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This is the 82nd issue of TVR, which has been published each month since September 1999 by Vocabula Communications Company.

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June 2006, Vol. 8, No. 6
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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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Well Spoken Is Half Sung

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by David Isaacson

Linguists tell us that Eskimos have dozens of words for the different states of snow. Alcoholics, their victims, and others with more than a passing interest in the state of drunkenness have hundreds of words describing what happens when people have too much to drink. The Guinness Book of Records claims "that the condition of being inebriated has more synonyms than any other condition or object." Guinness cites Paul Dickson as the compiler of this list of 2,660 English words and phrases for being soused (Dickson's Word Treasury, New York, Wiley, 1992). Eskimos need all those words to distinguish among slush, mush, hail, sleet, icy snow, and other forms of cold precipitation. But why do alcoholics need hundreds of words to describe being drunk? Surely there are not hundreds of variations in behavior among having a snort or two, getting a bit tipsy, becoming pie-eyed, and ending up shit-faced? I think the reason there is such a varied lexicon for drunkenness has much more to do with the complicated psychological feeling of being high rather than the comparatively simple physical state of intoxication. Dickson compiled the list of these synonyms; I'm going to try to make sense out of them.

Synonyms for drunkenness tell us a lot about how words can be used both to reveal and conceal true feelings. Some of these synonyms are richly ambivalent, poetically resonant metaphors. Because consuming alcohol changes the way drinkers perceive the world, it should not surprise us that words describing this altered state of consciousness reflect the confusion in the alcoholic's mind about these changes. Social drinkers use many of the same words and expressions about drinking that alcoholics do but often without appreciating the full ironic meanings conveyed by the words the drunk uses to describe his drinking. More ... 

Book Excerpt
Back  Far from the Madding Gerund
by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey K. Pullum
November 21, 2003

Phineas Gage gets an iron bar right through the PP

On September 14, 1848, the Free Soil Union in Ludlow, Vermont, carried a news item that began:

As Phineas P. Gage, a foreman on the railroad in Cavendish, was yesterday engaged in tamping for a blast, the powder exploded, carrying an iron instrument through his head an inch and a fourth in circumference, and three feet and eight inches in length, which he was using at the time. [from a scan on Malcom Macmillan's Phineas Gage information page]

I happened to read this item a couple of days ago while preparing a lecture on emotion for Cognitive Science 001. It reminded me of something that I left out of my earlier post on crossing dependencies in discourse structures: within-sentence syntactic relationships also often tangle. More ... 

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

by Richard Lederer

The poet Walt Whitman wrote that "Language is not an abstract construction of the learned or of dictionary makers, but something arising out of the work, needs, joys, tears, affections, tastes of long generations of humanity." Because sports occupy such a central place in American life and imagination, athletic metaphors pervade our speech and writing. There's a democratic poetry in the sporty phrases that teem our tongues, and these expressions are vivid emblems of the games that we, as an American people, watch and play.

In the early days of the twentieth century (remember that one?), a college professor explained, "To understand America, you must understand baseball." Not only is baseball America's pastime, it is the most pervasive athletic metaphor in the American language. Whether or not we're fans, we speak baseballese just about every day, and all year round. More ... 

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TVR Revisited
Back  Playing the Synonym Game
by Ken Bresler
We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

That was Sir Winston Churchill to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940. It's called his Speech on Dunkirk, and in it, Churchill said, "We shall fight" seven times.

Notice all the synonyms that he could have used, but didn't:

    battle [as a verb]
    give battle
    do battle
    go to battle
    war [as a verb]
    war against
    go to war
    wage war
    make war
    take the field

    take up arms
    stand ground

Only one phrase comes close to a synonym for "fight": "defend." Churchill wasn't scared of repetition, but many people are. More ... 

Back  Adios, Apostrophe
by Jen Gerson

The Internet is killing off punctuation it doesn't need, want, or comprehend. Compound words and hyphens are also facing extermination.

Its? It's? '90s? One word, two? A hyphen? Huh?

It's old, it's useless, it's annoying and according to one linguist, the Internet bell doth toll for the apostrophe, among other arcane punctuation. More ... 

by Francis Blessington

God Corrects a First Draft
(Crimean War, 1855)

"Sebastopol Has Fallen."
So sped the communiqu้, first im-
pulse burning the telegraph's new
Mid-East wires, the first lie—for the French stormed on
and Russians stove off the word, both un-
knowing—the usual first draft wrong, More ... 

The Elder Statesman
Back  Childhood in Literature
by Clark Elder Morrow

Even before Romanticism cast its rosy glow over everything it touched, childhood in English literature was often painted as something divine and supernaturally beautiful. More than 150 years before Blake's "Songs of Innocence," Thomas Traherne was writing this, in the Third of his Centuries of Meditations:

Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world, than I when I was a child ... All appeared new, and strange at first, inexpressibly rare and delightful and beautiful ... My knowledge was Divine. I knew by intuition those things which since my Apostasy, I have collected again by the highest reason ... All things were spotless and pure and glorious; yea, and infinitely mine, and joyful and precious ... I was entertained like an Angel with the works of God in their splendor and glory, I saw all in the peace of Eden; Heaven and Earth did sing my Creator's praises, and could not make more melody to Adam, than to me. All Time was Eternity, and a perpetual Sabbath ... The corn was orient and immortal wheat ... The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold ... The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things ... Eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day, and something infinite behind everything appeared ...

Those thoughts His goodness long before
Prepared as precious and celestial store;
With curious art in me inlaid,
That childhood might itself alone be said
My Tutor, Teacher, Guide to be,
Instructed then even by Deitie.

