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December 2005, Vol. 7, No. 12
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Coming in the January 2006 issue of The Vocabula Review:
"Tales from the Cup and Chaucer" by Skip Eisiminger
The January issue is due online January 22.
New from Vocabula Books
Vocabula 101 Series Handbooks are slim volumes replete with sound advice on how to use the English language well.
101 Wordy Phrases encourages you to speak and write more concisely and clearly.
You can order 101 Wordy Phrases from Vocabula.
101 Foolish Phrases encourages you to speak and write more carefully and thoughtfully.
You can order 101 Foolish Phrases from Vocabula.
101 Elegant Paragraphs encourages you to speak and write with deliberation, style, even beauty.
You can order 101 Elegant Paragraphs from Vocabula.
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pellucid (pah-LOO-sid) adj. 1. admitting the passage of light; transparent or translucent. 2. transparently clear in style or meaning.
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More than one million English, Spanish, and Latin entries.
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Clark Elder Morrow
Robert Hartwell Fiske
Humor in Language
Politics and Society
Post Your Poetry
The Best Words
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The Dictionary of Disagreeable English
A Curmudgeon's Compendium of
Excruciatingly Correct Grammar
And coming in May,
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.
Two by Fiske
While picking through a box full of books at a yard sale many years ago, I came across a 1951 edition of Black's Law Dictionary with a price I couldn't resist: free. Although I'm not a lawyer, my battered old Black's, with the green imitation-leather binding, has been one of my favorite reference books almost since the moment I first opened it all those years ago.
One of the joys of browsing through an old dictionary is the encounter with strange-sounding words and oddball definitions. Black's 1951 edition has plenty of both. But it has much more to offer than your ordinary half-century-old reference book. Black's contains a wealth of epigrams, historical facts, cultural revelations, word histories, sound advice, mystical observations, and more. It contains horrifying descriptions of torture devices that will give you more chills than all the legal thrillers ever penned by Grisham or Turow. With its myriad terms dedicated to defining the legal status of women through the centuries, the book provides an inadvertent history of sexism in Western Civilization. It also contains thousands of antique Latin expressions, many of which have applications that go well beyond their strict legal interpretations. Some of these expressions contain words of wisdom that wouldn't be out of place in the Book of Proverbs or a collection of pithy aphorisms. I've sometimes thought of compiling a book called Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Black's Law Dictionary. Here are just a few examples of the kind of advice for living to be found in Black's 1951 edition. More ...
There has been much written about how to improve one's vocabulary, but not too much about how to improve how one uses one's vocabulary. We are all keen to learn a word a day, but what if our experience and interests do not supply the semantic associations and connotations and the typical collocations to go along with that new word on our calendar or in our email? What can we do and where can we turn when our mental lexicon does not hold the information we need?
The dictionary contains orthographic, phonological, grammatical, and semantic information. We look up the meanings of words we do not know, yet even the best standard dictionaries provide only a bare and selective statement of meaning. They are a very pale reflection of the meanings and interconnections contained in the mental lexicon. More ...
The word carol derives from from a Greek dance called a choraulein, which was accompanied by flute music. The dance later spread throughout Europe and became especially popular with the French, who replaced the flute music with singing. People originally performed carols on several occasions during the year. By the 1600s, carols involved singing only, and Christmas had become the main holiday for these songs. More ...
Book ExcerptIn Search of a Better Thesaurus
In a 1994 discussion with a group of friends and colleagues, all of whom were involved directly or indirectly in the writing profession, the issue of thesauruses arose. To a person, our reactions were virtually identical: while in theory a thesaurus is a marvelous reference aid, the reality tends to be quite different. That "eureka" moment we all hope for when consulting a thesaurus ("That's just the word I need!") occurs far too rarely. Conventional thesauruses present le mot juste far less frequently than they should (and never present the term le mot juste itself). Moreover, as a vocabulary enhancement tool, a regular thesaurus is almost useless, since the synonyms tend to be just as common as the base words.
I therefore had an ambitious (some might say foolhardy) goal: to create a new kind of thesaurus that is intended to be a genuine improvement over existing versions for the benefit of casual and serious writers alike who want to be able to use just the right word for a given occasion. One may ask: "Isn't that precisely what conventional thesauruses are for?" The answer is yes, but only in theory. The reality is that existing thesauruses suffer from two primary flaws. More ...
