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December 2006, Vol. 8, No. 12
There are now 100 people reading TVR.
Coming in the January issue of The Vocabula Review:
"Truth Be Told: Creating a Nonfiction Story" by Donna Gorrell
The January issue is due online January 21.
A Definition a Day
insessorial (in-se-SOR-ee-el) adj. perching or adapted for perching.
Type word here:
More than one million English, Spanish, and Latin entries.
Type word here:
More than one million English, Spanish, and Latin entries.
The Dictionary of Disagreeable English
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.
Two New Second Editions by RHF
New from Vocabula Books
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.
101 Foolish Phrases encourages you to speak and write more carefully and thoughtfully.
101 Elegant Paragraphs encourages you to speak and write with deliberation, style, even beauty.
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.
Roughly three months ago, I resolved to stop swearing. Not that I used profanity relentlessly, but I began to notice that I was availing myself of it more and more and swearing in places I'd not previously sworn in, among what used to be called mixed company.
Lots of women have now taken to swearing. The right to use profanity is, I suppose, one of the side some would say highly dubious benefits of women's liberation. "When I was young," Tom Lehrer has said, "there were so many words you couldn't use in the presence of a girl. Now you can use them all, but you better not call her a girl." Too true. More ...
In the latter part of the past century, three companies had come to blows over an issue near and dear to any (and all) graphic designers worldwide: fonts. Computer and software manufacturers Microsoft and Apple (unlikely allies, to say the least) had reached the end of their collective rope over access to fonts manufactured by Adobe, so they created their own fonts. And thus the Font Wars were engaged and continue (with less fervor) today.
The argument, at its core, was over the building blocks of words, which are, after all, excruciatingly key to writing, assuming you are writing in a period after circa 1200 BC. In and about this time, alphabetic images of a bull, for instance, were replaced with symbols that bore no resemblance to a bull, but evoked in the reader's mind the desired image just the same. Roughly 3,000 years ago, writers communicated ideas to readers using a new invention, the alphabet, which was presented using another new invention, the font.1 In fact, it might be surmised that the Font Wars really started on clay tablets. The rhetoric of the period has continued to this day and revolves around readability, or put more directly: can the reader actually read what the writer has written (or intended to write)? More ...
Vocabula button free for the asking.
A setup pun is a conspiracy of narrative and word play. In setup punnery, the punster contrives an imaginary situation that leads up to a climax punningly, cunningly, and stunningly based on a well-known expression or title. In a good setup pun, we groan at the absurdity of the situation while admiring the ingenuity with which the tale reaches its foreordained conclusion.
Now it's time to be a groan-up while admiring the following narratives as they lead up to the Christmas punch lines: More ...
It all started with hootlessness.
Having ranted on a great deal (in this column and elsewhere) about how English loves above all else the snappy monosyllables of its original Germanic stock, and how it can't resist shortening and clipping longer words, I never paid too much attention to what would appear to be a contradictory tendency the making of new, longer words by adding bits on.
Until I discovered hootlessness.
Hootlessness was coined by Lester Levenson, the founder of the Sedona Method (a program for achieving emotional freedom), to refer to that state in which you don't give a damn whether you achieve your goals or not; what gurus and spiritual teachers have usually called detachment or nonattachment. Detachment conjures up pictures (at least in my head) of monks in bare cells ... cerebral, Olympian, philosophical. Hootlessness sounds joyful and carefree. It's so much more concrete and graphic than detachment. It's more earthy, more real. It's high context, though. If you don't know the expression not to give a hoot, then you won't get it. More ...
The authors of the classic Tom Swift adventures for boys loved the exclamation point and the adverb. Consider this brief passage from Tom Swift and His Great Searchlight:
"Look!" suddenly exclaimed Ned. "There's the agent now! ... I'm going to speak to him!" impulsively declared Ned.
The exclamation point after "Look" should suffice to fire up the young reader, but the author adds "suddenly" and "exclaimed" for good measure. Time and again, the writer uses the adverb, not to change our understanding of the verb, but to intensify it. The silliness of this style led to a form of pun called the "Tom Swiftie," in which the adverb conveys the punch line:
"I'm an artist," he said easily.
