Who Do You Want to Be?

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To help us decide, we're recommending one book, and we're looking at the use of three words in your vocabulary.

You’re coming out of a building, maybe; or you’re on the sidewalk on the way to lunch, and the question we’re asking is, how do you want to come off?

Robert Hartwell Fiske’s Dictionary of Unendurable English, published by Scribner, paperback, 456 pages, ISBN 978-1-4516-5132-4 (pbk), has a few ideas.

I wanna be — hey! — the greatest!

Take the word “hey,” as in “They talk about what a steal that was, but — hey! — that was almost 40 years ago.” (Example verbatim from Mr. Fiske’s Dictionary of Unendurable English.)

But what does the Dictionary think about you using the word “hey” here in the city?

“Delete hey,” the Dictionary advises. In this usage, it says, “hey” is the talk of a “juvenile.”

“But I like using ‘hey’!”

Then use it — but use it knowingly. (Our opinion, not that of Mr. Fiske, who would say…. Well, you know what he would say, and he might be right.)

But if you do use it, of course, you will always use it in conversation because, Mr. Fiske says, you would never want to use hey! in written English. Why? The Dictionary of Unendurable English offers an example of how that would read. This is from the magazine, Entertainment —

  • Hey, in a country where not actually winning the popular vote can lead to the Oval Office, it pays to aim low.

Does that really read like, you know, totally atrocious? Mr. Fiske comments:

  • Hey is exclamatory, but only less than able writers — however friendly they wish to appear — would use it, in effect, as an inverted exclamation mark with which to capture our flagging attention.

And, returning to the use of “hey,” whether written or spoken, he adds: “Perhaps the best way to discourage people from using hey! is to respond with a hearty, lubricious ‘diddle diddle?’”

(If any of our readers are too young — or too old — or both too young and too old, if you take our meaning — to call up the work Mr. Fiske has in mind (first published c. 1765, author unknown), allow us to offer the first line: Hey diddle diddle, the Cat and the fiddle.

Still starting sentences with ‘so?’

“Hold on. I like starting my sentences with ‘so.’”

All right. We’re not going to forbid it.

“My friends and I have developed a thing with starting our sentences with so and, frankly, the larger group I belong to have become accustomed — attached, even — to the practice.”

All right…. As long as you’re doing it, may we say, knowingly. For his part, Mr. Fiske, in his Dictionary, makes this observation —

  • “At the beginning of a sentence, so means as much as umm and ahh and well and like do — that is, [so] means nothing at all and suggests only that the people who depend on this expression, and the others, need a few more seconds to articulate a response or a remark…. This so does not mean thus or therefore… This is the stalling, the shilly-shallying, so.”

“Last word?”

Yes. You may have the last word.

“Mr. Fiske can consider his comment correct, as far as it goes. But then we are coming along after the fact, and imbuing the word with additional meaning.”

Well spoken. And we have room for one more item — a short one — and we will give this one entirely to Mr. Fiske (to his Dictionary, actually) —


The pronunciation of asterisk is (AS-tah-risk), not (AS-tricks) or (AS-trick) or (AS-ter-iks).

— Robert Hartwell Fiske is also the author of The Dictionary of Concise Writing, The Dimwit’s Dictionary, 101 Elegant Paragraphs, and The Best Words. Online he publishes The Vocabula Review (http://www.vocabula.com), a monthly online journal about the English language.