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Published each month since September 1999

A society is generally as lax as its language.

The January issue is 23,880 words long.
January 2005, Vol. 7, No. 1 There are now  70  people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

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Back  Breve New World: Thoughts on an Emergent Pidgin Kerr Houston

Late last summer, as much of America pondered swift boats and WMDs, a group of bloggers and iced coffee aficionados focused instead upon an improbable but momentarily fascinating conjunction of neologism, corporate identity, and small-town law governing the entry of cattle into restaurants. In June of 2004, Dairy Queen had rolled out its MooLatte, a frozen coffee beverage that came in several different varieties. Shortly after, Slate's Timothy Noah attracted notice with a post arguing that the drink's name was uncomfortably close to the word mulatto and its potentially racist overtones. The Houston Press soon got into the act, with a phone conversation with a Dairy Queen spokesman, in which they suggested that five more flavors be added, which would allow the firm to market an Octaroonie. But when the spokesman responded, apparently in earnest, that "that's actually a pretty good idea," some observers wondered if the company was playing with a poker face — a feeling compounded when, in August, Dairy Queen subsequently announced that any customer bringing a cow to a participating restaurant would receive a free MooLatte. Over the next few months, the Web hummed with reports of ordinances governing the passage of livestock into eateries, and with opinions regarding the appropriateness of the product name (including a further posting by Noah that pointed to a Senegalese film entitled Moolaade, which was concerned with female genital mutilation). More ... 

Back  The Mermaid Heinz Insu Fenkl

Recently, as I was waiting in line at the local Starbucks, I overheard two customers arguing about the Starbucks' logo. Is it a siren or a mermaid? The current logo doesn't give enough visual information, as one customer pointed out, but the original logo was a creature with the upper half of a woman and a split fish tail — a mermaid by his reckoning. The other customer pointed out that Starbucks refers to the image as a siren. Could they be wrong about their own corporate logo? The argument was lively enough to perk the interest of other customers, and soon various bits of interesting information came up, including reference to an online debate about the nature of mermaid sexuality and, specifically, regarding the reproductive organs of Disney's Ariel. I, myself, did not join in this debate but merely kept within earshot, considering the price of a latte well worth this synchronistic field research. More ... 

Back  Blog, Bloggers, Blague Joseph Epstein

No big surprise, I suppose, in Merriam-Webster's recent announcement that blog was the word most looked up on its Internet sites during the past year. Bloggers were much in the news; in fact, they often turned the direction of the news, and made a fair amount of news on their own. Bloggers caught up with many campaign lies during the past presidential election; by catching him out in shoddy journalistic practice, they cost Dan Rather an honorable departure from a long career. More ... 

Back  Foggy Blogs David Isaacson

Bloggers are to old-fashioned journal writers as joggers to runners: they are narcissists rather than genuine self-lovers. The word blog means a personal journal that is made available on the Web. In other words, another example in our tell-all, confessional culture of information we seldom need and ought not to want. True, some bloggers not only have an axe to grind but priceless information to publish we'd not otherwise have. Imagine if I. F. Stone's "Weekly" were a daily blog! And Joseph Epstein is right: a few dedicated fact-checkers helped to bring a hasty end to Dan Rather's career. But with some exceptions, bloggers pretend to be "sharing" their private, and sometimes even their intimate thoughts with a few privileged friends. They are the early twenty-first-century equivalent of that remarkable moment in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest when Earnest, noticing Cicely Cardew writing in her diary, asks "What is that?" and she replies, "Oh, this is simply a very young girl's record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication." More ... 

Back  A Stylish Inauguration Speech Richard Lederer

More than four decades ago, on January 20, 1961, thousands of visitors converged on Washington, D.C., for the inauguration of our thirty-fifth president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. A blizzard had struck the eastern seaboard that day. The streets of the capital were clogged with snow and stranded automobiles, but the inaugural ceremony went on, and a new president delivered one of the most memorable addresses in American history. More ... 

Back  Two Poems Elana Wolff


The guests arrive, their coats are hung.
They linger at the entrance
praising the fixtures and the paint.
The hostess peals with pleasantries and laughter.
She seats them (after showing the home)
to Mozart, and a meal:
More ... 

Back  The Elder Statesman  
English Romantic Poets and ... Hollywood?
Clark Elder Morrow

I am always amazed at how well women can remember the earliest incidents of their youth. I'm lucky if I can recall a single incident from kindergarten, yet my wife and my sister tell me that they remember much of their third and fourth years on earth. No doubt a clear conscience makes for a limpid memory. More ... 

Back  The Critical Reader  
Key Words of Our Time: Curling up with a Good Dimension on a Rainy Day
Mark Halpern

Albert Einstein cannot be held responsible for the misuse made of some of his ideas and utterances. It's not his fault that many people think that the General Theory of Relativity, his revolutionary concept of how gravity shapes space, somehow means that nothing is really true since everything is really relative to ... well, something. Nor is it his fault that many people think that there is a fourth dimension that, if they keep their eyes wide open, they will be able to spot someday before it can get away. Modern physicists, however, are largely responsible for a kind of confusion that is widespread among the general, nonscientific population, and that originated with Einstein's great discoveries. That is the notion that science has discovered a fourth, fifth, or even an eleventh dimension that you can see only if you have a PhD in physics. This misconception is a serious one because it seems to confirm the nonscientists' gloomy feeling that what scientists are talking about is utterly beyond them, and that it's hopeless to try to understand anything they say — not the frame of mind that we want an enlightened citizenry to be in. More ... 

