The Day of the Dead. I invite all of Vocabula to submit a poem or a prose piece on death or near death or living with death or another's death or the threat or imminence of death. Heartfelt remembrances, thoughts, fears, last words.

Nothing longer than 1000 words. To be published in the October Vocabula. Open to Vocabula subscribers only. Send your submission to editor@vocabula.com. This is not a contest. It's a celebration.

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Scarcely Used Words

Calendar    May 2015, Vol. 17, No. 5 Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher     ISSN 1542-7080
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The Dictionary of Unendurable English


Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English

Today's popular dictionaries often fail to define words correctly or to distinguish between them; some dictionaries even maintain that one word means the same as another simply because people who do not know the correct meanings of the words confuse them. Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English — a supplement to whatever dictionary you own or use — is an attempt to combat this nonsense, to return meaning and distinction to the words we use.

You can order The Dictionary of Unendurable English from Simon & Schuster or Amazon or elsewhere.

To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing


To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing

To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing is the perfect reference book for anyone who wants to communicate more effectively through clear and beautiful prose. In this freshly updated edition that features hundreds of new entries, Robert Hartwell Fiske lays out multiple lines of attack against verbiage. He starts by training writers, new or experienced, to tackle wordy trends in their work. His "Dictionary of Concise Writing" helps them identify and correct — or delete — thousands of specific redundant phrases. In addition, writers can turn to the new "Guide to Obfuscation: A Reverse Dictionary" to build a more pithy vocabulary. Filled with real-world examples that provide clarity and context for Fiske's rules of concision, this is a writer's sharpest weapon against verbosity.

You can order To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing from Amazon or W. W. Norton.

Elegant English: Second Edition


Elegant English

This is a Vocabula Book. As the superfluity of uninspired, careless, grammatically incorrect, slang-ridden English makes plain, elegant English is English rarely heard, English seldom seen. Countless occasions where elegant English might have been used — indeed, ought to have been used — by a president or politician, an author or other notable, have passed with bland, if not bumbling, speech or writing. The point of this book is to show that the language can be spoken or written with grace and polish — qualities that much contemporary English is bereft of and could benefit from. Elegant English is exhilarating; it stirs our thoughts and feelings as ably as everyday English blurs them.

You can order Elegant English from Vocabula or Amazon.

The Dimwit's Dictionary: Fourth Edition


 The Dimwit's Dictionary

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 our 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.

You can order The Dimwit's Dictionary from Vocabula.


 In the May 2015 Vocabula
 The June 2015 issue is due online June 21.

Joseph Epstein

I have an issue with issue — with the word, that is. It pops up everywhere, meaning everything and meaning nothing. One hears of a pitcher who has rotator-cuff issues, of a landlord who has issues with pets in his buildings, of a bill up before Congress that poses jurisdictional issues. A weather reporter informs me that dressing warmly in a snowstorm is the main issue. The issue over reinstating the draft is whether soldiers serving only two years can be of serious military use. Can a word having so many different meanings, capable of being plugged into so many various contexts, finally have any useful meaning whatsoever? That, you might say, is the issue, though if you did you would be misusing the word.

I first became aware of the proper use of the word issue sometime in the late 1960s. I was a senior editor at Encyclopaedia Britannica, sitting in lengthy, often goofy meetings presided over by Mortimer Adler, who was redesigning — and not at all by the way destroying — the old Britannica, turning it from the world’s best straightforward reference work into a Rube Goldberg device of monstrous complexity. Mortimer was many things — clown, tyrant, force of nature .... More ... 

When people misuse words in an illiterate but humorous manner, we call the result a malapropism. The word echoes the name of Mrs. Malaprop (from the French mal a propos, “not appropriate”), a character who first strode the stage in 1775, 240 years ago, in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's comedy The Rivals. Mrs. Malaprop was a garrulous “old weather-beaten she dragon” who took special pride in her use of the King's English but who, all the same, unfailingly mangled big words: “Sure, if I reprehend anything in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!” She meant, of course, that if she comprehended anything, it was a nice arrangement of epithets.

From The Rivals, here are some more of Mrs. M's most malapropriate malapropisms:

• Then, sir, she should have a supercilious knowledge in account; — and as she grew up, I should have her instructed in geometry, that she might know something of the contagious countries. More ... 

An Austin, Texas, emergency medical technician answered a call at the home of an elderly woman whose sister had collapsed. As they were placing her into the ambulance, the lady wailed, “Oh, lawdy, lawdy. I know what's the matter with her. She done got the same thing what killed her brother. It's a heretical disease.”

The technician asked what that would be, and the lady said, “The Smiling Mighty Jesus!”

When the technician got the sister to the county hospital, she looked up the brother's medical records to find he had died of spinal meningitis.

A woman rushed into the lobby of a hospital and exclaimed, “Where's the fraternity ward?” The receptionist calmly replied, “You must mean the maternity ward.”

The woman went on, “But I have to see the upturn.” Patiently, the receptionist answered, “You must mean the intern.”

Exasperated, the woman continued, “Fraternity, maternity, upturn, intern — I don't care wherever or whoever. Even though I use an IOU, and my husband has had a bisectomy, I haven't demonstrated for two months and I think I may be fragrant!” More ... 

If I were naught but an insensitive churl, fain would I plummet to the pitiless nadir of telling hunchback jokes. But did you hear that the hunchback of Notre Dame has retired? He received two years back pay, a lump sum, and a case of Bells.

