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This is the 81st issue of TVR, which has been published each month since September 1999 by Vocabula Communications Company.

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May 2006, Vol. 8, No. 5
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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.

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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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Well Spoken Is Half Sung

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by Anna Jean Mallinson

The trinity of pronouns — first, second, and third — diagrams space for us. I gestures toward the body and its interiors, toward the soul or psyche. You gestures toward the front: the range of the eyes' sweep. It, she, he, they, them gesture to the sides and behind: the elsewhere. These gestures vary according to culture, but the gesture for I or me is always toward some part of the body of the speaker — forehead, nose, eye, mouth, heart, or navel. We are most of us, most of the time, absorbed in the first person, with its narratives, its memories, its dream of things. Julian Jaynes, in his book about the origins of consciousness, differentiates between the analog I and the metaphor me. The first stands, he says, for the imagined self that we project vicariously into the world and the future, the second for the self as an autoscopic image glimpsed in fantasy as outside the perceiving self. I and me are the subjective and objective modes of the first person as my and mine are its attempts to appropriate and claim bits and pieces of the world.

We are told by those who make it their business to think about such things that the genesis of the first person is through the second person: you precedes I. "When I look I am seen, so I exist" (D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, Penguin, 1974, p. 134). Each person longs to recover, to reenact, the bliss of being you so that the confirmed I can elaborate its world in confidence that it exists. In libraries, at bus stops, walking on the street, you can see the subjective ones, sunk deep in the first person, lost in reverie. Then an arm slips over a shoulder, a face lights up in a smile as a name is called, a child tugs at a sleeve and the transformation occurs: the lackluster, lost I springs into life and becomes a second person. More ... 

On October 11, 2004, I picked up a copy of the New York Times and read a rather long obituary of Jacques Derrida, the famed French deconstructionist critic who had generated tsunamis in the literary world's tea cup for the past three decades. At the end of the article, the Times's writer opted to give his readers a sample of Derrida's prose to illustrate a key idea from one of his final interviews collected in Philosophy in a Time of Terror (University of Chicago Press, 2003):

We do not in fact know what we are saying or naming in this way: September 11, le 11 septembre, September 11. The brevity of the appellation (September 11, 9/11) stems not only from an economic or rhetorical necessity. The telegram of this metonymy — a name, a number — points out the unqualifiable by recognizing that we do not recognize or even cognize, that we do not yet know how to qualify, that we do not know what we are talking about.

(I learned later that this passage was originally spoken by Derrida in French to an interviewer, but that before it appeared in English translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, Derrida, who spoke English extraordinarily well, had an opportunity to revise and approve what his translators had written.) More ... 

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by Richard Lederer

Recently, officials from Mainland China offered a pair of pandas to the people of Taiwan. The Taiwanese populace swooned over the gift, but the island's president, Chen Shuibian, urged his government to say no, fearing that the cute bundles of fur would turn out to be "Trojan pandas."

The fullest effect of President Shuibian's comment is achieved only if the listener or reader knows something about the decade-long Trojan War, chronicled in the Greek poet Homer's epic, The Iliad. More ... 

by Martha Barnette

If you're lucky enough to share your life with a dog or two, then you have more appreciation than most for canine turns of phrase. A page that's dog-eared instantly calls to mind the pleasure of scratching behind a floppy one. If someone warns you that a path is about to dogleg, you have no trouble imagining the crooked shape that lies ahead. And watching puppies chase each other around to the point of exhaustion gives a whole new meaning to the expression dog-tired.

But dogs also go padding about the English language in other surprising places, for they inhabit the histories of several familiar words. To find these hidden images of dogs, however, we have to do a little etymological sleuthing. More ... 

TVR Revisited
Back  Who Owns English
by Orin Hargraves
For God's sake, do not speak of British English! The English of Britain is the Queen's English, otherwise known as English — of which there are many variants commonly denominated to the area in which they are spoken or perhaps misspoken!

There is no such thing as the Queen's English. The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company, and we own the bulk of the shares.

Anyone reading these two quotes might guess that they are entries in a contemporary debate about the tensions between American English and British English — the two leading dialects of what is now the world's first language. In fact these two statements were made about 100 years apart. The first is from a Briton's response to a 2001 New York Times article that noted, with amusement, that the Briticism bespoke was gaining currency in American English. The second observation was made by Mark Twain just before the turn of the twentieth century, in his book of travel essays, Following the Equator. The wide separation in time and the contradiction between these two observations by champions of their respective dialects, one a Briton and one an American, attest to the longevity and the entrenched views that characterize the debate about who owns English. More ... 

by Drexel Ace

Robes and Shadow Yards

She parked at my curb with her engine running.
The headlights, consumed by the night ink,
penetrated but a few feet. A blue-black mist
rose in the distance, shrouding the sullen moon and
citylights halo. There were no other lights.