Back  Shibboleths  
Frisking the Governor's Daughter: On Puns
John Kilgore

There was this fabulous chicken, unlike any other. Her motion was so fluid, so swift, people said she was sheer poultry in motion.

Humblest of tropes, the paronomasia — "pun" to its siblings and golf buddies — typically earns not an appreciative chuckle but a groan of pain. It can inspire Bronx cheers or mock insults, like John Dennis's declaration that "The man who would make so vile a pun would not scruple to pick a pocket," an upside-down compliment that seems, nonetheless, founded in real annoyance. Clearly we think the punster has somehow cheated, though in a way merely foolish and petty, childish perhaps but not evil. What could lie at the root of this feeling? The answer, I think, has to do with the basic nature of listening: with the mental gymnastics we continually perform, without quite knowing it, in order to understand even the simplest phrase. Unjustly despised, the pun turns out to be surprisingly profound, not a silly game with language but part of its fundamental nature. More ... 

Back  Postcards from Babel  
Turtles All the Way Down
Amalia Gnanadesikan

My spam was unusually entertaining the other day. Unlike most, it offered me not health, wealth, or satisfaction, but merely enlightenment and information. It came not from Nigeria but from Turkey. Among other things, it claimed that Turkish is the world's most ancient language, and that whole families of other languages were artificially created by making anagrams out of ancient Turkish words. The similarity of the French expression vis--vis to Turkish yz yze (both meaning "face-to-face") is supposedly evidence of French being but a camouflaged derivative of Turkish. More ... 

Back  Bethumped with Words  
Four Northern Words Flenched
Bill Casselman

Let us take up the whaler's flenching knife and slice away the circumambient lexical blubber from four stout words of the north.

Here is a setting of four gelid gems for a winter night's perusal. One gives warmth; one gives taste; one spits in the arrogant eye of the OED, and one brings madness near. 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.

palatable Solecistic for palpable. • If only we could only capture that palatable feeling in a bottle so that it can touch us on a more regular basis, it would do so much good. USE palpable. • About six months later I remember thinking that we were headed for a full-fledged recession, there was an almost palatable uneasiness in the air. USE palpable. • The tension was palatable between the girls as break-up rumours started swirling in the British press. USE palpable.

And palpable is misused for palatable: • The curly fries were the only palpable food that we ordered. USE palatable. • I believe that there is only one palpable solution to how attendants of a church, whether long-standing members or first-time visitors, can freely attend a service that God has so decreed. USE palatable.

Palatable means agreeable to the palate or taste; acceptable to the mind or senses. Palpable means tangible or capable of being touched; easily perceived, noticeable.

This is just the sort of idiocy that laxicographers delight in. Within a few years, dictionaries will give palpable as a synonym for palatable, and palatable as a synonym for palpable. 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 met him accidentally, soon after his arrival, and was struck with his happy perceptions and with his acute appreciation of London. Young and fresh as he was, he rejoiced in the dim vastness of the great city; this was a quality which he found altogether inspiring. He delighted in space and number, and dealt with the latter element in particular in a way which, at his age, was already masterly. He never was so happy as when he had too many things to do, and he could view the infinite multiplication of detail with pure exhilaration. That is partly what I mean by his admirable spirit, which was his love of handling large things, of handling everything in a large way. — Henry James, Wolcott Balestier 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.

not in (out of) the picture Some metaphors — so bloodless have they become — accommodate many different meanings. Not in (out of) the picture is one of them, for this pale expression could easily mean dead or departed, conceivably mean forgotten or forgettable, or imaginably mean unmentionable or nameless. 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.

come into (to) (a; the) ... (of) delete. • Eventually they came to the recognition that the supercomputer business is a high stakes poker game. Eventually they recognized that the supercomputer business is a high stakes poker game. • It neither glosses over the true historical picture nor attempts to come to the defense of any individuals. It neither glosses over the true historical picture nor attempts to defend any individuals. • We must come to the understanding that we are on a journey, and in that journey, it is not so much where we are at present but where we are going. We must understand that we are on a journey, and in that journey, it is not so much where we are at present but where we are going. 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.

amaranthine (am-ah-RAN-thin) adj. 1. of, relating to, or resembling the amaranth. 2. eternally beautiful and unfading; everlasting. 3. deep purple-red. 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.

John Dos Passos: U.S.A. 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 10  Topic: In the news  Level of difficulty: Moderate More ... 


Breve New World: Thoughts on an Emergent Pidgin — Kerr Houston

The Mermaid — Heinz Insu Fenkl

Blog, Bloggers, Blague — Joseph Epstein

Foggy Blogs — David Isaacson

A Stylish Inauguration Speech — Richard Lederer

Two Poems — Elana Wolff


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — English Romantic Poets and ... Hollywood?

Mark Halpern: The Critical Reader — Key Words of Our Time: Curling up with a Good Dimension on a Rainy Day

John Kilgore: Shibboleths — Frisking the Governor's Daughter: On Puns

Amalia Gnanadesikan: Postcards from Babel — Turtles All the Way Down

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Four Northern Words Flenched


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Holy Wars — Julian Burnside

Quote-idian — Joseph Epstein

DisenYOUGUYSing American English — jjoan ttaber altieri

Yes, We Have No Bananas — Valerie Collins

Bumper Bites — Tina Bennett-Kastor

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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 Dictionary of Concise Writing, Fiske shows how to identify and correct wordiness.

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