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A society is generally as lax as its language.

The October issue is 22,772 words long.
October 2004, Vol. 6, No. 10 There are now  1123  people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

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Back  A Continual Allegory: Some Thoughts on Literal-Mindedness Skip Eisiminger

Marianne Moore urged writers to become "literalists of the imagination," but it's the literalists without imagination who fascinate and frustrate me. I once read a letter to a newspaper editor from a woman who argued that the Bible is without error and often anticipates the findings of science. The prophet Amos, she said, predicted the discovery of the seventh star in the Pleiades. However, modern astronomers think that Amos may have seen a seventh star in that tiny constellation because in the eighth century B.C. the Pleiades briefly contained a supernova. In fact, astronomers now number close to five hundred stars in that cluster, a number that Amos clearly did not predict. Furthermore, Isaiah, the letter writer opined, anticipated the discovery that the earth is a sphere when he spoke of the "circle of the earth." But, in truth, neither the King James' "circle" nor the Revised Standard Version's "vault" necessarily implies that our planet is an oblate spheroid, which it is, or even a sphere. Isaiah, like Homer, may have been thinking of a round, flat disk like a hockey puck floating in space covered by a "sky dome." At any rate, I sent my objections to the editor of the newspaper who had printed the woman's letter, and he wrote to inform me that there was "no space." More ... 

Back  Code Switching David Isaacson

Each of us has a number of jargons or special languages we use with certain groups of people and not with others. With an in-group that understands the jargon, there is no need to translate the "code." Of course, the people outside this linguistic in-group can only guess at what the jargon means. Supple language codes can simultaneously mean one thing to the in-group and something quite different to the out-group. African-American slaves could use the slave-master's language in seeming obeisance while mocking the boss. When they sang the spiritual "Go, Down Moses," they weren't just exalting the ancient Israelites who finally escaped bondage under the Pharaoh: they were expressing their own yearning for freedom. More ... 

Back  Words About Our Presidents Richard Lederer

Being from the Midwest, President Harry S. Truman often talked to farm groups. Whenever he held forth about fertilizer, Truman used the word manure, much to the embarrassment of his support staff.

Finally, the public relations people went to Bess Truman to ask her help in getting her husband to stop using the offending word. She sighed, "You'd be amazed how long it took me to get him to start using manure." More ... 

Back  The Wrong Words Marylaine Block
And the wrong words make you listen in this criminal world — David Bowie

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that the test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time. If so, I guess I must have a first-rate mind.

You see, I am a First Amendment absolutist. I believe government should make no laws restricting the free flow of words and ideas. More ... 

Back  Of Concordances, the Spider Guy, and Other Matters: A Rumination Michael Berberich

I wonder if I'm becoming obsolete. Or if not exactly obsolete, maybe a bit like a Studebaker: a quaint memory, a thing no longer of the here and now though you could probably find one in a barn somewhere if needed — perhaps to be used as a movie prop to lend authenticity to the scene where the nattily dressed young man, knees a-knocking, peers from behind the living room curtain and waits for his beloved's father to finish washing the aforementioned Studebaker. All this so that as the father enters the house, and wipes his still sudsy hands across his flannel shirt, the nattily dressed young man, knees still a-knocking (picture a young Jerry Lewis) can step forth and ask the father for the daughter's hand in marriage. More ... 

Back  Two Poems Laura Cherry

The Restaurant

You're dead and I'm here with your ex-wife.
Stranger things have happened, but this one
didn't occur to me before it occurred.
You so tall, so broad.
Your darkest corners now exposed,

or never to be exposed.
She was with us for every lunch:
your rage, her laziness and greed,
and once, just once I think,
how much you loved her still.
More ... 

Back  The Elder Statesman  
The Lost Art of the Jeremiad
Clark Elder Morrow

Let's throw open the old schoolhouse doors and burst into the sunshine, running and tumbling and gamboling down the springtime hillside like nineteenth-century kids in a Winslow painting. Let's escape the musty confines of nonjudgmentalism and indulge ourselves in a good old-fashioned rant. A good blistering leatherslapping hellraising gut-cleansing blast of saeva indignatio. This should be rather fun.

Let us, in other words, consider the lost art of the jeremiad. And while we're at it, let's ponder why the jeremiad became a lost art in the first place. Why is it that people who consider themselves passionate defenders of the truth, and who pride themselves on a noble opposition to the evils of the world, no longer deliver brimstony screeds against those evils? More ... 

Back  The Last Word  
Hillbilly Hamlets
Christopher Orlet
Proper Elizabethan is more akin to the speech of backwood communities on the East Coast of the United States, where language has not changed significantly since the founding of those communities. — John M Vinopal, Renaissance Faire

It seems cockeyed, the notion that there are contemporary Americans conversing in the dialect of Shakespeare and Marlowe wholly without shame or pretence. And yet the myth stubbornly persists like the stories of the UFO crash at Roswell and the Russian chess player whose head exploded from thinking too hard. Some investigators, like the professor Kirk Hazen, have spent years among the strange and wondrous peoples of the West Virginia foothills and has made a practice of steadily debunking the age-old myth of Appalachian Elizabethans. "There are no Elizabethan English speakers in Appalachia, nor were there ever any," says Hazen, Woodburn Professor of Linguistics at West Virginia University. "It's a myth. Elizabethan English ended in 1603. Jamestown was not settled until 1607. And the Appalachian area was not settled until much later." More ... 

