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This is the 80th issue of TVR, which has been published each month since September 1999 by Vocabula Communications Company.

The April issue is 31,684 words long. Recent issues:  Mar.  Feb.  Jan.  Dec.  Nov. 
April 2006, Vol. 8, No. 4
There are now   110   people reading TVR.
ISSN 1542-7080

Coming in the May issue of The Vocabula Review:
"Three-in-One" by Anna Jean Mallinson
The May issue is due online May 28.

Good Words

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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 — Deluxe Edition
A Curmudgeon's Compendium of
Excruciatingly Correct Grammar

Coming in May
The Dictionary of Disagreeable English
Deluxe Edition

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The Grumbling Grammarian is back with a revised and expanded edition of The Dictionary of Disagreeable English. In this second edition, Robert Hartwell Fiske has added more—and more disagreeable—language blunders, additional witty commentary, and a new feature that includes frequently asked language questions, and their answers.

Fiske rails against "laxicographers and ding-a-linguists" who, with their misguided thinking, actually promote the dissolution of the English language. He also illustrates why dictionaries don't always provide the correct meaning or usage of a word. With concise instruction and numerous examples of misused words, Fiske makes it easier than ever to learn from others' mistakes.

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

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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.

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101 Foolish Phrases encourages you to speak and write more carefully and thoughtfully.

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101 Elegant Paragraphs encourages you to speak and write with deliberation, style, even beauty.

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Well Spoken Is Half Sung

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by Joseph Epstein

I seem to have written another book, my eighteenth. I'm gratified that the ecologists haven't thus far come after me for destroying so many trees. The most ambiguous compliment a writer can receive is to be told that he or she is prolific. I fear that I may be getting prolific, if I'm not already there. "Oh, him again" is how prolific writers suspect their new books are greeted. "Basta!," they fear, is another common response to their latest creation. More ... 

by Richard Lederer

The ancient and popular Art of the Palindrome (words and statements that read the same forwards and backwards) blazes out from the epicenter of the universe of letter play. Alistair Reid expresses what may be the very heart of the fascination for matters palindromic when we writes:

The dream which occupies the tortuous mind of every palindromist is that somewhere within the confines of the language lurks the Great Palindrome, the nutshell which not only fulfills the intricate demands of the art, flowing sweetly in both directions, but which also contains the Final Truth of Things.
More ... 
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by Joseph Kimble
Obtuse, archaic, and verbose legal language ... is surely even today a major reason for antipathy toward the legal profession. — Peter M. Tiersma

If lawyers everywhere adopted this goal [of writing in plain language], the world would probably change in dramatic ways. — Bryan A. Garner

Let's hope that the next presidential impeachment does not happen for at least another 130 years, if at all. By then, you and I will hardly care, unless the genetic research into prolonging life has paid off for us in miraculous ways. So I don't expect to ever see my suggestions find their way into an order on articles of impeachment. I offer them to posterity — and to current judges who might find them generally useful in writing orders of any type. More ... 

Authors, editors, publicists are welcome to submit excerpts of books about words and language for possible publication in Vocabula's "Book Excerpt."

TVR Revisited
Back  "Secrets" of the Pros
by Richard Dowis

I'm going to share with you some "secrets" of professional speech writing. Well, actually, the things I'll be discussing are not secrets at all. They're proven techniques that speech writers use to make their speeches more interesting, more meaningful, and more dramatic. You can find them not only in well-written speeches but in many kinds of writing, from ad copy to fiction. More ... 

by Pat Tompkins


Always a shock to the system
from air to water, dry to wet
alteration, a transition
the body adjusts to change, yet

From air to water, dry to wet,
the plunge — a wake-up start
the body adjusts to change yet
again there's a chill to the heart More ... 

The Elder Statesman
Back  Blueskying in Lotusland
by Clark Elder Morrow

Everyone in Southern California (so the mythology of Hollywood tells us) walks around with an idea for a movie script, and every waiter is an aspiring actor. We are to suppose that here supermarket managers swap scenarios like baseball cards, and that housewives chatting over the fence trade outlines for chick-flicks as though they were recipes. It happens that I myself am no exception to this regional obsession, as you will see. But the fact is that many people outside the 90000 zip codes are also full of cinematic fancies. You could probably tap a stranger on the shoulder in Katmandu and weasel a boffo scenario out of him over a beaker of fermented mare's milk. I have no doubt that after President Wilson enjoyed a screening of The Birth of a Nation in 1915, he daydreamed a while about his own personal adventure flick, in which a star-spangled Columbia led the peoples of the world into a handshaking circle of amity, while divine light flooded down from above. It is as natural and as human for us to imagine our own stories unfolding on the silver screen as it is for us to itch after seeing a mass of squirming insects. More ... 

