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The Vocabula Review

 

David Carkeet

David Carkeet
How many times in my life must I look up desultory? Why won't its meaning stick? Whenever I come upon it, I must guess anew at the sense, using seat-of-the-pants etymology. Desultory seems to contain "sultry." "Slut" chimes in, too. The suffix suggests "cursory." "Sultry," "slut," "cursory" — I know I'm in negative territory, whatever the exact meaning. With a sigh, I reach for the dictionary. Ah, yes: "jumping from one thing to another; disconnected." That's settled, I tell myself. But unless some helpful mnemonic emerges — say, a children's bestseller titled The Desultory Kangaroo — I know that this word and I are destined for another lexicographic showdown.


Robert McHenry

Robert McHenry
I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.
I thought I could. I thought I could. I thought I could. — Watty Piper [emphasis added]

As a kind of limbering-up exercise, may we take a moment to savor the ambiguity of the title of this essay, "Knowing Words"? What do you take it to mean? On paper or a computer screen, it's hard to know what meaning is intended, though if I were to speak it to you, you would soon guess. If, for example, I gave each word almost equal stress and spoke "words" at a pitch the same as or just slightly lower than "knowing," you would infer that I am talking about the act or state of being familiar with words. If, on the other hand, I gave distinctly heavier stress to "knowing" and let "words" drop to a much lower pitch, you might be a little puzzled as to what I have in mind but you might guess that I am thinking about words that have to do with knowing. It is the latter that I mean to convey. We need not pursue this line of thought further here. But if we consider pitch and stress as elements of the information conveyed by the title phrase, we may begin to appreciate how wide the gap may be between simple information and knowledge.


jjoan ttaber altieri

jjoan ttaber altieri
Before I understood its imperfections, English was faultless. I was a happy follower of the prescriptive rules of English grammar who adhered to all the newest trends in grammar and never made an editorial move without consulting publications such as Warriner's English Composition and Grammar or The Chicago Manual of Style. The first twinges of doubt came at the beginning of the 1970s when feminists began to grumble about sexist language. Although I had been vaguely aware that expressions such as "All men are created equal" and "Everyone is entitled to his day in court" didn't apply directly to me, I didn't fault the language or its speakers for these innocent oversights. What surprised me, however, was the choler inspired in otherwise intelligent people when women began to suggest we take another look at our English language, particularly at its systems of nomenclature and pronoun selection.



The September issue of The Vocabula Review is due online September 21.


 

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