I sensed a nervous road, a journey with no markers.
Her unfamiliar, lavish voice oozed
from the shadows of the carriage like
a glacier of warm promise. I saw only her mouth—
full lips pouting a slow lipstick invitation. More ... 

by Clark Elder Morrow

The literary genre of Bawdy is both moribund and vastly misunderstood. Bawdy — when used in the sense of a genre — is not what the dictionaries say it is: it is not obscene, and it is not pornographic. The etymological roots of the word bawdy may go back through prostitute and panderer to "a smudge of dirt," but the spirit of the term when we are discussing literature hardly bears these negative and naysaying senses. The message of Bawdy is one of fun-loving and large-minded exuberance — of romping high spirits and wholesome animal energy. Chaucer, the Grand High Vizier of Bawdy, means something more like "gaiety" when he uses the term Bauderie, and he catches the soul of the word when he says:

Heere is the revel and the jolitee
That is nat able a dul man to devyse
Squire's Tale, ll 278–279

Presumably man has always found something funny about sex, and presumably he has always indulged this intuition by making jokes about sex. In ancient and medieval times, the close association between sex and humor was explained as growing out of a sense of shame — that is, we chortle about various mating mishaps because, at root, we sense that sex is an awkward sort of stopgap measure for an activity higher life-forms do not need (God and angels do not "reproduce after their own kind," and even humans in Heaven "are not given in marriage" — presumably because there is no need to reproduce there). Be that as it may, sex and laughter go together like banana-skins and pratfalls. But that, of course, is what serious romantic sentiment will not talk about. There may be comic relief in Romeo and Juliet, but it is decidedly not supplied by either Romeo or Juliet. The most romantic music in history is consistently earnest on the ear, plangent but not dour, with topnotes of tragedy and loss, and a strong aftertaste of highmindedness. More ... 

The Last Word
Back  A Defense of Adjectives
by Christopher Orlet

It all started with Mark Twain.

I don't mean American Literature, despite what Hemingway said. I mean the scornful vilifying and belittling of the adjective. Writing to a promising young scribe, Twain had this advice:

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English — it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them — then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.

Thus did the adjective acquire the same low reputation "as any other vice," including whoring, gambling, and drinking to an excess. Elsewhere, under the alias Pudd'nhead Wilson, Twain is more Jacksonian (as in "Jesse" Jackson), but no less brutal: "As to the Adjective: When in doubt, strike it out." Note the verbs the author employs: "strike," "kill," "weaken." Goodness, why such hostility toward the poor adjective? More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back  Origin of the Name Italy
by Bill Casselman

One April afternoon, I was strolling across Michelangelo's superb pavement on the summit of the Capitoline Hill in Rome. The Campidoglio is surely the most beautiful public square in the world. A happy throng of Italian school kids followed their teacher, not too dutifully, across the marbled symmetry of the square. One of the kids suddenly yanked his Walkman earphones off and shouted, Forza Italia! Viva Italia! A soccer fan, he'd been listening to the World Cup on the radio. Italy's team had just scored. I wondered where the word Italy came from. Word nerd? Yep.

All place names have a history. They don't spring full-formed from the forehead of Jupiter. So, pedantic tourist that I am, I leafed through my well-thumbed copy of the Blue Guide to Rome. And I found not one word about the origin of the name of the country I was in: Italy. For me, this annoying lacuna tainted one of the most complete guide books available. Nor was it in any of the paperback guides I had in my gym bag back in my cheap pensione in Testaccio, a shabby part of central Rome. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  Prose Not Hoes
by Carey Harrison

Prose not hoes. This slogan was written on my classroom chalkboard for me at the end of our final Shakespeare II class — seemingly it was written as a kind of summer going-away present or meditation, with the sense that it was a motto I would appreciate — and was placed there by two of my nicest and most fondly attached female undergraduates. One of them is a devout Muslim, as her dress declares. I trust that most readers will understand that their slogan (apparently they saw it on a T-shirt) isn't designed to privilege written language over gardening, but over ladies of a nubile and perhaps even available nature. Since ho is derived from whore, you might think availability was of the essence. But, like the word bitch in certain circles, not only is ho in common use as a synonym for girl, girls themselves seem quite content to embrace it. (Is this more puzzling than their willingness to be addressed, and address each other, as guys? I'm not sure.) They're more than content to embrace their ho-hood, in fact. To accept yourself as belonging to the category of ho does offer a certain strut to it that takes bitch to a new level. More ... 

by Barbara Ann Kipfer

Definitions are dictionaries' descriptions of meaning. Writing dictionary definitions depends on research and human judgments; each item presents a new set of problems. Definers must choose from a multiplicity of available methods in carrying out their duties as describers of the language. A person analyzing language divides meaning into senses and then writes definitions. This is done, usually, by looking at the citation (quotation) slips, and dividing the slips into separate meanings. The methodology from that point involves analysis and synthesis of lexical material.

