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A society is generally as lax as its language.

The November issue is 21,052 words long.
November 2004, Vol. 6, No. 11 There are now  129  people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

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Back  Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog Kitty Burns Florey

Diagramming sentences is one of those lost skills, like darning socks or playing the sackbut, that no one seems to miss. Invented, or at least codified, in an 1877 text called Higher Lessons in English by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg, it swept through American public schools like a measles germ, embraced by teachers as the way to reform students who were engaged in (to take Henry Higgins slightly out of context) "the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue." By promoting the beautifully logical rules of syntax, diagramming would root out evils like "it's me" and "I ain't got none," until everyone wrote like Ralph Waldo Emerson, or at least James Fenimore Cooper. More ... 

Back  Renaming and Rebranding Edwin Battistella

When the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian opened in 2004, some asked why it wasn't called the National Museum of the Native American. In using American Indian, Congress seems to have been following Census and Bureau of Indian Affairs practice. Native Americans themselves are divided on the preferred usage. Activist Russell Means, for example, prefers American Indian because he sees that term as distinguishing Indians from those who are simply "native Americans" by birth. Individuals also vary their usage. In his 2004 comments at the opening of the Museum, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell referred to "the Native people of this land," "American Indian Veterans" and "Native Americans." The Museum itself has a variety of terms on its website, including "First Americans," "Native Nations," and "American Indian." More ... 

Back  Nibbles from Cupboard Love Mark Morton


When François Mitterand, the former president of France, realized that he would soon die of prostate cancer, he engaged in a stupendous act of abligurition; that is, he squandered a small fortune on a lavish and bizarre meal for himself and thirty friends. The meal included oysters, foie gras, and caviar, but the piece-de-resistance was roast ortolan, a tiny songbird that is actually illegal to consume in France. Traditionally, the two-ounce warbler is eaten whole, bones and all, while the diner leans forward over the table with a large napkin draped over his head. The napkin, according to food lore, serves two functions: it traps and concentrates the aroma of the petite dish, and it conceals the shameful exorbitance of the meal — the abliguration — from the eyes of God. In origin, the word abliguration derives from the Latin preposition ab, meaning "away," and the verb ligurire, meaning "to eat delicately." Even further back, ligurire evolved from lingere, meaning "to lick," which is also connected to cunnilingus and linguine. As for the ortolan, the tasty object of Mitterand's abliguration, its name means "gardener" in Provençal, and it derives from the Latin hortus, meaning "garden." This means that ortolan is related to words such as horticulture and orchard. The Indo-European ancestor of the Latin hortus was a word pronounced something like gher, meaning "enclosure," which is also the source of garden, yard, kindergarten, and even girdle. More ... 

Back  Beautiful English Richard Lederer

Mark Twain plunked the following description into the middle of his "Double-Barreled Detective Story." Read the passage and reflect on the power of beautiful English words:

It was a crisp and spicy morning in early October. The lilacs and laburnums, lit with the glory-fires of autumn, hung burning and flashing in the upper air, a fairy bridge provided by kind Nature for the wingless wild things that have their homes in the tree-tops and would visit together; the larch and the pomegranate flung their purple and yellow flames in brilliant broad splashes along the slanting sweep of the woodland; the sensuous fragrance of innumerable deciduous flowers rose upon the swooning atmosphere; far in the empty sky a solitary esophagus slept upon motionless wing; everywhere brooded stillness, serenity, and the peace of God.

Did the mellifluous lilting of Twain's prose beguile you into overlooking the basic meaninglessness of the passage, including the absurd sleeping esophagus? More ... 

Back  Choice Words Ken Bresler

The phrase "Hobson's choice" was named after Thomas Hobson, a stable-keeper whose "rule was that each customer must take the horse nearest the door or no horse at all." The result? "You get no choice at all," wrote Theodore Bernstein in The Careful Writer.

Hobson, who lived in Cambridge, England, in the sixteenth century, was not being inconsiderate to customers, but instead, considerate to his horses. Reportedly, he wanted to keep his most popular horses from overworking.

"Hobson's choice" is frequently misused to mean a difficult choice; it actually means no choice. More ... 

Back  Sound Off  
Bush's Postmodernism
Johann Neem

President George W. Bush is often described as an absolutist, one who relies on his faith and dismisses nuance, expertise, and deliberation. As Ron Suskind described Bush in the New York Times Magazine, Bush's faith frees him from having to deal with details. I think that we have misunderstood Bush and his political allies. We have mistaken them for religious and political fundamentalists instead of seeing them for who they truly are, postmodernists deeply indebted to French cultural and intellectual theory. More ... 

Back  The Elder Statesman  
What I Learned in Sin City
Clark Elder Morrow

How many different ways are there of being a travel writer? The facile and specious answer is to say: as many different ways as there are individuals. But I harbor a sneaking suspicion that all travel writing breaks down into only a handful of differing styles: the chatty, the ponderous, the exalted, and the ruthlessly professional. The chatty variety is the sort of thing you read in the travel section of your Sunday newspaper, in which Isolde de Plimsole goes all giggly over her fourth margarita, gushing about the "sun-drenched" glories of Matzatlan during whale migration season. More ... 