Authors, editors, publicists are welcome to submit excerpts of books about words and language for possible publication in Vocabula's "Book Excerpt."
This morning when I woke, the woods were gone,
The Elder StatesmanFairy Tales, Fables, and Christmas
I know, I know: the last thing you want to see this time of year is another disquisition on Dickens or "A Christmas Carol." The only thing worse would be for me to mention It's a Wonderful Life (which I also plan on doing!). There's no help for it, I'm afraid. I recommend relaxing with a bit of fatalistic good cheer, and, if necessary, a little more Benedictine in your nog. The following onslaught of seasonal criticism may, after all, prove less daunting than a gobsmack of figgy pudding.
The "Christmas Carol" of Charles Dickens is beneath all its contemporaneous novella-like trappings a fairy tale. That is, it's a miniature morality play in prose designed to employ the miraculous in the service of traditional morals. Fairy tales seek to reinforce the long-established ethics you find reiterated in Seneca and Boethius and Mencius, though usually they enlist medieval Christian imagery for purposes of the mise-en-scene. Not surprisingly (given their provenance), a very Christian strain of morality finds itself woven into these stories as well: if Cinderella is not a Christ-figure modeling humility and cheek-turning, then I don't know Christ-figures when I see them; if Sleeping Beauty does not embody the notion of the soul dead in its sins ere the Prince/Savior awakens it, I am seriously misled; if Rumpelstiltzkin isn't a cautionary tale against money-spinning seducers who vanish when they are recognized for what they are, then I am overinterpreting. But theology aside your classic fairy tale is equal parts Gothic costuming, magic, and conventional moral views. More ...
The Last WordTimeless Aphorisms
The aphorism: a general truth conveyed in a short and pithy sentence in such a way that once heard it is unlikely to pass from memory. The first aphorisms were attributed to Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine, in 400 BCE. All pertained to the doctor game. Perhaps his most famous aphorism begins "Life is short, and Art long; the crisis fleeting; experience perilous, and decision difficult." My own doctor Louis Fischbein has one even better: "First the good news. You're going to have a disease named after you!" Not really an aphorism, but then Fischbein isn't really a doctor.
Aphorisms are often confused with axioms, but there is a key difference, that being experience. The latter expresses a profound self-evident truth, the former a profound truth learned the hard way. For years I have been jotting down my own profound, hard-learned truisms. Thus follows the somewhat mixed results: More ...
Postcards from BabelChange and Decay: Confessions of a Descriptive Linguist
Bethumped with WordsHello! Ciao! Ave Atque Vale! The Origin of Some Words of Greeting
Recognition of the arrival and departure of another person takes many verbal forms, and salutations spring from surprising sources. Hello, as we'll discover, began with a human imitating the howl of a hunting dog. This time we look at expressions of greeting and farewell in English and in some foreign languages. On the TV series and in the movie versions of Star Trek, the Vulcan Spock says, "Live long and prosper." Ancient Romans had the somewhat abrupt ave atque vale, "hello and goodbye," which always reminds me of the ditty that comedian Groucho Marx used to sing, "Hello, I must be going." The Latin is literally "hail and be well" and might be the source of Spock's bye-bye. Bye-bye is a contracted and then duplicated form of "goodbye," itself a centuries-in-the-making compression of "God be with you." More ...
A brief divagation, this month, if you will allow me, on two matters of punctuation, one of my favorite subjects.