Back  Shibboleths  
Comp 101
John Kilgore

Welcome to college, everyone, and now while I still have your attention, let me explain the purpose of the course. Our goal is this: to turn you into writers. All of you. It says so right here in the departmental syllabus: "master the principles of reasoned argument and clear expression in Standard English," etcetera. Master, it says, and this applies to every last one of you, from the National Merit scholar who has enrolled here rather than some ritzy private college for reasons no one can guess, to the future welder who discovered just last night, after two bowls and half a sixpack, that he was going to college at all. Writers, every one, by the end of the semester. More ... 

Back  Postcards from Babel  
The Man Who Died of Thirst in the Dessert
Amalia Gnanadesikan

"T. E. Lawrence," said my friend, for whom English is a fluently spoken second language, "wrote about a man who died of thirst in the dessert."

"Must have been baklava," my husband contributed sotto voce. "I've had desserts like that."

In confusing desert and dessert, my friend had made one of the few possible errors in stressing English syllables that will actually turn one word into another. It is one of the untaught rules of English that in words of more than one syllable, one of the syllables will be stressed. That syllable will be said louder, with a more distinct vowel sound, and with a different pitch than other syllables in the word. Many long words also have one or more syllables that receive secondary, or partial, stress and add to the overall rhythm of the word: SI-mul-TA-ne-ous, CLAS-si-fi-CA-tion, DEC-o-RA-tor. 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.

collaborate Misused for corroborate. • As our feedback reflects, we applaud some comments that collaborate our views on the proposals for further enhancement of relay services across the nation. USE corroborate. • At this point, we really only have Daniel's word and to back it up, it would be necessary to find Aerojet employees or White Sands people who could collaborate his statement. USE corroborate.

Whereas collaborate means to work together to accomplish something, corroborate means to confirm the truth of something. If people fail to enunciate their words, if they do not distinguish their liquid ls from their liquid rs, dictionary makers will one day dictate that these two words sound alike and mean the same. 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.

Here is a clue to the question of why our performance in government is worse than in other activities: because government offers power, excites that lust for power, which is subject to emotional drives — to narcissism, fantasies of omnipotence, and other sources of folly. The lust for power, according to Tacitus, "is the most flagrant of all the passions" and cannot really be satisfied except by power over others. Business offers a kind of power but only to the very successful at the very top, and even they, in our day, have to play it down. Fords and Du Ponts, Hearsts and Pulitzers, nowadays are subdued, and the Rockefeller who most conspicuously wanted power sought it in government. Other activities — in sports, science, the professions, and the creative and performing arts — offer various satisfactions but not the opportunity for power. They may appeal to status seeking and, in the form of celebrity, offer crowd worship and limousines and recognition by headwaiters, but these are the trappings of power, not the essence. Of course, mistakes and stupidities occur in nongovernmental activities too, but since these affect fewer people, they are less noticeable than they are in public affairs. Government remains the paramount field of unwisdom because it is there that men seek power over others — and lose it over themselves. — Barbara Tuchman, An Inquiry into the Persistence of Unwisdom in Government 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.

meaningful So elusive is meaning in our lives that we think we must modify scores of words with the word meaningful. Though we may struggle not to believe that emptiness is all, attaching meaningful to words like action, change, dialogue, discussion, experience is no sound solution. Meaningful describes that which has meaning, and derides that which has none. 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.

potentiality potential. • All these tools have the same power sources, materials, and styling, and most important, each has identical market potentiality. All these tools have the same power sources, materials, and styling, and most important, each has identical market potential. • Anarchy is the opening up of boundless potentiality, not a social, political, economic, or moral program for an ideal society. Anarchy is the opening up of boundless potential, not a social, political, economic, or moral program for an ideal society. • It also offers common platform to revamp their research and writing potentiality. It also offers common platform to revamp their research and writing potential. 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.

bibliopolist (bib-lee-OP-ah-list) n. a dealer in rare books. 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.

Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart 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 7  Topic: Politics  Level of difficulty: Moderate More ... 


A Continual Allegory: Some Thoughts on Literal-Mindedness — Skip Eisiminger

Code Switching — David Issacson

Words About Our Presidents — Richard Lederer

The Wrong Words — Marylaine Block

Of Concordances, the Spider Guy, and Other Matters: A Rumination — Michael Berberich

Two Poems — Laura Cherry


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — The Lost Art of the Jeremiad

Christopher Orlet: The Last Word — Hillbilly Hamlets

John Kilgore: Shibboleths — Comp 101

Amalia Gnanadesikan: Postcards from Babel — The Man Who Died of Thirst in the Dessert


Grumbling About Grammar

Elegant English

On Dimwitticisms

Clues to Concise Writing

Scarcely Used Words

On the Bookshelf

The Vocabula Quiz

 TVR Revisited

Yes, We Have No Bananas — Valerie Collins

Bumper Bites — Tina Bennett-Kastor

The Melancholy of Anatomy — Richard Burnett Carter

Who Owns English — Orin Hargraves

Making Peace in the Language Wars — Bryan A. Garner

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