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April 2005, Vol. 7, No. 4
There are now   99   people reading TVR.
ISSN 1542-7080

Coming in the May issue of The Vocabula Review:
"A Guide to Teenspeak" by Richard Lederer
The May issue is due online May 22.

A Definition a Day

maenad (MEE-nad) n. 1. a woman member of the orgiastic cult of Dionysus; bacchante. 2. a frenzied or raging woman.

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The Dictionary of Disagreeable English
A Curmudgeon's Compendium of
Excruciatingly Correct Grammar

Robert Hartwell Fiske's The Dictionary of Disagreeable English.

You can order The Dictionary of Disagreeable English from Vocabula or the publisher or Amazon.

Vocabula Bound
Outbursts, Insights, Explanations, and Oddities

Vocabula Bound, twenty-five of the best essays and twenty-six of the best poems published in The Vocabula Review over the last few years.

You can order Vocabula Bound from Vocabula or the publisher or Amazon.

Two by Fiske

Book reviews
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Speaking of Silence

Read it Now:
Speaking of Silence
A play in two acts

Vocabula Bound Quarterly

A quarterly journal about words and language. It's scholarly, irreverent, witty, and vibrant.

Though an online publication since September 1999, The Vocabula Review is now also a print publication. Each issue of Vocabula Bound Quarterly includes three months' worth of the online Vocabula's content.

You can order VBQ here.

I am an English professor. These days I'm not sure if this is a boast, a confession, or a plea for sympathy. I teach English composition to American undergraduates; I say "American" because, although I have taught in the Ivy League, in the University of California "system," and that of the University of Texas, at Austin, and am a tenured professor at the City University of New York, I seem to be feeling my British origins more keenly with every year's fresh buffeting of our common language.

My concern with "our common language," that's to say, my sense of its forked path, goes back to childhood: my father was the late Sir Rex Harrison. Those of you who are reading this and attended a live performance of My Fair Lady — which will probably make you at least as old as I am, since I stood backstage at the age of eleven, watching the show — may recall the line that got the biggest laugh of the evening. It was not a line of George Bernard Shaw's, despite the presence in Alan Jay Lerner's book of many gems lifted straight from Pygmalion. The line that brought the house down was Lerner's own shrewdly vulgar coinage, a sardonic Henry Higgins aside apropos the English language: "In America they haven't spoken it in years." Even as an eleven-year-old, I found the audience's roar of delight a little excessive; odd, too, that it should be the biggest laugh of the night — was the laughter masochistic, or simply a rebuke to fatuous British smugness and snobbery? Deferential or defiant? Or something of both? More ... 

by David R. Williams

After all these years, when the KKK finally did re-emerge to toss its flyers into the driveways in my neighborhood in the rural Virginia town of Hamilton last month, I thought it reasonable to expect some evidence of growth, intellectually if not morally. But the flyers proved that the Klan, even in its proclaimed institutionalization as "The Ku Klux Klan LLC," still draws upon the same illiterate bottom of the barrel as ever, even if they did come wrapped around a circular advertising the upscale gourmet superstore, Wegman's.

Right from the very start, I knew this was going to be painful. The message, oddly unjustified on the left or the right, begins with the ungainly and meaningless filler "There is." Good writers try to avoid this unnecessary phrase whenever possible and certainly at the beginning of any essay. Check out the columns by George Will. Note how few, if any, of his paragraphs begin with "There is." One can always find a real noun actively doing something if one really has something to say. More ... 

He was, according to his biographer James Boswell, a huge man. When he was barely out of infancy, he contracted scrofula, a disease that severely impaired his eyesight and left his face horribly disfigured. He attended Oxford University but, because of family finances, did not take a degree. For a while he operated a private school, but that failed.

Yet a quarter of a millennium ago, on April 15, 1755, Samuel Johnson — fat, ugly, blind in one eye, and incompletely educated — produced the first modern dictionary. "Languages are the pedigrees of nations," he proclaimed, and, in compiling his wordbook, Johnson conferred a pedigree on the English-speaking nations. In garnering the rich, exuberant vocabulary of eighteenth-century England, the Dictionary of the English Language marked a turning point in the history of our tongue. More ... 

by Adam Kane

letter passed down through the colonies and

letter passed down through the colonies and
delivered to my flailing sanity

splintery cryptic language
falling from my eyes
and onto these pages
from memories,
adjacent verbs
that make me recognise
when you must
look further within self
to realise that
it is more simple and virtuous
to die young
in a car wreck
than to bleed
from the gut
age 65 or 70
having lived a purple lie. More ... 

