Ambrose Bierce's blacklist
A friend and owner of a local independent bookstore discovered a copy of a slim 1909 book, Ambrose Bierce’s Write it Right – A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults. She decided it might be the sort of thing that would interest me. She was right.
Written over a century ago by one of the era’s brilliant literary and social critics, Write it Right beautifully exemplifies that over time, language changes, and that people -- no matter how bright, daring, and wonderful they might be -- don’t like change.
The book is set up like a dictionary, each entry either focusing on one word or on words that Mr. Bierce believed users were confusing. Bierce’s purpose was to “teach precision in writing.” Below you’ll find a few selected entries highlighting not only Bierce’s keen wit and education, but his delightfully high opinion of himself.
Banquet. A good enough word in its place, but its place is the dictionary. Say, dinner.
Casket for coffin. A needless euphemism affected by undertakers.
Dirt for Earth, Soil, or Gravel. A most disagreeable Americanism, discredited by general (and Presidential) use. “Make the dirt fly.” Dirt means filth.
Firstly. If this word could mean anything it would mean firstlike, whatever that might mean. The ordinal numbers should have no adverbial form: “firstly,” “secondly,” and the rest are words without meaning.
Gent for Gentleman. Vulgar exceedingly.
Gubernatorial. Eschew it; it is not English, is needless and bombastic. Leave it to those who call a political office a “chair.” “Gubernatorial chair” is good enough for them. So is hanging.
Meet for Meeting. This belongs to the language of sport, which persons of sense do not write—nor read.
Pants for Trousers. Abbreviated from pantaloons, which are no longer worn. Vulgar exceedingly.
Poetess. A foolish word, like “authoress.”
Tasty for Tasteful. Vulgar.
Ways for Way. “A squirrel ran a little ways along the road.” “The ship looked a long ways off.” This surprising word calls loudly for depluralization.
Readers, I hope you have something to say about all this. If so, please say it in the comments section.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: The Ambrose Bierce Project, & Write it Right – A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, The Neale Publishing Company, 1909.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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