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August 2006, Vol. 8, No. 8
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ISSN 1542-7080

Coming in the September issue of The Vocabula Review:
"Plagiary, It's Crawling All Over Me" by Joseph Epstein
The September issue is due online September 17.

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A Definition a Day

hymnody (HIM-nah-dee) n. 1. the singing of hymns. 2. the composing or writing of hymns. 3. the hymns of a particular period or church.

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The Dictionary of Disagreeable English
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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.

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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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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.

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by Tina Bennett-Kastor

In the dialectology section for my 100-level linguistics class, I devote much time to carefully explaining how all the levels of a language can exhibit dialectal differences. I tell the students, for example, that varied pronunciations of a word, such as "greasy" with a z versus an s sound, are phonological in nature; that variation in grammatical inflection, such as for plurals, past tenses, or past participles — as when people from rural areas say "I seen him yesterday" — are morphological; that differences in sentence structure should be considered syntactic, for example, the native Kansan's exclamation that his "house needs painted"; and that the use of alternative vocabulary, as in the Texan's use of "coke" for what we call "pop," represents differences in the lexicon of one dialect as opposed to another. I was nonplussed, therefore, when on the quiz nearly every student incorrectly marked the contrast of "snuck" versus "sneaked" as a lexical rather than a grammatical matter. The error turned out to be ignorance: they had never heard the word sneaked before. More ... 

Jonathan Swift, the tetchy author of Gulliver's Travels, rarely minced his words when a battle was in the offing, and he deemed few causes more worthy of spilling blood than the integrity of the English language. As with all language purists, his was a puritanical impulse. The sharp, glorious tongue of Shakespeare and Milton had been cheapened and dulled by a conspiracy of the evil and ignorant, he lamented, and by 1712 he was alleging its willful corruption at the hands of "illiterate Court Fops, half-witted Poets, and University Boys."

He was not alone. Alexander Pope contemplated compiling his own dictionary with the literary physician's hope of arresting the rapid, feverish changes in vocabulary he spied all about him, a project never assayed. Both Dryden and Defoe had advocated the creation of an English Academy on the model of the Acad้mie Fran็aise, charged with regulating the cornucopia of new words flowing forth from all quarters. The tide needed stemming; the proposed academy was to be a set of bouncers at the door, allowing the legal words to pass while sending the rogues packing. Alarm runs through pronouncements of the time. The English language was encrusted and needed a scouring; indeed, for the wits of the period, it cried out for purification. More ... 

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by Richard Lederer

Ernest Hemingway's first rule for writers was to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. But not all authors are able to survive with such a simple approach.

Emile Zola pulled the shades and composed by artificial light. Francis Bacon, we are told, knelt each day before creating his greatest works. Martin Luther could not write unless his dog was lying at his feet, while Ben Jonson needed to hear his cat purring. Marcel Proust sealed out the world by lining the walls of his study with cork. Gertrude Stein and Raymond Carver wrote in their cars, while Edmond Rostand preferred to write in his bathtub. Emily Dickinson hardly ever left her home and garden. Wallace Stevens composed poetry while walking to and from work each day at a Hartford insurance company. Alexander Pope and Jean Racine could not write without first declaiming at the top of their voices. Jack Kerouac began each night of writing by kneeling in prayer and composing by candlelight. Friedrich Schiller started each of his writing sessions by opening the drawer of his desk and breathing in the fumes of the rotten apples he had stashed there. More ... 

by jjoan ttaber altieri

Before I understood its imperfections, English was faultless. I was a happy follower of the prescriptive rules of English grammar who adhered to all the newest trends in grammar and never made an editorial move without consulting publications such as Warriner's English Composition and Grammar or The Chicago Manual of Style. The first twinges of doubt came at the beginning of the 1970s when feminists began to grumble about sexist language. Although I had been vaguely aware that expressions such as "All men are created equal" and "Everyone is entitled to his day in court" didn't apply directly to me, I didn't fault the language or its speakers for these innocent oversights. What surprised me, however, was the choler inspired in otherwise intelligent people when women began to suggest we take another look at our English language, particularly at its systems of nomenclature and pronoun selection.

Traditionalists were unabashed in their sarcasm and condescension, lamenting the growing number of out-of-control women suffering from an infliction they gleefully termed "pronoun envy" (qtd. in Martyrna 483). It took editors at the New York Times a full ten years before they accepted Ms as an honorific; it took about the same amount of time to convince speakers of American English that androcentric words such as "man" and "mankind" could easily be replaced with the more inclusive "humanity" or "humankind." Martyna summarizes the problem in a 1980 article: More ... 

by Pen Pearson

Black-Eyed Susans

Man in Straw Cloche Fords Stream
In the moment oolong takes to steep.
Oceans pull rivers into Ur waters,
Leviathan within lampoon's reach.
A woman is murdered on late night TV:
A plot, ripped, from today's beat.
Viewers oversee the fading print
Of her sodden gown, a hanky undone
At its seams. Fly's Down / Water Rusts,
The whistling kettle intimates. A
Loon hiccoughs or a weathercock
Crows. An extra, as a matter of course,
Dusts trompe l'oeils of bas-reliefs
Depicting Egypt's widows' bequest—
Still Life by Men praised by rapt
Peanut galleries. One more fathomless
Whale, couched in shallow tributaries,
The dumb nod blithely to morning. More ... 

