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September 2003, Vol. 5, No. 9 ISSN 1542-7080

Coming in the October issue of The Vocabula Review: "Harmless Drudges" by Julian Burnside
And "Making Peace in the Language Wars" by Bryan A. Garner


The October issue of The Vocabula Review is due online October 19.

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The new slang-filled 11th edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary does as much as, if not more than, Webster's Third to discourage people from taking lexicographers seriously.

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As far back as I can remember, maybe farther (further? backer?), I have used "they" on purpose, rather than "he", or the hated "he or she." As soon as I had internalized the desire to not be chastized for sexism, I decided that liberal sprinklings of "she," oh-so-casually placed on the page like so many throw-pillows, was exactly as bad as neanderthal droppings of "he." "They" was it, as far as I was concerned. — What do you say?
As kids in northeastern Ohio in the '50s we used 'hut' and 'hike' interchangeably, 'hut' being, eventually, the more sophisticated way to say 'hike'. That was how the big kids said it. We had no conscious notion of military overlap. I think we saw it as a kind of phonetic continuum, 'hut' a more gruntable form of 'hike'. Of course that begs the question of where the big kids got it and why it stuck. See if you can find some 70 year old and older ex-coaches and players; do they remember a time when it wasn't there?. I'm 56; I don't. .... What's the 'hut' from in military drill? And I've heard that with a final 'p'. Is there a football variant with a 'p'? — What do you say?
This question was raised by a recent Trivia note: Why do the words 'testes' and 'testimony' have the same root? The explanation in the trivia was that when a man gave testimony, he swore on his testicles that he was telling the truth. — What do you say?

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The Elder Statesman
by Clark Elder Morrow
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The Critical Reader
by Mark Halpern
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The Last Word
by Christopher Orlet
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Love Your English
by Valerie Collins
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Back  Congratulations, Valetudinarian! 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. More ... 

Back  Knowing Words 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? What do you take it to mean? On paper, 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. More ... 

Back  Singular They: The Pronoun That Came in from the Cold 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.

Traditionalists were unabashed in their sarcasm and condescension, lamenting the growing number of out-of-control women suffering from an infliction they gleefully termed "pronoun envy" (qtd. in Martyrna 483). It took editors at the New York Times a full ten years before they accepted Ms as an honorific; it took about the same amount of time to convince speakers of American English that androcentric words such as "man" and "mankind" could easily be replaced with the more inclusive "humanity" or "humankind." Martyna summarizes the problem in a 1980 article:

Time calls it "Ms-guided," a syndicated columnist "linguistic lunacy." TV Guide wonders what the "women's lib redhots" with "the nutty pronouns" are doing. A clear understanding of the sexist language issue continues to elude the popular press. The medium is not alone in its misunderstanding. (482)
More ... 
Back  Weird and Wonderful Words Richard Lederer

When I was a boy, I played with those small winged thingumabobs that grow on — and contain the seeds of — maple trees. I glued them to my nose and watched them spin like pinwheels when I tossed them into the wind. Only as a grownup did I discover that these organic whatchamacallits do have a name — samaras. So do the uglifying fleshy growth on a turkey's face — a wattle — and the heavy flaps on the sides of the mouths of some dogs — flews. So do all sorts of human body parts that you never thought had names — canthus, cerumen, frenulum, opisthenar, philtrum, thenar, tragus, uvula, and vomer. More ... 

Back  A Litter of Clichés Paul Povse

Charles M. Schultz may have written that "Happiness is a warm puppy," but hearing somebody use puppy as a synonym, for, well, everything, is unhappiness to these ears. More ... 

Back  The Elder Statesman  
The Bawd and the Ballerina
Clark Elder Morrow

I have been thinking about prostitution a great deal lately. Not as a career choice, mind you, but in terms of pure legal theory. I have come up with a proposition of my own (so to speak) that I submit to the tender mercies of my readers: "Resolved, there is no reason to list prostitution as either a crime or a vice, if all religious considerations are removed from the argument." See if you agree with my reasoning. More ... 

Back  The Critical Reader  
Erin McKean and Robert Hartwell Fiske on Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
Mark Halpern

The editor of The Vocabula Review, Robert Hartwell Fiske, has written for The Weekly Standard of August 18, 2003, a review of the new eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, and has found severe fault with it. (A somewhat revised version of that review appears in the August issue of TVR, where I assume that all interested subscribers will read it if they have not done so already, so I will not summarize it here.) In response to his review, Erin McKean, editor of Verbatim and of American dictionaries for the Oxford University Press, has written a letter to The Weekly Standard in which she defends the dictionary and criticizes the reviewer:

I began Robert Hartwell Fiske's review of the MW11 with great interest ("Don't Look It Up! The Decline of the Dictionary" by Robert Hartwell Fiske 08/18/2003, volume 008, Issue 46 ), but ended it with an even greater incredulity.
More ... 
Back  Grumbling About Grammar

Although few people can complain of another's grammatical mistakes with impunity, that is, without revealing their own, we are hopeful that "Grumbling About Grammar" will encourage us all to pay more heed to how the language is used — by ourselves as well as by others — while bettering our ability to speak and write it.

appreciate Idiotic for value (or similar words). • I appreciate you, and what you do. USE value. [I Appreciate You] • I know I've said it time and again, but I do appreciate you my friend. USE treasure. [Angelrays] • He's dedicating a lot of time to make sure our national finance effort is as strong as I know it's going to be. I appreciate you, Mercer. USE thank. [The White House] • There are not enough words in the world to tell you how much I love you, how much I appreciate you, or how much I want to thank you. USE admire. [ChildFun] • She keeps me straight on all my links and she doesn't miss a trick and I appreciate her very much. USE respect. [Outlaw by Design] • Tell your brothers that you appreciate them, but they need to back off. USE love. [Smart Girl]

You can appreciate an attribute or occurrence ("I appreciate her thoughtfulness"; I appreciate your coming"), but not a person ("I appreciate you"; "I appreciate them"). Using appreciate in the sense discouraged here is the mark of people who have no notion of eloquence and style, scant appreciation of the limits of language, and little insight into themselves or their audience. More ... 