Postcards from Babel
Back  Design Your Own Language
by Amalia Gnanadesikan

Someday, perhaps, you'll be able to find it among the software programs at the store, next to SimCity: the ultimate Language Architect™ simulator game. "Design your own language," the package commands in large, colorful letters. "Valid linguistic principles," the next line claims, slightly smaller.

Your attention is caught. You are a true lover of languages, so you shell out a considerable amount of money and take the program home with you. Language Architect™, it turns out, is absorbing and fiendishly complex. When you first start it, you fill in the box that asks for your native language. Soon you wonder whether it was a mistake to be honest at this point because now the program has set a limit on how similar your new language can be to your native tongue and hence to what you always thought languages were like. The designer of Esperanto, you realize, was not faced with any such restriction. More ... 

by Bill Casselman

Today I begin with plantar wart and go on to related words, concluding with the Plantagenets and a dram of liquid poesy from Robert Burns.

Plantar wart, a wart on the sole of the foot, takes its adjective from Latin plantaris, itself from the Latin medical phrase planta pedis, Latin for "the flat part of the foot, the sole." Latin planta is the origin of the verb plantare, which has the prime meaning of putting roots or cuttings or seedlings in the ground and firming them into the soil by tamping on them with the sole of the foot. It was not until the word had been borrowed into the Romance languages that it acquired its modern meaning of any green plant. The Classical Latin word for any green plant was herba. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  Diphthongs in the Wind
by Carey Harrison

Dear readers,

Did I bid welcome, last month, on behalf of those of us holed up here in the Northeast, to spring? Premature, if so. But there are signs, there are signs.

Those of you who read this column regularly, and may the Lord have mercy on your souls, will know that I take an almost unhealthy interest in the private life of the diphthong. Spring training, followed by the start of the baseball season, brings this widely proliferating bird back into our lives (via baseball commentators) like snowbirds returning to the Upper West Side at the first glimpse of blossom in Central Park. The specimen that swam into my ken this week has been on the edge of my consciousness, in the penumbra, for several years now. Last year, as the Houston Astros pitched their way into the World Series against the even more formidably pitcher-led Chicago White Sox, it was impossible to be a sports fan and be unaware of Roy Oswalt, one of the Astros' stars. More ... 

by Kevin Mims

It has often been noted that the subtext of many of the sci-fi films of the 1950s is Communism. Or McCarthyism. Or mindless consumerism. Or conformity. Or atomic-age anxiety about science and technology. Or racial anxieties. If you view such films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, It Came From Outer Space, The Thing From Another World, and Forbidden Planet carefully enough, you can probably find any subtext you want. But it seems to me that the underlying subject of most mid-century sci-fi flicks is nothing other than Language: its use and misuse, its power and its shortcomings. Almost all the great (and many of the not-so-great) atomic-age horror movies can be read as treatises on communication, or the lack thereof. 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.  

hold up Misused for holed up. • Plans take a turn for the worst when everyone is forced to spend the night hold up inside the diner at the hands of ruthless prison escapee. USE holed up. • Russian forces bombarded the tiny town from the ground and the air Monday to dislodge dozens of Chechen fighters hold up inside the local police station. USE holed up. • Barajas appeared unaffected by the first stun gun shot, used his machete to cut the wires of the second shot and charged police on the third shot, jumping through the window of a house where he had been hold up for about seven hours. USE holed up.

To hold up is to rob, often at gunpoint; to prevent from falling; to halt or delay; to remain vital or strong or lasting. To hole up is to hide oneself. 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.  

Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned, we have remonstrated, we have supplicated, we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free — if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending — if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained — we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us! — Patrick Henry More ... 

Have an example of elegant English that you would like others to read? Email it to us.