A few months ago, while her grandmother and brother and I were at the McDonald's Play Land, my granddaughter ran to the big picture window and demanded, approximately, "Ahn eee eeece!"

Like most people, I have had several opportunities in my life to watch carefully as a toddler learns to speak, and the experience is always fascinating, awe-inspiring, and a little eerie. The speed with which the kids acquire, one after another, the million little tricks that are language can give the fleeting sensation that they are not children at all, but highly intelligent aliens in disguise, here from Andromeda doing reconnaissance. At the same time their progress is thrilling and touching and frequently hilarious, but afterwards it is no easy thing to explain why you had those reactions. If you don't write them down, the cute things your kids say melt away like dreams, and you promptly forget them. If you do write them down, you come back in a week and the cuteness has wilted right out of them because whatever took your breath away the first time — the new word, the trick of inflection, the invented expression — has by now become a regular part of Junior's repertoire, and no one can see any longer what the first fuss was about. For the same reason, it's mostly a bad idea to try to tell your co-workers about the cute thing Angie said yesterday. They pretend to get it, but really don't. More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back  Origin of the Surnames Abbott and McNab
by Bill Casselman

The surname Abbott is, of course, from the word abbot, the head of a monastery or convent. Abbots were priests and were celibate, so they could not found families. And even if they did enjoy a quick tryst under the table in a moonlit refectory with a scullery wench, it would have been unwise to make known the fact by labeling one's bastard spawn in public registries.

Therefore Abbot as a surname usually meant that the founding ancestor of the family had been the lay servant of an abbot or a male who worked on the estate or in the household of an abbot. Surprisingly then, the Scottish Gaelic surname MacNab does mean "son of the abbot."

Concerning the etymology of MacNab, two questions arise. First query: How did that n get in front of the ab in MacNab? That's because the Gaelic form of the name was mac an aba, "son of the abbot." More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  Twice in Trouble?
by Carey Harrison

Names are on my mind this week since I am required by my church to adopt a nom de guerre (not quite the term I want, but I'm at a loss for the right one) for the episcopal identity I shall officially assume on Sunday, August 20. In my case, it will be Ustaz Omar Bey, a name I rather prefer to the one I've been carrying for six decades. More on this in a moment.

Some years ago, I had a student called Schnelle, who to my mind has every right to spell her name any way she pleases, with ten consecutive l's if she so desires, but who ran afoul of me purely because I'm a German-speaker (a teutonophone? — like "nom de guerre," this doesn't sound right either) and die Schnelle in German means "the swift woman," a perfectly apt name. Schnelle, who, as you may have guessed, pronounces her name Chanel, was not amused by my error the first time I spoke her name aloud; I was eager to atone, and later we became fast friends. (Schnelle Freunde.) It does seem, however, as if we in New York have gone beyond eccentric, proprietary spellings of the names we give to ourselves and our children, and have reached a point where we seemed to be doing our best to give comfort to some of the Scandinavians and Eastern Europeans among us, who, for many generations, have been torturing our minds and tongues. Recently, the victim of a crime was revealed by the newspapers to have been one Chanztity Vidal, an improvement on the almost extinct (though all the more provocative) Chastity. I wonder if that z slipped in there via Castiza, one of the last lingering older forms of the name. The splendid name of Chanztity's mother, Lourdes Roman, gave me pause, as did several other names in the news recently. These include the partner of the newly resigned Attorney General for the State of New Jersey, Zulima Farber. This fellow's name, if I can trust The New York Post, is Hamlet Goore, a tremendous monicker. Nonetheless I spent a good few minutes suffering over what I imagined to be the difficulties, if Goore is your name, of saying "Goore" in a way that clearly communicated its spelling, specifically the double o. At least people will know how to spell Hamlet, something that no one called Chanztity can say with equal confidence. More ... 

