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This is the 75th issue of TVR, which has been published each month since September 1999 by Vocabula Communications Company.

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November 2005, Vol. 7, No. 11
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ISSN 1542-7080

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"The Ultimate Legal Thriller" by Kevin Mims
The December issue is due online December 18.

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immure (i-MYOOR) v. 1. to confine within or as if within walls; imprison. 2. to build into a wall. 3. to entomb in a wall.

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Two by Fiske

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by Francis Blessington

Carl Sandburg began his poetry readings with this anecdote:

Two sailors, marooned on an island, decided to write a poem. The first sailor wrote:

I lost my all
In the Bay of Bengal

The second sailor wrote:

I lost my shirt
In the Bay of Bengal.

The first sailor said, "That's not a poem. It doesn't even rhyme."

The second sailor said, "It's a better poem than yours. At least it's real and not like that nonsense you wrote."

Sandburg's point was, of course, that one purpose of poetry is to purify the language, put it more in line with reality, to watch what we call spin or needless exaggeration from entering into our speech. More ... 

by Susan Elkin

Vocabulary is the essence of language. Language is words and words are language. Words are what distinguish us from other species. Without them we can't get beyond growling, grunting, purring, and mating calls.

So why aren't we — in education, the media, and at home — moving heaven and earth to develop word power in children and adults? The more words you know, the more skilled you will be as a communicator. You can also think more incisively and work things out more effectively if you have a good vocabulary. More ... 

by Ken Bresler

You can't remember the difference between vis-เ-vis and viz., you say? You never knew in the first place? Don't worry. As the two terms become interchangeable or interspliced, it won't matter. I'm not sure that it matters now.

Nonetheless, for the love of Noah Webster, vis-เ-vis means "compared with" or "relative to," for example, "the benefits of MasterCard vis-เ-vis VISA." (A consultant told me that she saw the phrase vis-เ-vis VISA in a report that her firm produced, although she assumed that her colleague wrote it out of stodginess and inattention rather than in glee.) More ... 

by Richard Lederer

It is said that someone at the United Nations once fed a common English saying into a translating computer. The machine was asked to translate the statement into Chinese, then into French, and finally back to English.

The adage chosen was "Out of sight, out of mind." What came back was "Invisible insane."

A similar computer was given the task of translating into Russian and then back into English the bromide "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." The result was "The wine is good, but the meat is spoiled." More ... 

The other day I gave a friendly correction to a fellow editor at the Canadian newspaper I work for. He was going to use the word obtuse in a headline in a manner that suggested he was trying to say "arcane" or "esoteric" or perhaps "obscure" or "complex" — you get the idea.

I told him obtuse, in a figurative sense (in use, according to the OED, since 1509 — the meaning most commonly intended by anyone other than a geometrician for a goodly span of years), was a synonym for "stupid," and, thus, could not have been further from the meaning he was trying to convey. More ... 

by Elana Wolff


I used to dream of teeth— molars melting,
canines crumbling, laterals dangling: black.

For years I pondered honesty, then I learned
that teeth are tougher— separate stuff from bone—
last of human matter to decompose.

I feared their falling out:
the rest of me would be so smooth to dupe. More ... 

by Mark Halpern

The revolt against taxes is as perennial as taxes themselves; even those who approve wholeheartedly of taxes in general often find themselves trying to dodge some particularly onerous one. But since we are always identifying new goods and services that we want government to provide us with, we make it necessary for government to keep finding new sources of revenue. The simplest way to increase that revenue, of course, would be to raise taxes, but that is frequently politically impossible. So the trick that governments must practice is to raise revenue — in effect, to raise taxes — without seeming to do so. This turns out not to be hard, because most of the tax-paying public seems to be fixated on the word tax, and to be relatively insensitive about forced payments to one level of government or another, provided it is not so labeled. More ... 

So what would it mean to "defend the language"? The very notion seems fraught with logical and semantic difficulty, right to the edge of absurdity. From one point of view at least, language is immaterial and transcendent, and thus no more susceptible to damage than (let's say) the number seven or the Moonlight Sonata. Just like the sonata, it will always recover from a poor performance and be back again the next time, good as new. Conceived more concretely, as the sum of actual speech unfolding in time and place, language is so hugely extensive and copious that no one can have a clear overview of it, and any assertion that in general it is doing well or badly is likely no more than a vast overgeneralization: you hear something wayward from a teenager or a U.S. president, then overstate your annoyance in cosmic terms. But it seems clear that language even in this sense is remarkably resilient and conservative, more resistant to change than technology, morals, or other cultural basics, capable of withstanding lengthy onslaughts of solecism and imprecision before at last it changes. More ... 

kleitoris, kleitoridis Greek, clitoris < kleis, kleidos Greek, key + oris Greek agent noun suffix

The clitoris is a quarter-inch bud of sexually responsive tissue located just above the vaginal entrance, where the labia minora join. The key to much sexual pleasure in the female, the clitoris may be hidden under a hood of flesh called the clitoral prepuce. The clitoris is analogous to the penis. Kleitoris in ancient Greek means literally "the man with the key" or "the gatekeeper." A playful origin of names for this organ is repeated in many languages. Compare a British folk term, "the little man in the boat." The word is pronounced KLIT-or-iss. No, it doesn't rhyme with brontosaurus. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  Hurrah-Days
by Carey Harrison

Thanksgiving approaches. Holiday! For my family it's the usual dilemma: if no one invites us for the celebration — at any rate for the dinner — will we finally start pretending, after ten years on this side of the Atlantic, to be Americans? Will we cook a turkey, just for ourselves, and deck it with sweet potatoes? It's not the prospect of sweet potatoes (yum!) or the turkey that makes us hesitate, so much as the pretense that, as Europeans, we have anything to celebrate on this particular date. (Let's not even inspect whether Americans themselves have cause to celebrate.) Happily, until now, we've been invited to a friend's house, to be surrogate Native Americans. Let's hope it happens again this year. It's always more fun this way; just as, when we were children, it was more fun playing one of the Indians than one of the Cowboys. The Cowboys got the guns, and went Bang! But the Indians got to creep around in unlawful places and then spring onto a Cowboy's back, guerrilla-fashion. We, the Indians, were the "insurgency." At the same time, we were the ones who owned the place. It was ours. Cowboys, then and now, were just big clunky visitors selling "civilization." Yee-ha! Or as we say: Geronimo!