Back  Elegant English

We all know far too well how to write everyday English, but few of us know how to write elegant English — English that is expressed with music as well as meaning, style as well as substance. The point of this feature is not to suggest that people should try to emulate these examples of elegant English but to show that the language can be written with grace and polish — qualities that much contemporary writing is bereft of and could benefit from.

It is the fate of those who toil at the lower employments of life, to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good; to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise; to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward.

Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries; whom mankind have considered, not as the pupil, but the slave of science, the pioneer of literature, doomed only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths of Learning and Genius, who press forward to conquest and glory, without bestowing a smile on the humble drudge that facilitates their progress. Every other authour may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach, and even this negative recompence has been yet granted to very few.

I have, notwithstanding this discouragement, attempted a dictionary of the English language, which, while it was employed in the cultivation of every species of literature, has itself been hitherto neglected, suffered to spread, under the direction of chance, into wild exuberance, resigned to the tyranny of time and fashion, and exposed to the corruptions of ignorance, and caprices of innovation.

When I took the first survey of my undertaking, I found our speech copious without order, and energetick without rules: wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated; choice was to be made out of boundless variety, without any established principle of selection; adulterations were to be detected, without a settled test of purity, and modes of expression to be rejected or received, without the suffrages of any writers of classical reputation or acknowledged authority. — Samuel Johnson, Preface to the Dictionary of the English Language More ... 

Back  On Dimwitticisms

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.

fashion statement Making a fashion statement is the concern of adolescents and addle-brained adults who have yet to fashion for themselves a sense of identity. Their habiliments interest them more than does their humanity. People so intent on being fashionable make only misstatements. They but blither. More ... 

Back  Clues to Concise Writing

Words often ill serve their purpose. When they do their work badly, words militate against us. Poor grammar, sloppy syntax, misused words, misspelled words, and other infelicities of style impede communication and advance only misunderstanding. But there is another, perhaps less well-known, obstacle to effective communication: too many words.

perhaps ... may (might) may (might); perhaps. • Perhaps you may want to reread our introductions and note places where we have traded in our role as guides for one as "tour directors." You may want to reread our introductions and note places where we have traded in our role as guides for one as "tour directors." • Perhaps teaching at a liberal university might be a better career path. Teaching at a liberal university might be a better career path • The preceding pages may perhaps assist you in deciding the question whether you are born of the Spirit and a child of God. The preceding pages may assist you in deciding the question whether you are born of the Spirit and a child of God. • Perhaps the day may come. The day may come. More ... 

Back  Scarcely Used Words

Inadequate though they may be, words distinguish us from all other living things. Indeed, our worth is partly in our words. Effective use of language — clear writing and speaking — is a measure of our humanness. What's more, the more words we know and can correctly use, the broader will be our understanding of self, the keener our acquaintance with humankind.

cacodemon (kak-oh-DEE-men) n. 1. an evil spirit. 2. a nightmare. 3. the Twelfth House in a figure of the Heavens, so called from its baleful signification. More ... 

Back  Oddments and Miscellanea

Each month, "Oddments and Miscellanea" will focus on a particular matter of faulty grammar, slipshod syntax, or improper punctuation. This month's admonition:

Do not say I appreciate you ... -ing; say, instead, I appreciate your ... -ing. More ... 

Back  On the Bookshelf

Among the best written, if least read, books are those that we will be featuring each month in "On the Bookshelf." No book club selections, no best-selling authors are likely to be spoken of here. Best-selling authors, of course, are often responsible for the worst written books.

Robert Bringhurst: The Elements of Typographic Style More ... 


Congratulations, Valetudinarian! — David Carkeet

Knowing Words — Robert McHenry

Singular They: The Pronoun That Came in from the Cold — jjoan ttaber altieri

Weird and Wonderful Words — Richard Lederer

A Litter of Clichés — Paul Povse


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — The Bawd and the Ballerina

Mark Halpern: The Critical Reader — Erin McKean and Robert Hartwell Fiske on Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary


Grumbling About Grammar

Elegant English

On Dimwitticisms

Clues to Concise Writing

Scarcely Used Words

Oddments and Miscellanea

On the Bookshelf

 TVR Revisited

Kvetching About Literary Criticism — David Isaacson

Lawyers vs. Language — Kelly Cannon

The Myth of Gaps — Allan Metcalf

The Prepositionless Excremental — David R. Williams

You Got Attitude? — Joseph Epstein

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Words often ill serve their purpose. When they do their work badly, words militate against us. Poor grammar, sloppy syntax, misused words, misspelled words, and other infelicities of style impede communication and advance only misunderstanding. But there is another, perhaps less well-known, obstacle to effective communication: too many words. In The Dictionary of Concise Writing, Fiske shows how to identify and correct wordiness.

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