An ever-increasing vocabulary uncovers connections, introduces spheres, and — in reminding us that there are words for all thoughts, all feelings, all behaviors, all things — upholds all humankind.

The best words are words you actually will have occasion to use; they are not the sort of "weird" or "wonderful" words (such as infrendiate and dromaeognathous) you might encounter only at insipid cocktail parties where one person tries to impress, or, as likely, insult, another. These words are meant to be spoken and written, and if you use them, you will learn them.

Since the average English speaker has a vocabulary of 10,000 to 20,000 words, and uses far fewer than that, learning these best words may be a very good use of your time — better, certainly, than reading about the mind-numbing tedium of your friends' daily lives on Facebook or Twitter.

Q. Please tell me about Vocabula, and the meaning behind its name.

A. The Vocabula Review is an online journal about the English language, and certainly the principal Web destination for anyone interested in words and language. I began The Vocabula Review in September 1999, and have been able to publish a new issue each month since then. Anyone who subscribes to Vocabula has access to all back issues — more than 140 of them.

Vocabula is the plural of the Latin vocabulum, which means "word." Vocabula thus means "many words, a vocabulary."

The Vocabula Review's mission statement reads: Along with the evolution of language — the thousands of neologisms that new technologies and new thinking have brought about, for instance — there has been a concurrent, if perhaps less recognizable, devolution of language.

The English language has become more precise for some users of it while becoming more plodding for others. Not a small part of this new cumbrousness is due to the loss of distinctions between words, the misuse of words, and other abuses of language.

That a U.S. presidential candidate can cry "Is our children learning," an admired basketball star can use the word conversate, a well-known college professor can say "vociferous" when he means "voracious," and another can scold a student for using the word "juggernaut" because she believes it means "jigaboo" is disturbing. The Vocabula Review strives to combat the degradation of our language.

Equally important, we celebrate its opulence and its elegance. The English language is wonderfully expressive and infinitely flexible. There are many thousands of words and many hundreds of ways in which to use them.

I have had an editing and writing service since 1986. I named it Vocabula Communications Co. In 1999, as I say, I began The Vocabula Review.

Q. What are some of your least favorite words or expressions?

A. I've written books that are full of disagreeable words and expressions, but among them are certainly these few:

Actively looking (participating, pursuing, etc.)

At the end of the day.

Go forward (move forward, move forward in the right direction, etc.).

Shocked and saddened.

Sorely missed.

Send a message.

Let me tell you something.

Cautiously optimistic.

Despite the fact that (in spite of the fact that, in view of the fact that, because of the fact that, due to the fact that, etc.)

Equally unsettling are some slang terms, including my bad, failed, def, diss, mad skillz, and other atrocities.

Q. What do you do for fun?

A. I write and read, exercise, play with my dog, and work on my house.

Q. What are the titles of the other books you have written?

A. I am the author of:

"Silence, Language, & Society: A guide to style and meaning, grace and compassion."

"The Dimwit's Dictionary."

"The Dictionary of Concise Writing."

"The Dictionary of Disagreeable English."

"101 Wordy Phrases."

"101 Foolish Phrases."

"101 Elegant Paragraphs."

"Speaking of Silence" (or Agnes and Otto).

"The Best Words."

I am the editor of:

"Vocabula Bound 1: Outbursts, Insights, Explanations, and Oddities."

"Vocabula Bound 2: Our Wresting, Writhing Tongue."

And, with Laura Cherry," Poem, Revised: 54 Poems, Revisions, Discussions."

In November, two more books will be published: the third edition of my "Dimwit's Dictionary," and, by Simon & Schuster, my "Dictionary of Unendurable English." Both books may now be preordered from or Amazon.

For more information, visit

Gail McCarthy can be reached a 978-283-7000 x3445, or at