by Kevin Mims

When I was eighteen, my family moved from Oregon to California. Upon arriving in the Golden State, what excited me most was not the prospect of learning to surf, or of seeing the odd movie star pass by on the street, or even the presence of so many beautiful girls wandering the streets with their perfect bodies and skimpy clothing (although that certainly rated high on my list of California's virtues). No, what thrilled me most was the prospect of learning to speak and read Spanish. In high school, I had studied German for two years and had failed miserably at it. The problem, of course, was that outside the classroom I never encountered any sight or sound of the German language, or any other foreign language, for that matter. The city of Portland, where I grew up, was depressingly monolingual. But I could tell right away that things would be different in California. Spanish was everywhere. It was on the operating instructions of everything from pay telephones to the washers and dryers at the Laundromat. And thanks to all the Spanish language TV and, especially, radio stations, the language was literally in the air at all times. I frequently tuned my radio to a Spanish-language station and tried to figure out what was being said or sung. Taking formal lessons in German in an environment that was otherwise a German-free zone hadn't worked for me. But I was hopeful that, by living in a Spanish-saturated environment, I would soon acquire a facility for the language through a process similar to osmosis, without any need for formal instruction. By chance, this was at a time, the mid-1970s, when Latin American literature was starting to flourish in the United States. The better bookstores could be counted on to carry English translations of works by Garcia Marquez, Cortazar, Carpentier, Infante, Puig, Asturias, Vargas Llosa, and many others. An enthusiastic reader, I was intrigued by the sudden appearance on bookstore shelves of so many novels with exotic-sounding titles and bylines. I was equally intrigued by the vibrantly colored cover art, which often featured jungly foliage, dancing senoritas, stalking jaguars, and the like. But despite my curiosity about these books, I put off purchasing any of them for years because I wanted to be able to bypass the English translations and read them in the original Spanish. It has always annoyed me to open up a guide to world literature and see a novel's real title (La casa de los espiritus, say, or Cien anos de soledad) followed in parentheses by its English-language title (The House of the Spirits, One Hundred Years of Solitude). It annoys me because I know that the parenthetical novel is the only one of the two I will ever be able to read. And it is especially annoying when the English language title is not even an approximation of the original title, as in the case of Manuel Puig's Boquitas pintadas, which means "painted little mouths" and not Heartbreak Tango, the title given to the English language edition. (Remembrance of Things Past is probably the best known exemplar of this syndrome, but my struggles with French literature in translation will have to be dealt with at another time and in another essay.) At the age of eighteen, I had already resigned myself to the fact that I would never read anything but the parenthetical versions of the great works of Russian literature and ancient Greek and Roman literature. But I was not yet ready to resign myself to parenthetical Latin American literature. And so I listened to Spanish-language radio stations whenever I could, and I took care to read the Spanish-language instructions that appeared beside the English instructions in my voter guide and the front of the yellow pages and the vehicle registration instructions from the DMV. I listened carefully to the Spanish-language instructions that generally followed the English instructions on automated phone messages. I read the parallel translations that appeared on many public warnings, such as Danger High Voltage (Peligro Alto Voltaje). And I eavesdropped on Spanish-language conversations wherever I encountered them: on the bus, in waiting rooms and restaurants and elevators and DMV queues. I have done this now for thirty years, and yet I cannot speak a single coherent sentence in Spanish, nor can I understand it when it is spoken to me. More ... 

Summer Edition

In June, July, and August, The Vocabula Review will be published as summer editions; that is, we will publish Features essays and Columnists' essays but few, if any, of the Departments (Grumbling About Grammar, Clues to Concise Writing, etc.).

We hope to publish a regular issue again in September, but this may depend, in part, on whether we can increase our readership.

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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 29
Topic: Science
Level of difficulty: Moderate More ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back  Top Twenty Dimwitticisms

Analysis conducted by Factiva showed that of two hundred dimwitticisms used by the press during July 2006, the most common is "ongoing."  

More ... 

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

I congratulate you on your wonderful magazine, although I — as a great enthusiast of language and one blessed to speak of several tongues with varying fluency and to have some understanding of the modern science of linguistics (through a bit of university training and a lot of my own effort) — find some facets of your prescriptivist stance to be a trifle flimsy. Mind you, I'm not a rabid descriptivist, or else I wouldn't be banging away in writing this email, bringing my arms and hands yet one step closer to permanent sufferance of carpal tunnel syndrome. But I do see some holes in your arguments that might need some filling. This may, however, be owing to a lack of understanding on my part. But that is a chin-wag for another day. More ... 


• What the Cat Drug In — Tina Bennett-Kastor

• Johnson's Canon: On the Trail of the Great Lexicographer — Tracy Lee Simmons

• How I Write — Richard Lederer

• Vocabula Revisited: Singular They: The Pronoun That Came in from the Cold — jjoan ttaber altieri

• Three Poems — Pen Pearson


• John Kilgore: Shibboleths — Notes from the Department of Redundancy Department

• Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Origin of the Surnames Abbott and McNab

• Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Twice in Trouble?

• Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — Chapter Seven: The Language of Low Finance


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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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