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A society is generally as lax as its language.

The July issue is 16,813 words long.
July 2004, Vol. 6, No. 7 There are now  1128  people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

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Back  Writing Right Tracy Lee Simmons

We Americans are inveterate self-improvers. But we're also a choosy lot. To muster a political image from the election of 2000, we prefer to hand-select our virtues, punching through some of the choices clearly and dimpling the rest. Take the words that tumble forth from our mouths, pens, and computer keyboards. Jacques Barzun has reminded us that while hordes of the gym-toned, Starbucks-sipping set may "give up smoking to avoid cancer, diet to grow more shapely, work on their bad posture or memory, [and] take courses to better their minds or increase their charm," they're not likewise nudged "to overhaul their vocabulary and grammar, let alone improve the quality of the sounds they utter," a curious state of affairs when the words we use are also, if nothing else, part of the gingerly wrapped resume package we present to the world. They stamp us as certainly as does a cologne — or bravado belching. More ... 

Back  The Glamour of Grammar Richard Lederer

Believe it or not, grammar and glamor are historically the same word. Back in the eighteenth century, one of the meanings of grammar was "magic, enchantment"; the Scots let the r slip into an l, and lo, came forth glamor. In the popular mind, however, grammar is anything but glamorous. Whatever magic resides in the subject is felt to be a sort of black magic, a mysterious caldron bubbling with creepy, crawly creatures. More ... 

Back  A Word for All Senses Axel Albin and Amos Kenigsberg

Any Vocabula reader can name the category of words that echo the sounds of their referents, and a quick visit to the OED will reveal that the term onomatopoeia has enjoyed four centuries of life on the public page. Yet there are other words that sound like what they mean — words that possess greater richness, depth, and charm than any onomatopoeia — and nonetheless live in anonymity. No more should they remain hidden behind their poorer cousins. More ... 

Back  The Perfect Word Is the One That Will Do Ira Nayman

Writers are encouraged to strive for the perfect word, or in French, le mot juste. (Everything sounds better in French.) This is the word that perfectly captures the physical or psychological essence of the subject of the sentence. Like most ideals, we rarely ever actually achieve it (if writers truly searched for the perfect word in every sentence, few pieces of writing would ever be finished), but it does give writers a goal. More ... 

Back  An English-Language Speaker's Survival Guide in Pakistan Abbas Zaidi

On a recent visit to Pakistan, I attended a wedding ceremony. During the ceremony, I met a family on my in-laws' side. A teenage girl — a member of the family — impressed me by her sharp wit. I complimented her by calling her "clever." At that, the girl disappeared in the crowd of the guests only to reappear with her parents. Before I could make sense of what was going on, the nuptials had turned into pandemonium. The parents of the girl were fuming over my having slandered their masoom (the word can be translated as "innocent" or "naïve") daughter. I did my best to pacify them. I tried to tell them that in English, clever is quite a good thing to call a young person. No one agreed with me. I was blamed for being unkind to the girl. One old fellow reproached me for being deliberately malicious because, given my background in English language and literature, I must have known that such a word is offensive. I offered to bring a dictionary to prove that by calling her clever I did not mean any offense. But no one would listen to me. More ... 

Back  Three Poems Sarah Skwire


In summertime we drive route 17
from Maine into New Hampshire
and back again, and out again, and back,
at dusk and dawn, the same small stretch of road.
We are not lost.
We are moose hunting.
More accurate to say
moose looking, I suppose,
since we have cameras
not guns
and anyway, our starting point
is called Mooselookmeguntic.
More ... 

Back  The Elder Statesman  
The Voices of Reason
Clark Elder Morrow

With your indulgence, I would like to share with you the little bedtime story I tell my young daughter each night after tucking her into bed:

Once upon a time, Dr. Josiah Newman dropped a touch of unction into his voice and manner, as though he were adding a pinch of cilantro: More ... 

Back  The Critical Reader  
Editing as You Would Be Edited: Part IV
Mark Halpern

During the first quarter of 2002, the press was full of stories about plagiarism. Several well-known popular historians and science writers were charged with passing off as their own substantial passages from other writers' books. Almost all the writers so charged admitted to some degree of culpability, but usually claimed that they had been simply careless and hasty, not intentional plagiarists. But even when their pleas of carelessness and haste were accepted, their reputations suffered serious injury, and even their publishers and editors suffered some injury. It is not only historians and writers who have been so exposed; a United States Senator (still in office in 2004, and busy lecturing his political opponents about their misbehavior) was caught a few years ago delivering a speech of which much was taken, without attribution, from one originally delivered by Neil Kinnock when leader of the British Labour Party. More ... 