(As I write, half my mind is with my unfortunate students, who are preparing themselves, if a New York City public transport workers' strike does not supervene, for the "Exit Exam" from Freshman Composition for which they have been studying for the last fifteen weeks. Now, the very existence of this Exit Exam might suggest that at my college we hold the line for a decent standard of written English, especially since students who fail the Exit Exam have to take Freshman Comp again, and since, if they fail three times, they are shown the door. Careful readers of this column will know that this is all malarkey. A few utterly bereft students may perhaps be shown the door I've never heard of it, but it may have happened once or twice but the rest of the dear, limping, hopelessly inadequate writers of English who pass, in the main, for undergraduates today, are somehow chaired through, and pass the third, if not the second attempt. And no wonder. Who would want to be responsible for sending some ill-taught young person perhaps dyslexic, but probably ill-taught all the same out into the cold merely to knock on the door of a college even more indifferent to standards of written English than our own? I would, if the principle on which I was standing in order to do so had some wider force in our academic community or anyone else's. Otherwise you simply feel like a lazy predator on the veldt who has picked out for the day's kill the lame and unloved zebra du jour at the fringe of the herd. Cui bono?) 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.
repartee Idiotic for joke (or similar words). Phong quickly repartees: "Happiness is like an ostrich, for the longer you bury your head the more happy you will be." USE returns. Sir Martin repartees with a wicked smile: "I think Tony should worry about his own group." USE retorts. The four men behind us flirt pointedly with the waiter, who good-naturedly repartees back. USE jokes. Hughes, in fact, scared the crap out of me by just how sharp she was and how she very skillfully reparteed Jon's barbs. USE replied to.
Repartee is a noun; it is not a verb. 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.
I know your Honor stands between the future and the past. I know the future is with me, and what I stand for here; not merely for the lives of these two unfortunate lads, but for all boys and all girls; for all of the young, and as far as possible, for all of the old. I am pleading for life, understanding, charity, kindness, and the infinite mercy that considers all. I am pleading that we overcome cruelty with kindness and hatred with love. I know the future is on my side. Your Honor stands between the past and the future. You may hang these boys; you may hang them by the neck until they are dead. But in doing it you will turn your face toward the past. In doing it you are making it harder for every other boy who in ignorance and darkness must grope his way through the mazes which only childhood knows. In doing it you will make it harder for unborn children. You may save them and make it easier for every child that sometime may stand where these boys stand. You will make it easier for every human being with an aspiration and a vision and a hope and a fate. I am pleading for the future; I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men. When we can learn by reason and judgment and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man. Clarence Darrow: "A Plea for Mercy" 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.
a good read This is a hideous expression that only the very badly read those, that is, who read merely to be entertained could possibly verbalize. The people who use this phrase are the people who read best-selling authors.
This bookstore caters to those looking for a good read in paperback. REPLACE WITH a readable paperback. While Foleys piece on football stadiums was a good read, it is entirely off the mark in terms of the proposed megaplex. REPLACE WITH entertaining. It is hard to make air-conditioning repair a good read. REPLACE WITH captivating. 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.
in height high; delete. They should be at least 18 inches in height, not encircled, and placed close to the parts they apply to. They should be at least 18 inches high, not encircled, and placed close to the parts they apply to. Bald cypress is the sentinel of the Southern swamp, reaching over one hundred feet tall in height. Bald cypress is the sentinel of the Southern swamp, reaching over one hundred feet tall. These patients are short in height and severely affected by joint laxity and dislocations. These patients are short and severely affected by joint laxity and dislocations. 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.
chirography (ky-ROG-ruh-fee) n. handwriting or penmanship; calligraphy. 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.
Edward Dahlberg: Because I Was Flesh 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 21
The Ultimate Legal Thriller Kevin Mims
Really Learning Your Word of the Day Barbara Ann Kipfer
Name That Christmas Carol Richard Lederer
Book Excerpt: In Search of a Better Thesaurus Peter Meltzer
Three Poems Miriam Kotzin
Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman Fairy Tales, Fables, and Christmas
Christopher Orlet: The Last Word Timeless Aphorisms
Amalia Gnanadesikan: Postcards from Babel Change and Decay: Confessions of a Descriptive Linguist
Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words Hello! Ciao! Ave Atque Vale! The Origin of Some Words of Greeting
Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner Outr้-Days
Grumbling About Grammar
Clues to Concise Writing
Scarcely Used Words
On the Bookshelf
The Vocabula Quiz
TVR Radio 2
Black Holes Julian Burnside
Does Saying Make It So? Tina Bennett-Kastor
Negative Thoughts Brenda Townsend Hall
The Like Virus David Grambs
"The Relationship" Equals "You"; The Passive-Aggressive "Oh, Well" Maggie Balistreri
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