dimwits are all around me, they’re everywhere I go


Es­ti­mated reading time is 4 min­utes.

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.

Vocabula Review

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.



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