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.  

amongst Amongst, among the potentially bright, is preferable to among, but only because their potential has yet to be realized. • If there is a lack of confidence amongst those concerned, the strictly political element will be more obvious. REPLACE WITH among. • I'm sorry to say that after passing this amongst some colleagues, we've agreed that it is not thorough enough to be a reference book. REPLACE WITH among. 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.  

actively delete. • Another possibility is actively being considered by the administration: the use of force. Another possibility is being considered by the administration: the use of force. • The core group of ASC founders worried that the membership was restricted too narrowly to policing, so they actively encouraged others to participate. The core group of ASC founders worried that the membership was restricted too narrowly to policing, so they encouraged others to participate. • I have no intention of mailing a second letter to anyone who does not actively show an interest in becoming part of my collectors club. I have no intention of mailing a second letter to anyone who does not show an interest in becoming part of my collectors club. • Police are actively searching for the killer, actively looking in all areas, and actively examining all the evidence. Police are searching for the killer, looking in all areas, and examining all the evidence. • Not only do many people not enjoy speaking in public, they actively dislike and even fear it. Not only do many people not enjoy speaking in public, they dislike and even fear it. • Right now we're not actively aware of what her true motivation was. Right now we're not aware of what her true motivation was. 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.  

silentiary (si-LEN-chee-er-ee) n. 1. one who observes or recommends silence. 2. an official whose duty is to command silence. 3. one privy to state secrets and under oath not to reveal them. 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.  

Arthur Miller: The Crucible 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 25
Topic: In the news
Level of difficulty: Moderate More ... 

The Vocabula Review welcomes letters to the editor. Please include your name, email address, and professional affiliation. Email your letters to  

Donald L. Dyer's "How Grammaticality Eludes: The Relationship Between Nonstandard and Evolving Language," which appeared in the March issue, is remarkable in a way that I am sure Dyer did not intend. It is usual in polemical literature for one party to publish an argument, and then for an opposing party, some time later, to attempt to refute it. In this case, however, the usual cause-and-effect sequence is reversed: in its February issue, TVR published my refutation ("The Question of Change in Language") of Dyer's thesis, while his assertion of the already-refuted thesis did not appear until the following month. Apart from this defiance of the normal sequence of events, Dyer's piece is unremarkable; it is a perfectly standard presentation of the descriptivist position on language usage, offering the same old arguments whose emptiness men like Jacques Barzun have been patiently exposing for many years. More ... 


• The Perils of Prolificacy — Joseph Epstein

• On Palindromes — Richard Lederer

• Book Excerpt: How to Write an Impeachment Order — Joseph Kimble

• TVR Revisited: "Secrets" on the Pros — Richard Dowis

• Two Poems — Pat Tompkins


• Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Blueskying in Lotusland

• Amalia Gnanadesikan: Postcards from Babel — Design Your Own Language

• Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Plantagenets and Plantar Wart: Their Connection

• Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Diphthongs in the Wind

• Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — Chapter Four: Language Lessons from Another World


• Grumbling About Grammar

• Elegant English

• On Dimwitticisms

• Clues to Concise Writing

• Scarcely Used Words

• On the Bookshelf

• The Vocabula Quiz

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The point of this collection is to show that the language can be written with grace and polish — qualities that much contemporary writing is bereft of and could benefit from. Read these examples of elegant English, and from each you might glean some turn of phrase, some device of rhetoric, some clarity of expression, some novelty of thought that, in more contemporary writing, you seldom will have noticed.

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Books by Vocabula Columnists

As the Canoe Tips

"Casselman's Monty Python Universe of Erudite Silliness." — Kitchener-Waterloo Record

"Canada's funniest collector of salty sayings ... Funny Pieces ... demented ... glee." — Hamilton Spectator

You can order As the Canoe Tips from Amazon.

Language & Human Nature
Language & Human Nature
by Mark Halpern

Mark Halpern has written a book that extends and builds on the many columns he's written for The Vocabula Review on language usage and linguistics. To learn more about it, and to see what Jacques Barzun and William Safire think of it, click here.

Language & Human Nature

If time travelers from the nineteenth century dropped in on us, our strange vocabulary would shock them just as much as our TVs, cars, and computers. Society changes, and so does its word stock. The Life of Language reveals how pop culture, business, technology, and other forces of globalization expand and enrich the English language, forming thousands of new words every year.

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