My students will, I trust, be enjoying their turkey, too. They'll also be mindful of the coming exams, in particular the "Exit Exam" from Freshman Composition class. In theory, this is a hurdle with serious consequences if you fail. You have to take the class again (an almost unheard of penalty, these days). If you fail the class three times — and I suspect you have to be virtually analphabetic to do so — you are shown the door. You can then go and locate a college with no bar to jump over at all, which shouldn't be too hard to find. Mindful of a World Championship High Jump event, I caught on television not so long ago and kept watching, against my better judgment — watching people, or horses, or even dogs jump over obstacles makes me groan and spasmodically raise my legs in agonized, involuntary empathy — I can picture a line of Composition students at a student-friendly college, each of them jogging toward the high jump bar only to find there is no bar, and falling gratefully between the uprights, face first, onto the foam rubber. 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.  

metric Idiotic for measure (or similar words). • The Company believes EBITDA is a financial metric used by many investors to compare companies on the basis of operating results and the ability to incur and service debt. USE measure. • One thing the Chinese government is doing is changing how local, state and national officials are judged; GDP growth is not the only metric anymore. USE measure. • Sales at stores open at least one year — an industry metric called same-store sales — rose 4 percent, half the company's expectation for 8 percent growth. USE measure. • And what I would look at is not the metric of the bombings and the casualties, as tragic as they are, but some metrics which I would say would be a little bit more objective. USE magnitude; measurements.

Among the self-important and the empty-headed, metric is displacing measure (or measurement). No highly regarded dictionary can claim that metric is a synonym for measure, but as people mimic the best of each other so they mimic the worst. Only the suffix -metric means relating to measurement. 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.  

This is the difference between those two Luminaries in Literature, the well-accomplished Scholar, and the divinely-inspired Enthusiast; the First is, as the bright morning star; the Second, as the rising sun. The writer who neglects those two rules above will never stand alone; he makes one of a group, and thinks in wretched unanimity with the throng: Incumbered with the notions of others, and impoverished by their abundance, he conceives not the least embryo of new thought; opens not the least vista thro' the gloom of ordinary writers, into the bright walks of rare Imagination, and singular Design; while the true Genius is crossing all publick roads into fresh untrodden ground; he, up to the knees in Antiquity, is treading the sacred footsteps of great examples, with the blind veneration of a bigot saluting the papal toe; comfortably hoping full absolution for the sins of his own understanding, from the powerful charm of touching his idol's Infallibility. — Edward Young, Conjectures on Original Composition 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.  

make no mistake (about it) Politicians and others who introduce their thoughts with make no mistake (about it) do make a mistake: an imperative phrase, an insistent tone prepare us only, and invariably, for insubstantial, disappointing remarks. The words that follow expressions like make no mistake (about it) and let there be no mistake need to capture our imagination and compel us to think. If that is more than these jabberers can manage, then let them be still. 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.  

exploitative exploitive. • However exploitative or not, I have always had a place in my heart for the horror film. However exploitive or not, I have always had a place in my heart for the horror film. • In public and private, the pattern of his life has been mutually exploitative relationships. In public and private, the pattern of his life has been mutually exploitive relationships. • The most egregious example of rabid anti-unionism is Wal-mart, whose exploitative low wages also have a debilitating effect on the employees of its suppliers. The most egregious example of rabid anti-unionism is Wal-mart, whose exploitive low wages also have a debilitating effect on the employees of its suppliers. 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.  

attainder (uh-TAYN-duhr) n. loss of property and civil rights of a person outlawed or sentenced to death. 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.  

George Bernard Shaw: Pygmalion 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 20
Topic: In the news
Level of difficulty: Moderate More ... 

This is TVR Radio 2: poetry and postscripts, despair and disparagement, sentiments and celebrations.  

The Bat; The Windhover
More ... 


• Finding the Fictions — Francis Blessington

• Words, Words, Words — Susan Elkin

• What Viz. Is — Ken Bresler

• Lost in Translation — Richard Lederer

• The Canadian Oxford Dictionary: Obtuse Indeed — John Worsley Simpson

• Two Poems — Elana Wolff


• Mark Halpern: The Critical Reader Critical Terms: Taxes — Do We Hate the Word or the Thing?

• John Kilgore: Shibboleths — Crossing the Jordan: Four Meditations on Usage — Part 4

• Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Our Naughty Bits and the Surprising Origin of Their Proper Medical Terms

• Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Hurrah-Days


• Grumbling About Grammar

• Elegant English

• On Dimwitticisms

• Clues to Concise Writing

• Scarcely Used Words

• On the Bookshelf

• The Vocabula Quiz

• TVR Radio 2

TVR Revisited

• 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

• Playing the Synonym Game — Ken Bresler

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Click the image to orderPoem Revised: 54 Poems, Revisions, Discussions by Robert Hartwell Fiske, Laura Cherry

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The creative world of the writer is uncovered in this captivating exploration of the techniques of poetry revision. An in-depth look at the writing processes of 54 poems, each by a different modern author, is provided, complete with early drafts, subsequent revised versions, and short essays from the poets themselves revealing how and why they made specific changes, as well as their editing secrets.

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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.

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