At their best, adverbs spice up a verb or adjective. At their worst, they express a meaning already contained in it: The blast completely destroyed the church office. The cheerleader gyrated wildly before the screaming fans. The accident totally severed the boy's arm. The spy peered furtively through the bushes. More ...
Authors, editors, publicists are welcome to submit excerpts of books about words and language for possible publication in Vocabula's "Book Excerpt."
Literary ClassicMr. Orwell, Mr. Schlesinger, and the Language
In 1946, George Orwell published "Politics and the English Language," an essay reprinted so often in school texts that it's usually introduced as the Classic-Statement-About-the-Abuse-of-Language-by-Politicians. Orwell has been canonized as a certified Good Guy, Freedom Fighter, Lover of the People, popular instructor of the masses (via Animal Farm and 1984) about the evils of totalitarian socialism and communism. In brief: Saint George.
In 1974, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. published (in The American Scholar, Autumn, 1974, pp. 553562), an essay, "Politics and the American Language," which began with this sentence: "It takes a certain fortitude to pretend to amend Orwell on this subject." More ...
after Alison Ferring
Who but a woman dressed all in white
The Elder StatesmanThoughts on a National Language
H. L. Mencken talks at great length, in his classic The American Language, about how rapidly and uniformly English spread throughout the new nation of the United States. Surprisingly, in a matter of mere decades following the publication of Webster's "Dissertation on the English Language" in 1789, explorers and settlers from Florida to the Ohio River Valley were not only speaking the same language, but in most cases were doing so without intervening dialects. Mencken writes: "In place of the discordant local dialects of all the other major countries, including England, we have a general Volkssprache for the whole nation.... No other country can show such linguistic solidarity, nor any approach to it." He goes on to quote the New International Encyclopedia, which states:
When we remember that the dialects of the counties in England have marked differences so marked, indeed, that it may be doubted whether a Lancastershire miner and a Lincolnshire farmer could understand each other we may well be proud that our vast country has, strictly speaking, only one language.
This accomplishment by a young, smart, robust people has been largely vitiated if not abrogated in our day and age. But the achievement itself is worth recalling. Noting that there were, of course, "certain…regional peculiarities in the United States," Mencken repeats a favorite illustration (one that leads us directly to the most salient issue of our own time): More ...
The Last WordNo Luddite, He
My writing career such as it is did not begin in earnest until I discovered the personal computer and the Internet. Part of the reason, I suspect, was sheer laziness. The protracted drudgery involved in writing BPC (before the personal computer) astounds me when I think back on it. I cannot see how anyone unless he or she happened to be both manic and obsessive compulsive ever got any writing done, especially while holding down a full-time job. In order to get a single essay into the damp, pasty hands of a magazine editor, one had to sit and tap out a rough draft, followed by a second draft, and possibly still a third, then correct all the errors and smudges, before sealing the lot into an envelope (along with a self-addressed stamped envelope, a detail that never failed to confuse the poor post office clerk more than would have, say, the riddle of the sphinx), driving to the post office, buying stamps, then waiting weeks or sometimes months for the inevitable rejection slip.
Research was another nightmare. Before Google or for the serious journalist Lexis-Nexis, the professional writer had to walk down to the library assuming you had a decent library in your town and deal with often clueless librarians, consult thick, dusty, often out-of-date reference books or endless roles of mislabeled microfilm, and still not find what you can now find on Google in three or four mouse clicks. For instance, earlier today, I needed to know the height of James Dean and Marlon Brando for a piece I was writing on evolutionary biology (a long story). Before the days of the Internet, it might have taken me weeks to dig up that trivial information, going from library to library, bookstore to bookstore and growing ever more frustrated. I found the information in less than two minutes on the web (James Dean, 5'8", Marlon Brando, 5'10"). More ...
Bethumped with WordsMy Lords and Ladies, Your Origins, Please!
There are modest truths of etymology that give pause to beginners, such as 60 percent of English words of two syllables or more are likely to be derived directly from French. Consider these random examples:
Here's another axiom of everyday etymology: most modern English words have been borrowed into our language and not altered excessively, so that, if we know French, Latin, Greek, German, and perhaps a few other European languages, we can recognize the language from which English borrowed a word.
