THE DIMWIT’S DICTIONARY by Robert Hartwell Fiske consists of approximately 4,000 entries of words and phrases that the author believes indicate less than optimal thinking and writing. The Dimwit’s Dictionary is a compilation of thousands of “dimwitticisms”—including clichés, colloquialisms, idioms, and the like—that people speak and write excessively.
Each word or phrase is assigned to one of fourteen “types” devised by the author. These include Suspect Superlatives, Withered Words, and Wretched Redundancies, and my favorite, Moribund Metaphors.
Soon we will be a society unable to distinguish one word from another, sense from nonsense, truth from falsehood, good from evil.
Here are some excerpts from the first two chapters of Robert Fiske’s book, which are the author’s introduction and explanation of the book:
“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 out 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.” (page 18)
Robert Hartwell Fiske even takes us to task for the use of unnecessary foreign words and phrases, most of which do come across as affectations. Dim me if there is anything in the English language that does justice to ‘joie de vivre’—which is so much more life-affirming than “a keen or buoyant enjoyment of life.”
“People who rely on dimwitticisms . . . appear to express themselves more fluently and articulately than those few who do not. But this is a sham articulateness, for without the use of phrases like left holding the bag, left out in the cold . . . most people would stammer helplessly.” (page 29)
“Dimwitticisms are ubiquitous, and we cannot easily escape them. Few of us can express a thought without them. We learn them unknowingly; insidiously do they become part of out wording unless we recognize what they are and withstand their onslaught. Genuine articulateness is writing and speech that scarcely makes use of dimwitticisms, and it is achieved only with much effort.” (page 29)
“A person who expresses himself with genuineness instead of in jargon, with feeling instead of in formulas is capable as few have been, as few are, as few will be; this is a person to heed.” (page 29)
These statements make clear the seriousness with which the author takes his task: be believes that the use of tried and true words and phrases fog our brains—making us appear dimwitted. And, worse, they cause us to conform to the behavior of other dimwits.
“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 mutter 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 mantra, our maxim, our motto.” (page 38)
With this statement, Fiske almost sounds like he is veering into political territory. For those unfamiliar with George Orwell’s classic dystopic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of the ways in which the masses are controlled is through a contrived language called newspeak, designed to limit free and creative thought.
Ah, the days of yore before the term politically correct—supposedly coined by Leon Trotsky or Mao Zedong—had not yet been misappropriated by the rightwingnuts and all was fair in love and war and comic strips and bubblegum cards. Denny Dimwit was a character in the Winnie Winkle strip, which ran an astounding 76 years! The toy above is a swing-and-sway figure manufactured by Wondercraft Company in the late 1940s. Are we better off without such characterizations on popular culture? Hell if I know.
I found the book an enjoyable read, especially the small amount of commentary: Fiske is an engaging writer, as the examples above should make clear. He is easy to read with just the right amount of guff to make his ‘suggestions’ worthy of heeding.
Mr. Fiske was the editor of The Vocabula Review, a website devoted to the English language. He is also the author of The Dictionary Of Concise Writing: 10,000 Alternatives To Wordy Phrases, which I have not read bit is on my list!
As William Safire said of this book, “Fiske shows how to make the turgid crisp.”
As for the title of this piece, “dimwits are all around me, they’re everywhere I go”—think of the tune to the Troggs’ hit record Love Is All Around Me.
Mystically liberal Virgo enjoys long walks alone in the city at night in the rain with an umbrella and a flask of 10-year-old Laphroaig who strives to live by the maxim, “It ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble; it’s what you know that just ain’t so.
I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn, and a college dropout (twice!). Occupationally, I have been a bartender, jewelry engraver, bouncer, landscape artist, and FEMA crew chief following the Great Flood of ’72 (and that was a job that I should never, ever have left).
I am also the final author of the original O’Sullivan Woodside price guides for record collectors and the original author of the Goldmine price guides for record collectors. As such, I was often referred to as the Price Guide Guru, and—as everyone should know—it behooves one to heed the words of a guru. (Unless, of course, you’re the Beatles.)