There are two basic methods of ordering definitions within an entry — historically or by frequency of use. The way your dictionary orders the entries can alter your understanding of the book, making it sometimes discouraging to look for what you need if you do not understand that order. These first editorial decisions are the focus of this essay. More ... 

by Kevin Mims

Among my favorite publications are the mail-order catalogs put out by companies that sell lingerie and other sexy apparel for women. Victoria's Secret and Frederick's of Hollywood publish the two best-known examples of the genre, but less well-known companies, such as Venus and Boston Proper, also distribute catalogs in which sexy swimsuits, sleepwear, "intimate apparel," and other types of clothing are modeled by stunningly beautiful young women. I buy my wife something from each of these catalogs once a year or so, just to make sure I don't get dropped from any of the mailing lists.

I had been a fan of these catalogs for years before it suddenly dawned on me that there was actual writing in their pages. It appears in relatively small print, generally off to the side of the page so as not to distract from the real stars of the publication — the clothes and the women who model them. Since I like words almost as much as I like sexy young women in Brazilian-cut bikinis, this discovery has added enormously to my enjoyment of the catalogs. I won't go so far as to say that it has doubled the pleasure I derive from my open-mouthed browsing sessions, but nowadays a good 3 or 4 percent of my total catalog-perusing time is given over to an examination of the text. Alongside the lovely anatomical phenomena to be found in their pages, lingerie catalogs also provide numerous fascinating linguistic phenomena.

The ling- in lingerie and the ling- in linguistics do not derive from the same root. The former comes from linum, the Latin word for "flax," the plant from which we get linen; the latter comes from dnghu, the Indo-European word for "tongue," which is the root of such words as "language," "lingo," and "linguistics." But the linen and the lingo come together in the pages of Victoria's Secret and other catalogs, which are repositories of such seductively attired women that the dnghu often dangles from my mouth as I examine the pictures. Curiously enough, glamorous (meaning "fashionable or alluringly beautiful") and grammar are closely related words. In fact, according to John Ayto's excellent Dictionary of Word Origins, "glamour is ultimately the same word as grammar." The English word grammar originally meant "the art of letters" and derived from the Greek gramma, meaning "something written." In England during the Middle Ages, grammar was the word applied to learning in general. And since the people of the Middle Ages associated learning with magic, grammar also came to mean "magic." According to Ayto: 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.  

finely Misused for finally. • Ronald Reagan was quoted as saying, "Those that have known freedom and lost it, have never regained it," and we are seeing the loss of our freedoms finely come to fruition. USE finally. • It looks like I can finely stop complaining about the cold and start complaining about the heat. USE finally. • When war finely began, the republicans, under the name of "unconditional Union men," took complete control of the new state. USE finally. 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.  

To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not — can never be — extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: 'Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.' ... 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.  

I can't believe I'm telling you this Only the foolish or the unconscious, unaware of or ambivalent about the words they use or why they use them, can exclaim I can't believe I'm telling you this. Language use, the essence of being human, entails certain responsibilities — care and consciousness among them; otherwise, it's all dimwitted. 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.  

disassociate dissociate. • It set off calls by the faculty for nationally known conservatives to disassociate themselves from alleged Jew-baiting by the Review, which in the past has been accused of race-baiting and unfair characterization of women and homosexuals. It set off calls by the faculty for nationally known conservatives to dissociate themselves from alleged Jew-baiting by the Review, which in the past has been accused of race-baiting and unfair characterization of women and homosexuals. • Since a man does not disassociate responsibility and blame, he often refuses both. Since a man does not dissociate responsibility and blame, he often refuses both. 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.  

sententiae (sen-TEN-shee-ee) n. adages or aphorisms. 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.  

Iris Murdoch: The Sea, The Sea 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 26
Topic: Health
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  

Here's a palindrome entirely composed of palindromic words that seems also to meet Mr. Lederer's requirements of wit, surprise, economy, and memorability:

Otto: did Anna peep? Anna: did Otto? More ... 


• Three-in-One — Anna Jean Mallinson

• The Emperor Is Naked! Or, Derrida Meets a New Critic — Skip Eisiminger

• Classic References — Richard Lederer

• Word Hounds — Martha Barnette

• TVR Revisited: Who Owns English — Orin Hargraves

• Two Poems — Drexel Ace


• Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Bawdy: Lifting the Skirt on a Neglected Genre

• Christopher Orlet: The Last Word — A Defense of Adjectives

• Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Origin of the Name Italy

• Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Prose Not Hoes

• Barbara Ann Kipfer: Word Nerd — The Analysis of Meaning

• Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — Chapter Five: Victoria's Secret Language


• 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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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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