The Elder Statesman
Back  On Wit
by Clark Elder Morrow

I like to tell my friends that what I lack in perspicacity I make up for in perspicuity. The remark is not only fun (tell it to your friends and enjoy the reaction), but it has the added advantage of being factual as well.1 Furthermore, I am foolish enough to feel that the phrase is a bit witty, in a pretentious sort of way. But I could certainly be wrong. And that brings us to the heart of my argument.

As with pornography, we all pride ourselves on being able to tell wit when we see it, whether or not we can whip out an OED-style definition of it. Here's my own impromptu try at netting the bird in a very poor net: wit is seeing and expressing things in such a way that fresh insight, a light malevolence, and humor, combine and ignite a small flash of penetrating entertainment. More ... 

The Last Word
Back  The Archeology of Words
by Christopher Orlet

Quick, what word is used to describe a priest's mistress? In the same vein, what do you suppose is meant by the word bedswerver? If you got both of these correct (answers: parnel and adulterer), you are either very wise or very naughty.

The older I get, the more I have a soft spot for things that are no longer useful or needed, like my old catcher's mitt and my libido. Words are no exception. Words become obsolete or archaic for any number of reasons. New technology replaces old. Foreign words replace native words. Or perhaps words, like old soldiers, simply outlive their usefulness and fade away. But more often words change or lose their original meaning. Mate once meant "to conquer" as in checkmate. Fame once stood in for "rumor." A "clown" was once referred to as an antic. More ... 

Love Your English
Back  Cutting and Splicing
by Valerie Collins

The first time I came across the word snoreathon, I fell about laughing. It's such an amusing, evocative word. In fact it's quite brilliant how, in English, you can glue a bit of ancient Greek place name to an onomatopoeic middle English verb to describe a football match ("the Croatia–Switzerland snoreathon"), a speech, an election campaign, a book, a concert ... the Los Angeles Times (the context where I first saw the word) ... anything (subjectively) long and mind-deadening. How was your date? A total snoreathon!

You don't need to know how this information-and-value-judgment-packed word was made in order to understand it, but it's a fascinating exercise. More ... 

by John Kilgore
Ages are all alike, but Genius is always above the age. — William Blake

Quick takes: a glimpse of the art of literary criticism, as currently practiced in American universities:

This past year ... I had students read Wilder's Little House on the Prairie as a non-white reader might. This single one-page assignment made the point that Wilder's attitudes toward Native Americans and toward African Americans are problematic, and made it better than any amount of lecturing on my part could have done. One of my African American students wrote that she wondered why there was no mention of the Civil War in the novel and made the observation that it was no surprise to find an African-American doctor dealing with marginalized patients out on the prairie. Another, part Native American, student said he could barely bring himself to continue reading the novel, he found its attitudes toward his people so offensive — and many white students concurred with him. The assignment led to further useful class discussion about why we continue to read such texts with children, and possible ways to continue using these texts as starting points for placing attitudes towards race into a cultural and historical context.

Thus M. Daphne Kutzer of SUNY Plattsburgh, in a genial online discussion of her classroom approach to Laura Ingalls Wilder's famous saga of frontier survival. Reading this, I am just old enough to feel, amid a swirl of more complicated emotions, a pang of nostalgia. When I was a lad, and dinosaurs roamed the lecture hall, basking in the sober late-Arnoldian gaze of the New Critics, you weren't supposed to ask anyone how they felt about classic works of literature. It went without saying that what you felt was partly wrong and generally inadequate, and if the masterpiece left you confused, bored, or offended, brother, that was your problem. The classic, after all, had proved itself over the years, and who were you? Your job was not to sit there complaining, much less judging, but to work like a Tibetan novice at attaining the exalted state called appreciation. The whole premise of the literature class was that it was the student who must be taught to see. More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back  Diana Krall: The Meaning of Her Names
by Bill Casselman

Diana Krall, born in Nanaimo, British Columbia, is the new female superstar of jazz vocalists. Her musical talent, her multi-husky honey-and-lemon voice and movie-star looks lend knock-out whammy to every concert Ms. Krall gives, from Japan to the Montreal Jazz Festival.