Back  The Critical Reader  
Key Words of Our Time: Fuzzy Logic
Mark Halpern

With this column, "The Critical Reader" launches a new series in which I attempt to explain some key words and phrases that readers frequently find floating about loosely in journalism and even some apparently scholarly studies, but seldom see clearly defined. Each column in the series will concentrate on one such word or phrase, attempting to treat it fully enough to make some substantial progress in bringing it into the light of day.

The first example is fuzzy logic, a concept and term originated in 1973 by Lotfi Zadeh, professor of computer science at the University of California at Berkeley. Fuzzy logic (henceforth FL) claims to be a new approach to dealing with problems about which we have incomplete information. It has proven a much more popular concept in Japan, for some reason, than in the United States or Europe, and you can buy Japanese appliances that, it is claimed, were designed with the aid of FL. Here in the United States, it has its champions and its detractors — a Google search on "fuzzy logic" will retrieve a torrent of papers and arguments by both sides — but in the discussion that follows, I reject the arguments of both sides. Instead, I contend that FL is a highly useful development that is totally misunderstood by its own champions as well as its critics. In what follows, don't be alarmed by occasional allusions to mathematical or physical findings and results that you may not be familiar with — they are present only for the entertainment of the technically sophisticated. The point of this essay does not depend on such technicalities, but only on common experience and common sense. More ... 

Back  Shibboleths  
Translations from the British
John Kilgore

"Dead Slow Children" the sign says, and my students report the phenomenon with grins and chuckles. I have heard this one already, and besides, we have our own variant in America: "Slow Children Playing." But a few weeks later, when someone spots "Dead Slow Hoot," I do exactly that. Any of the signs might benefit from punctuation after "slow," helping one to construe the word as a command (elliptical for "slow down" or "go slow" perhaps) rather than an adjective modifying "children" or (conceivably) "hoot." But "dead slow" would still sound outré to American ears, notwithstanding such analogous constructions as dead right and dead set. As for hooting in place of honking — the notion is simply perverse. More ... 

Back  Postcards from Babel  
On Learning to Read
Amalia Gnanadesikan

"G... I... T... A," said my three-year-old daughter, carefully writing her name on a box I had just packed. It was the one word she could spell, and she was following my example in labeling the boxes for our upcoming move.

I looked at the box. "AIGT," it said. Clearly she had not yet grasped the conventional relationship between the temporal order of speech and the linear order of writing. I, on the other hand, had nearly forgotten there was one. 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.

breech Solecistic for broach. • I really respect that kind of honesty, and have breeched the subject at times to encourage fellow pioneers to bring some integrity to the table in such matters. USE broached. • When discussing changes in the current severance package, breech the topic within the context of changes of other benefit plans. USE broach. • Since we've breeched the subject, I have to say the Associated Press poll shows John Kerry doing better with women by 1 percentage point than Al Gore did with women. USE broached.

Breech the noun has several meanings; as a verb, it has two meanings, both rarely used and little known: to put (a boy) in breeches; to provide a gun with a breech. Broach the verb has several definitions, but the one that's mistaken for breech means to raise for discussion. 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.

I believe in the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy.

But lest it should be supposed that I believe many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe and my reasons for not believing them.

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church. 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.

up close and personal If we seem to have lost the sense of what it means to be intimate, warm, even romantic, it's partly because vacuous phrases like up close and personal have altered our view of meaningful talk and time together. 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 the area of about; as for; as regards; as to; concerning; for; in; of; on; over; regarding; respecting; to; toward; with; delete. • In the area of politics, women gained the right to control their earnings, own property, and, in the case of divorce, take custody of their children. Regarding politics, women gained the right to control their earnings, own property, and, in the case of divorce, take custody of their children. • He was treated as an expert witness in the area of forensic pathology. He was treated as an expert witness in forensic pathology. • In the area of taxation, there is probably nothing that drives Democrats crazier than when they hear Republicans praise John F. Kennedy's tax cut and compare their tax cuts to his. As for taxation, there is probably nothing that drives Democrats crazier than when they hear Republicans praise John F. Kennedy's tax cut and compare their tax cuts to his. 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.

pseudepigrapha (soo-di-PIG-rah-fah) n. 1. spurious writings, especially writings falsely attributed to biblical characters or times. 2. a body of texts written between 200 BCE and AD 200 and spuriously ascribed to various prophets and kings of Hebrew Scriptures. 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.

William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying 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 8  Topic: Science  Level of difficulty: Moderate More ... 


Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog — Kitty Burns Florey

Renaming and Rebranding — Edwin Battistella

Nibbles from Cupboard Love — Mark Morton

Beautiful English — Richard Lederer

Choice Words — Ken Bresler

Sound Off: Bush's Postmodernism — Johann Neem


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — What I Learned in Sin City

Mark Halpern: The Critical Reader — Key Words of Our Time: Fuzzy Logic

John Kilgore: Shibboleths — Translations from the British

Amalia Gnanadesikan: Postcards from Babel — On Learning to Read


Grumbling About Grammar

Elegant English

On Dimwitticisms

Clues to Concise Writing

Scarcely Used Words

On the Bookshelf

The Vocabula Quiz

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DisenYOUGUYSing American English — jjoan ttaber altieri

Yes, We Have No Bananas — Valerie Collins

Bumper Bites — Tina Bennett-Kastor

The Melancholy of Anatomy — Richard Burnett Carter

Who Owns English — Orin Hargraves

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