Remember, too, that English is the great thief of tongues. Among the major world languages, English has the largest vocabulary of any language. We have borrowed more words from more languages than French or Arabic or Russian or German or Chinese. We have merrily filched words from every foreign language ever encountered in our scamperings across the globe of Earth. More ...
Harrison's CornerAnyone for Rhinoceri?
I find myself reading of curriculums in the New York Times, of all places: curriculums rather than curricula and this from the pen (so to speak) of the head of a college preparatory school. Why is it that in cultural matters headquarters is always the first place to yield the line, which makes so little sense in matters of military or imperial history? I first realized it was a key to cultural history when I was in my early twenties and working as assistant director and playwright at Britain's National Theatre, now the Royal National Theatre; I noted that as "classical" acting declined into a demotic mumble, the only actors still interested in speaking Shakespeare's verse as though it wasn't prose weren't from Britain's private schools or from theatrical families but from outlying regions of the English-speaking Empire, from South Africa and New Zealand, India and Pakistan. Actors from far-flung foreign parts arrived (as Janet Suzman did, among many others) with their verse-speaking sensibilities intact, and "spoke well," until they learned better. Indeed, the last shreds of this "big bang" deconstruction of rhetorical elegance are still passing through the United States, where many American actors haven't yet heard bless them, from my heart that the UK long ago decreed that blank verse should be spoken disjointedly, like everyday speech or sitcom dialog. Sir Peter Hall's Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet, in 1965, featuring David Warner as a college scarf-wearing Wittenberg undergrad, is the locus classicus or symbolic moment when the rot set in and fluting tones, à la Gielgud, were officially banned from the British stage. For a moment I imagine a fall like that of Saigon I can picture actors of the old school clamoring for a place as the helicopters take off from the roof of the Memorial Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, and the forces of high-flown verse-speaking retreat, defeated, never to darken the boards again. Symbolically, that is; because, of course, many provincial British theaters continued for many years to cater to an audience raised on "the voice beautiful," as it was now mockingly and dismissively called by a new generation of grunting and growling British actors, tearing the bones from Shakespeare's verse in a belated impression of "Method" acting. One sweet irony of this supposedly Method-derived revolution was that when Hollywood had called on Marlon Brando, high priest of Method acting, to give his Marc Antony on film, beside James Mason as Brutus and Gielgud himself, high priest of the old rites, as Caesar, in Joe Manckiewicz's movie version of Julius Caesar, Brando pitched his verse in high old style. No mumbles; sheer poetry, and masterfully done, too. But, of course, it was 1953, and the time for verse-deconstruction was not yet ripe. Incense still burned in the Shakespearean church, even though it already smelled of sweat in A Streetcar Named Desire. Whose hand was on the murder weapon? Was it television, perhaps, that finally put the anti-rhetorical boot into verse-speaking, bringing "ordinary" speech and naturalistic drama into postwar homes? More likely, the old "singing" style of delivery was doomed by a variety of cultural factors, informalities of speech and dress and manners that began to saturate postwar culture along with more widely accessible education and a cult of populism that replaced French cuffs and pressed pants with sweatshirts and jeans among the well-to-do no less than among the working class they imitated. What price (as Shaw's working-class characters liked to say) an aristocratic way of mouthing Shakespeare, in this brave new world of workerist clones? It's worth noting that in America a high rhetorical style survived television, and still survives; it does so in churches both black and white (more so in black churches, of course), providing an enduring model of exalted rhythmic utterance that makes a "high" blank verse delivery style seem a little less completely outlandish, to American ears, than it does to British ones, now that British churches have closed, and any surviving vicars are obliged to mumble and whisper very much as British actors do. Americans, of course, still like to imagine that all British actors are Rex Harrison and enunciate beautifully. But then many Americans still land at Heathrow expecting to pick up Charles Dickens's latest novel. How painful, how confusing it would be for American actors and audiences truly to renounce their Anglophilia and face the fact that they that we Americans are now alone in the English-speaking world when it comes to respectful verse-speaking! How utterly back-to-front! But how true to cultural waves of erosion: clothes, music, and slang radiate from their altar of origin with the speed of light, or at least sound, but Shakespeare-piety is so deeply rooted that verse-speaking fashion takes forever to reach the colonies. More ...