The first Light that shined in my Infancy in its primitive and innocent clarity was [later] totally eclipsed: insomuch that I was fain to learn all again. More ... 

Back  Expressive Solecism
by John Kilgore

When Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in September 1956, bringing to much of weary, wary postwar America its first portentous news of something called rock 'n' roll, there were still those who numbered among his offenses his alleged sins against language. "Just listen to that boy!" I remember someone jeering. "'Ain't nothin' but a hound dog.' Does he call that English?" The old folks were full of glee and self-confidence and a certain relief, having found themselves quite certain that, whatever this new phenomenon was, it wasn't music. And apparently it wasn't language, either. But there was something else in their voices as well, a tone I would later recognize as the first microscopic fraying of their certainty. More ... 

Postcards from Babel
Back  For Your Ears Only
by Amalia Gnanadesikan

I haven't tried it myself, but I'm told that nowadays you can't speak Marathi in a New Jersey grocery store and expect not to be understood. Imagine that: if you speak, you will be understood. What is the world coming to? What can you do when your language no longer serves its proper function of secrecy and obfuscation?

But perhaps you thought the proper function of a language was communication — closing the distance between one person and another. You would be quite right, but you would have overlooked an important corollary. The communicative functions of language are so often stressed that it's easy to miss the extent to which language is actually used to hinder or restrict communication. Every time we open our mouths to speak, we are addressing some people but not others; we establish fellowship with some but exclude others. More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back  Sebum: Origin of the Word
by Bill Casselman

When you've had your hands in water for a long time and the skin of your fingertips buckles and wrinkles, you may think your skin has shriveled and dried out like a raisin.

But the opposite is true.

Your fingertips are actually waterlogged.

Immersion in water has washed away the protective skin oil. This skin oil is a complex mix of fats that includes sebum, lipids from the surface skin cells, and sweat. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  Duffy and Quinn
by Carey Harrison

I am an adherent of a religion of which you, my loyal readers, will be unlikely to have heard, and of which you, knowing my fondness for a joke, will be understandably suspicious. But for once I'm not kidding. The religion in question is the Moorish Orthodox Church, and so as not to bore you with its relatively long and legitimate history, let me just say you could google it to discover some of its exotic charms. As a religion, we are very much online. I speak with authority because I am in fact an ordained bishop in this religion, specifically Bishop of Woodstock. This, I know, is where you will be convinced the whole thing is a spoof. But it isn't. My pastoral duties are few, it's true, and largely confined to murmuring, "Bless you, my children," as I pass through the village, raising my hand with index and middle finger raised and conjoined, although my flock may well be confusing this with some other two-fingered gesture. My eldest daughter is getting married in London in September, but I shall not be officiating (should one marry one's own daughter?); I am leaving that to a clergyman from a dispensation both more and less "orthodox" than mine, the Anglican; the clergyman is an old friend from college, who baptized my children and is now marrying them, and whose tendency to wear extravagant costume — he is an actor by profession as well as a vicar — suggests that he is an even more flagrant spoof artist than I am. Feeling I should acquire some gear with which to match his outrageousness, I betook myself this week to Messrs. Duffy and Quinn of midtown Manhattan, the distinguished ecclesiastical outfitters. (What use is being a clergyman if you can't enjoy dressing up?) Their names, Duffy and Quinn, stirred the language-dust in my mind, and prompted today's meditation. More ... 

The Common Reader
Back  Chapter Six: Touching the Net
by Kevin Mims

Earlier this year, I traveled to Denver with my granddaughter Samantha and the members of her volleyball club. They were competing in a regional tournament there, and my wife, Julie, and I tagged along as spectators and designated drivers. Like most teenagers (and plenty of nonteenagers), Samantha and her teammates consider the fart a source of endless hilarity. When they are out of town, volleyball teams are forever being packed like sardines into rental cars that were never designed to carry eight to twelve long-limbed athletes. This means that the players often find themselves crammed up next to each other in the back seat of an undersized sedan. Sometimes a player is forced to sit on another's lap or to lie stretched out across several other players' laps. And these situations, of course, are prime occasions for fart humor. Nobody has to actually fart in order to wring laughter from a carload of teenage girls. Often the mere threat of a fart, or even an orally delivered faux fart, is enough to send an entire carload of girls into hysterics. The fun-factor of a fart or faux fart increases as the size of the car dwindles and its passenger load increases. When someone farts, faux farts, or threatens to fart in an SUV carrying eight passengers, it's an occasion for laughter. When someone does the same thing in a sedan carrying ten passengers, it unleashes a tidal wave of mock gagging, fake gaspings for air, and other forms of teenage merriment. 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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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 27
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 editor@vocabula.com  

I do have a question. For some time I have been puzzled by the use of anyway and anyways.

There are times that anyways sounds/reads better to me than anyway. As I am involved in a certain amount of copywriting, it would be good to know the fine points regarding anyways/anyway in usage. More ... 


• Drunk Words — David Isaacson

• Book Excerpt: Far from the Madding Gerund — Mark Liberman and Geoffrey K. Pullum

• Play Ball! — Richard Lederer

• Vocabula Revisited: Playing the Synonym Game — Ken Bresler

• Newsworthy: Adios, Apostrophe — Jen Gerson

• Two Poems — Francis Blessington


• Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Childhood in Literature

• John Kilgore: Shibboleths — Expressive Solecism

• Amalia Gnanadesikan: Postcards from Babel — For Your Ears Only

• Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Sebum: Origin of the Word

• Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Duffy and Quinn

• Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — Chapter Six: Touching the Net


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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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