Before his demise, Quasimodo was in the kitchen when his mother walked in carrying a wok. The hunchback said, "Great, I love Chinese food." His mother shook her head, "Chinese food? No, no, my dear son. I use the wok to iron your shirts."

Nowadays the word gibbous means "hunchbacked." Gibbous is not pronounced djibus. Unlike most Latin-derived words in English that begin with gi-, gibbous has a hard g sound, as it had in classical Latin. Used in English by the onset of the fifteenth century CE, gibbous first meant "sticking out" or "rounded,"; then, three hundred years later, English astronomers could speak of  "a gibbous moon," when the bright part of the moon is more than half its circumference but not a full moon. Gibbous is still used in reporting lunar status. It's a humpbacked moon. More ... 



Literary
Back to Top  Free Beer Tomorrow
Clark Elder Morrow

A perpetuum mobile in the form of a rondo

Free Beer Tomorrow the sign proclaimed but not for today there is no free beer today but if you come back tomorrow there will be free beer so I arrived the next day and the sign still said Free Beer Tomorrow not today and not yesterday but only tomorrow so I dallied till dusk and then showed up early the next day and every day after that for my free beer and every day I did so the proud exultant smart-alecky sign said loudly Free Beer Tomorrow come back tomorrow and all your beer will be sweet and free and flowing and foamy and you will be full and fulfilled and go away replete with sweet beer and find your fill of pilsner and all you have to do is come back on the morrow and find free beer but with deep fear I crept back to the cryptlike cavelike bar next day to find the sign that sighed with mock sympathy No Free Beer Today but Free Beer Tomorrow and all you can drink and so I crept away unsatisfied and unsated with a deep feeling of despair and dread that I was caught in a swirl of a world without surcease and I was seeing endless parallel lines of mirrors all reflecting each other endlessly and all pointing to a period that would never come nor consummate and Free Beer Tomorrow would be never Free nor Beer nor Tomorrow ever and ever time without end no matter how many times I toddled down the steps to the taper-lit tavern where Free Beer Tomorrow lured like a siren in the Stygian depths and suggested like a syrinx or a sphinx that staggering drafts of lager and ale and stout More ... 

Robert Hartwell Fiske

OMISSION: OF THE ANSWER TO A QUESTION (APORIA, DUBITATIO)

Where a person expresses doubt, either genuine or feigned, about the answer to a question.

• To be, or not to be: that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them? To die: to sleep; no more; and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep; to sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause: there’s the respect that makes calamity of so long life; for who would bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes, when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin? who would these fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the dread of something after death, the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises of great pith and moment with this regard their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action. — William Shakespeare, Hamlet

• Am I no better than a eunuch or is the proper man — the man with the right to existence — a raging stallion forever neighing after his neighbor’s womankind? Or are we meant to act on impulse alone? It is all a darkness. — Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier

• What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed? By aporia pure and simple? Or by affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered, sooner or later? — Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
How Linguistics Killed Grammar
Peter Corey

In her book, Verbal Hygiene, linguist Deborah Cameron refers to those who advocate prescriptivism in grammar as verbal hygienists. She is, of course, preaching to the choir, since her book (written during a public outcry in the United Kingdom over the issue of literacy) is a strategy manual for linguists, taking seriously the Roman adage "It is right to make your enemy your teacher." It might be fair, therefore, to refer to Cameron and other linguists as verbal nihilists, but I prefer to defend prescriptivism, which is a tradition I find liberal, honorable, and more sensible than linguistics. As a result, I will refer to linguistics by its name, and to prescriptivism — because its philosophical premises are key — as humanistic grammar.

My claim in this essay is that linguistics has effectively killed humanistic grammar, especially as a subject in the public schools, though also as a topic worthy of serious discussion in public discourse. Linguists perceive themselves (and are generally perceived by others) as "scientists," whether or not they deserve that label. Humanist grammarians are perceived as "language mavens," to borrow a phrase from linguist Steven Pinker. Yet, if linguists really are scientists, they spend an awful lot of time writing essays, books, and reviews that are hostile to the positions of humanist grammar on various issues. Many books on linguistics, from those meant for general readers to those meant for serious students, contain disclaimers, often hostile, in which the authors dissociate themselves from any taint of humanistic grammar. In addition to the hostility, these disclaimers often completely misrepresent humanistic grammar in the following ways:

1. They misrepresent the history of humanistic grammar, claiming that it has sought to force English into a Latin framework.
2. They misrepresent the nature of humanistic grammar as mere rule following.
3. They have not competed fairly in the marketplace of ideas.

There is a critical literature on linguistics — some by linguists, some by philosophers, some by English teachers. Interested readers will find a bibliography and web links at the end of this essay. More ... 

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Love a word? Tell us what it is and perhaps we'll add it to our list of Best Words. There need not be any well-reasoned analysis of your high regard for a word; emotional reactions to the sound or meaning of words are welcome. If a word you love is already listed, you are welcome to tell us why you, too, love the word. The Best Words have an aura of fun or majesty.

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Hate a word? Tell us what it is and perhaps we'll add it to our list of Worst Words. There need not be any well-reasoned analysis of your distaste for a word; visceral reactions to the sound or meaning of words are welcome. If a word you hate is already listed, you are welcome to tell us why you, too, hate the word. The Worst Words have an aura of foolishness or odium.

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