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.
Happiness is subjective: what floats my boat may not melt your butter; what puts you in seventh heaven may put me in the seventh ring of hell. But whether you think of happiness as a warm gun, a warm puppy, or an iced coffee, you probably spend a lot of time in hot pursuit of happiness, as is your right. Recently, I got a little obsessed with the word happy, and by taking a closer look at the word, maybe I can get a little closer to the feeling.
Samuel Johnson defined fart as meaning "to break wind behind." He illustrated the usage with a quotation from Swift:
As when we do a gun discharge,
Although the bore be ne'er so large,
Before the flames from muzzle burst,
Just at the breech it flashes first;
So from my Lord his passions broke,
He farted first, and then he spoke.
When I was young, I scorned small talk. I thought it represented the shallowness and pettiness of people at large: why didn't they talk about important things? But now I take it as a sign of tact, the courtesy with which we mutually accommodate our shared knowledge of the strangeness and transience of life. Kafka, the genius of small talk, understood this and out of it he made a style that compassionately addresses, by not seeming to address, the human condition of being born "strangers and afraid in a world we never made."
I'm an Etruscan looking for my people. So far, the search has provoked a curious sort of hostility among friends and acquaintances and has failed to produce a single relation. While no one disputes the part Etruscans played in the history of western civilization, many people angrily insist we died out before the first millennium. "It says so in the history books," they proclaim. If I keep arguing, they acquiesce that is, cover themselves conceding that while Etruscans might still walk on earth, they have no way to prove who they are.
"Language is the Rubicon that divides man from beast," declared the philologist Max Muller. The boundary between human and animal between the most primitive savage and the highest ape is the language line. In some tribes in Africa, a baby is called a kuntu, a "thing," not yet a muntu, a "person." It is only through the gift of language that the child acquires reason, the complexity of thought that sets him or her apart from the other creatures that share this planet. The birth of language is the dawn of humanity; in our beginning was the word. We have always been endowed with language because before we had words, we were not human beings.
In the beginning was Chaucer. And Chaucer for our brief intents and purposes pretty much preceded individual style in the crafting of English prose. Just as a rectangular glass box exemplified the "international style" in skyscrapers in the mid-twentieth century, so Chaucer's prose was very much in the familiar vein of his contemporaries. A patch from "The Tale of Melibee" is characteristic of his day and age, if not of every dialect:
His wyf and eek his doghter hath he left inwith his hous, of which the dores weren faste yshette. Thre of his olde foes han it espied, and setten laddres to the walles of his hous, and by wyndowes been entred, and betten his wyf, and wounded his doghter with fyve mortal woundes in fyve sondry places,-- this is to seyn, in hir feet, in hire handes, in hir erys, in hir nose, and in hire mouth,-- and leften hire for deed, and wenten awey.
Beginning with my copy boy apprenticeship and continuing to this day, I have heard it proclaimed with all the dull and plodding repetition of sacred ritual that the best newspaper writing appears in the sports pages. I can only imagine this slander was started and sustained by professional sportswriters and their agents and those washed up inkslingers who profess to teach the subject for a living. Allow me to set the record straight. The best newspaper writing is done not in the sports pages, but just about everywhere else in the paper: in the feature stories, on the op-ed pages, by the political and pop culture columnists, even in the death notices of certain quality newspapers like the New York Times. In fact, the sports pages almost always provide the best hunting for the business's worst writing.
Have you ever noticed that for many words that begin with f there exist other, fancier words that begin with p? Thus a person who has gone fishing is engaged in piscatorial pursuits, a father asserts his paternity, someone with a sore foot visits a podiatrist, and things that are first rate are of premium quality.
Willow Ptarmigan I judge to be an apt name for a maiden in a fantasy novel. The hero meets her while trundling his hoopla over the tundra. She's a comely lass, who coos and gurgles and croaks as she tugs you down into the vulval warmth of her feathery snuggery. Her nest I mean of course!
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.
disprefer Idiotic for dislike (or similar words). It's interesting as a spelling pronunciation, preferred by some speakers, dispreferred by others. USE not. They never spontaneously produce them; in fact, they strongly disprefer them. USE object to. In a pinch, you can fax it to me at 011-44-1865-279299, but I disprefer faxes because of deficient legibility. USE dislike. Other things being equal, we should disprefer blogs to journalism. USE prefer journalism to blogs.
Among linguists and their lackeys, disaffected as they often are from sense and thoughtfulness, disprefer actually does exist. No sentence is improved, none made true or clear, by using disprefer instead of some other wording.
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.
This Chinese monstrosity, disguised in the trousers of the Western Barbarian and provided by the State with the immortal Mr. Stiggins's plug hat and umbrella, is with us. It is an office. An office of trust. And from time to time there is found an official to fill it. He is a public man. The least prominent of public men, the most unobtrusive, the most obscure if not the most modest.
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.
good (great) stuff When we need to use the word stuff to describe something we like, something we also call good or great, we might wonder if we have lost all sense of what is likable and what not.
Stuff best describes the nondescript and uneventful, the poor, the ordinary, and the pathetic.
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 an attempt (effort; endeavor) to try toin trying to; to try to. In an effort to try to contain the spiraling cost of automobile insurance, a number of legislative changes have been proposed. In trying to contain the spiraling cost of automobile insurance, a number of legislative changes have been proposed. Police administrators have begun to get law enforcement to explore alliances with private security professionals in an attempt to try to find the community roots of crime. Police administrators have begun to get law enforcement to explore alliances with private security professionals to try to find the community roots of crime. In an endeavor to try to make more dramatic progress for these youngsters, I want to turn your attention to something that has not happened before in our school system. To try to make more dramatic progress for these youngsters, I want to turn your attention to something that has not happened before in our school system.
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.
algophobia (al-gah-FOH-bee-ah) n. an abnormal fear of pain.
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.
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 11 Topic: Health Level of difficulty: Moderate
The Dictionary of Unendurable English — Hardcover by Robert Hartwell Fiske
The Vocabula Bookstore Is Now Open.
(click the image to order)
Today's popular dictionaries often fail to define words correctly or to distinguish between them; some dictionaries even maintain that one word means the same as another simply because people who do not know the correct meanings of the words confuse them. Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English — a supplement to whatever dictionary you own or use — is an attempt to combat this nonsense, to return meaning and distinction to the words we use.