The surname Krall begins in a Slavonic root meaning "king." Kral is the word for "king" in Sorbian, the West Slavonic language of people whose traditional home in eastern Germany is called Lusatia, land of the Sorbs, lying between the Elbe and the Oder Rivers. More ... 

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.

assertation Misused for assertion. • I would dispute your assertation. USE assertion. • I can't say enough that this assertation is categorically, absolutely and unconditionally wrong. USE assertion. • Given Miller's assertation that he knew of "at least three" teams willing to pay Boozer's $10.97 million salary, it appears that other teams have called to inquire about the forward. USE assertion.

Assertation, a thoroughly obsolete word used by fearfully modern people, is incorrect for assertion. Assertation — like the equally preposterous documentate (instead of document), accidentally (instead of accidently), opinionation (instead of opinion) — is spoken or written by people who do not know the words they use, by people who do not read, by people who believe adding a syllable or two to a word ought not to affect its meaning: humanity lies elsewhere. More ... 

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.

The love of turgid expressions is gaining ground, and ought to be corrected. One of the most certain evidences of a man of high breeding is his simplicity of speech: a simplicity that is equally removed from vulgarity and exaggeration. He calls a spade a "spade." His enunciation, while clear, deliberate and dignified, is totally without strut, showing his familiarity with the world, and in some degree, reflecting the qualities of his mind, which is polished without being addicted to sentimentalism, or any other bloated feeling. He never calls his wife his "lady," but his "wife," and he is not afraid of lessening the dignity of the human race by styling the most elevated and refined of his fellow creatures "men and women." He does not say, in speaking of a dance, that "the attire of the ladies was exceedingly elegant and peculiarly becoming in the late assembly," but that "the women were well dressed at the last ball"; nor is he apt to remark, that "the Rev. Mr. G. give an elegant and searching discourse the past sabbath," but that "the parson preached a good sermon last Sunday." More ... 

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.

indelible impression To describe something considered unforgettable with a clich้ — an unoriginal, a forgettable, phrase — is indeed dimwitted. • The tundra will make an indelible impression on you. • War has made an indelible impression on international art movements, as well as on Australian art. More ... 

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.

toward the direction of toward. • Take the highway A86 toward the direction of CRETEIL. Take the highway A86 toward CRETEIL. • This misconception should be changed before students graduate and enter the work force lest it affect their behavior in industry toward the direction of being less ethical. This misconception should be changed before students graduate and enter the work force lest it affect their behavior in industry toward being less ethical. • So logic dictated that after the attack in September, people's attitudes toward the direction of the country would likely become worse. So logic dictated that after the attack in September, people's attitudes toward the country would likely become worse. More ... 

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.

Cantabrigian (kant-ah-BRIJ-ee-uhn) adj. 1. of or relating to Cambridge, England, or Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2. of or relating to Cambridge University. More ... 

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 Wycherley: The Plain Dealer More ... 

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 13
Topic: Personalities
Level of difficulty: Moderate More ... 


• News from the Trenches: An English Professor Speaks — Carey Harrison

• Still Ignorant After All These Years — David Williams

• No Harmless Drudge: A Quatrimillennial Celebration — Richard Lederer

• Two Poems — Adam Kane


• Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — On Wit

• Christopher Orlet: The Last Word — The Archeology of Words

• Valerie Collins: Love Your English — Cutting and Splicing

• John Kilgore: Shibboleths — Little House in the Culture Wars

• Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Diana Krall: The Meaning of Her Names


• Grumbling About Grammar

• Elegant English

• On Dimwitticisms

• Clues to Concise Writing

• Scarcely Used Words

• On the Bookshelf

• The Vocabula Quiz

TVR Revisited

• Grammar and Disputation — Peter Corey

• Hyphenology, or the Missing Link — Darren Crovitz

• Like — Maggie Balistreri

• Holy Wars — Julian Burnside

• Quote-idian — Joseph Epstein

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Quizzes and Diversions

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Click the image to orderVocabula Bound Quarterly — Vol. 1, No. 1 by Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor

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Vocabula Bound Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 1, includes the contents of the January through March 2005 online Vocabula Review. VBQ was discontinued in March 2006.

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