Back  Postcards from Babel  
One, Two, Buckle My Shoe
Amalia Gnanadesikan

"Hickory, dickory, dock, the mouse ran up the clock. The clock struck one," which is odd because hickory, dickory, dock means "eight, nine, ten," and who knows how we got straight from ten to one. The origin of hickory, dickory, dock is, if you go back far enough and allow for significant corruption, in the Celtic words for "eight," "nine," and "ten." The dock is the best preserved, noticeably similar to Welsh deg ("ten"). Eenie, meenie, miney, moe, on the other hand, is an extremely corrupted form of old Germanic "one, two, three, four," with an alliterative m- replacing the initial consonants. 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.

equivocable Idiotic for equivocal. • At this time it is equivocable whether or not the presumptive myoblast and the satellite cell are functionally identical and at the same stage of myogenic differentiation. USE equivocal. • Emotions and dispositions are in no way equivocable. USE equivocal. • As an aside, Joan Rivers, on Johnny Carson, said she was always equivocable about the women's movement. USE equivocal.

Equivocable is not a word. Equally idiotic is equivocably for unequivocally. Many people, as next few examples make clear, think equivocably means unequivocally — allowing no doubt; unambiguously. 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.

Between the little man's consciousness and the issues of our epoch there seems to be a veil of indifference. His will seems numbed, his spirit meager. Other men of other strata are also politically indifferent, but electoral victories are imputed to them; they do have tireless pressure groups and excited captains who work in and around the hubs or power, to whom, it may be imagined, they are delegated their enthusiasms for public affairs. But white-collar people are scattered along the rims of all the wheels of power; no one is enthusiastic about them and, like political eunuchs, they themselves are without potency and without enthusiasm for the urgent political clash. 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.

it's a free country This expression is one that only fettered thinkers could possibly utter. One of the difficulties with dimwitticisms is that, because they are so familiar, people often use them thoughtlessly. Manacled as people are to these well-worn phrases, original thoughts and true feelings are often unreachable. • If owners of eating establishments want to allow smoking, let them do so — it's a free country. • It's a free country. It's what makes America great. • It's a free country, and no one tells me what to say! 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.

in a (the) fashion (manner; way) (in which; that) as; like. • But such a scientific inquiry already took place years ago, in the manner provided for by law. But such a scientific inquiry already took place years ago, as provided for by law. • Science fiction and mystery are often mixed, but not in the fashion that Roberts has managed. Science fiction and mystery are often mixed, but not as Roberts has managed. • Zeus allows you to work intuitively in the way that you think best. Zeus allows you to work intuitively as you think best. 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.

appellative (ah-PEL-ah-tiv) adj. 1. of or relating to the assignment of names. 2. of or relating to a common noun. 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.

George Eliot: Middlemarch More ... 

Back  The Vocabula Quiz

Each ten-question quiz briefly discusses a specific topic, such as history, science, literature, or philosophy. Of course, you are quizzed not on content but on grammar or usage, vocabulary or spelling, punctuation or style.

Vocabula Quiz 4  Topic: Mental health  Level of difficulty: Moderate More ... 

Back  Letters to the Editor

The Vocabula Review welcomes letters to the editor. Please include your name, email address, and professional affiliation. Send your letters to editor@vocabula.com. If you'd rather, you may post, at any time, a message in TVR Forum.

Dear Mr. Fiske,

Answering question number 24 ["Thirty-Five Questions," Vol. 6, No. 6] you write, "However, before arriving at this, now almost universal, sense, gay was often used disparagingly to refer to people who engaged in homosexual, or "licentious," acts, much as the words queer and faggot, which have not yet been entirely reclaimed, are still today used by some."

This is not true, in my experience. I am a 55-year-old homosexual; when I was young and newly socializing with other homosexual men, the term "gay" was an esoteric term for homosexual, which they (we) used to refer to each other and ourselves. We would ask, "Is he gay?" — but only in private. The term was not, as far as I observed, used by heterosexuals at all, and certainly not in disparagement. More ... 


Writing Right — Tracy Lee Simmons

The Glamour of Grammar — Richard Lederer

A Word for All Senses — Alex Albin and Amos Kenigsberg

The Perfect Word Is the One That Will Do — Ira Nayman

An English-Language Speaker's Survival Guide in Pakistan — Abbas Zaidi

Three Poems — Sarah Skwire


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — The Voices of Reason

Mark Halpern: The Critical Reader — Editing as You Would Be Edited: Part IV

Amalia Gnanadesikan: Postcards from Babel — One, Two, Buckle My Shoe


Grumbling About Grammar

Elegant English

On Dimwitticisms

Clues to Concise Writing

Scarcely Used Words

On the Bookshelf

The Vocabula Quiz

Letters to the Editor

 TVR Revisited

Who Owns English — Orin Hargraves

Making Peace in the Language Wars — Bryan A. Garner

The Like Virus — David Grambs

The Absence Note — jjoan altieri

Black Holes — Julian Burnside

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