The Common ReaderChapter Ten: Requiem for a Chain Store
Numerous books have celebrated the romance of the small bookstore. Fictional works such as Christopher Morley's Parnassus on Wheels, Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop, and even Carlos Ruiz Zafon's recent mega-bestseller The Shadow of the Wind have portrayed the small bookseller as a quixotic knight errant of culture tilting at the windmills of rampant commercialism. In nonfiction, also, the small independent bookseller has been hailed as a heroic figure. Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road may be the best known work of the genre, but every year brings a tome like Salt Lake City bookseller Betsy Burton's 2004 memoir The King's English, or Suzanne Strempek Shea's 2005 memoir Shelf Life: Romance, Mystery, Drama and Other Page-Turning Adventures From a Year in a Bookstore, or this year's An Alphabetical Life, by Wendy Werris, an account of, among other things, the author's adventures as a clerk at the Pickwick Bookshop in Hollywood. Even in the movies, it is rare to encounter an independent bookshop owner who is evil. Mostly they are like Pop Liebel, owner of the Argosy Book Store, a fictional San Francisco shop to which James Stewart goes in search of historical information in the Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo. Played by actor Konstantin Shayne, the kindly Pop Liebel is typical of the fictional independent bookseller: an elderly, gray-haired white man, a bit absent-minded but endlessly wise and with a head filled with as many fascinating facts as his bookstore (contemporary viewers, however, might be appalled to see him firing up a cigarette and offering them to his customers in a shop filled with valuable rare books). In 1998, the independent bookseller was given an extreme makeover by director Nora Ephron in the film You've Got Mail. In that chick-flick, the bookshop owner is played by Meg Ryan, who is decidedly not old, gray, male, or even all that wise. Her children's bookstore, The Shop Around The Corner, is run out of business by the mega-chain store Fox Books, a dead ringer for both Border's Books and Barnes & Noble, which moves in nearby and uses deep discounts to kill off all its competitors in the neighborhood. Ryan's character, however, is the forgiving type. In the end, she seems destined to marry Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), the competitor who has run her out of business. Even by the standards of your typical chick flick, this is an appalling sellout. Ryan's store was founded by her dead mother, and when it goes out of business, her mother's legacy to the daughter and the city she loved is killed off with it. It's difficult to believe that Ryan's character would even socialize with a man who celebrates with glee the death of every independent bookstore his mega-chain destroys. Falling in love with him seems downright perverse, more like something you'd see in an Elizabethan tragedy (Gertrude's marriage to Claudius, for instance) than in a contemporary romantic comedy. No true booklover can watch Joe Fox walk away with both the girl and the gold (in the form of his financial empire) at the end of You've Got Mail and not feel a pang of anguish. Of course, most true booklovers probably have better things to do with their time than watch stupid chick flicks, so the point is moot. But despite its nutty ending, You've Got Mail follows the established cultural paradigm: small independent bookshop, good; big chain bookstore, bad. This seems to be a universally accepted stereotype among American booklovers, so it is with some trepidation that I now set out to mourn the passing of a giant bookselling chain that recently closed its doors for good. Tower Books, after a long and lingering financial illness, was euthanized by a bankruptcy court judge in October 2006 along with its parent, Tower Records, and its younger sibling, Tower Video. More ...
The Persistent PrescriptivistMisuse of Beg the Question Is Not Problematic
There was a time when educated men and women whether they were scientists, mathematicians, or English professors had extensive vocabularies and used words intelligently. Thanks to several generations of students to which grammar was not taught, and who were not required to do a great deal of extra-curricular reading, identifying scholars by their use of English is no longer possible.
A friend of mine of a certain age tells me that the head of the general education department in his college a much younger fellow is "semiliterate." My friend and another colleague rewrote the man's PhD dissertation in grammatically correct, idiomatic English. It's not entirely the teacher's fault. He was never taught to read and write. On the other hand, by the fourth grade, he probably knew more about mathematics than I was ever taught. Of course, there is much value in mathematics and science, but what a shame it is that many educators don't seem to recognize the immense value in any language other than "computer language." 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. More ...
Free in VocabulaThe 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. More ...
Free in VocabulaTop Twenty Dimwitticisms
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