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The Vocabula Review - November 2006 - Table of Contents
Wednesday, July 01, 2015

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November 2006, Vol. 8, No. 11
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"Cleaning Up My Act" by Joseph Epstein
The December issue is due online December 17.

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impitoyable (an-pee-toi-AH-blah) n. a large wine-tasting glass configured so as to enhance taste and amplify aroma.

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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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"A new philosophy," said John Donne, "calls all in doubt." With the publication of Chaim Perelman's The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation (1969) and The Realm of Rhetoric (1982), narrative became an accepted form of argument — corrupting the teaching of both literature and composition. Narrative in the hands of anyone but a skilled practitioner becomes plot summary, which may explain why those students who matriculate from composition into literature classes are unable to analyze and to argue. Narrative emphasizes style; analysis, thinking.

In my former capacity as co-director of the University of Colorado writing program, even though I knew that much composition theory currently frowns on argument as a "hegemonic construct," I tried to teach students how to state an issue and defend a thesis by analyzing facts. The new university writing program promotes, especially at the freshman level, emotive/expressivist writing and, in particular, personal narratives, the preferred mode of discourse in Rhet/Comp. My objections to such an approach issue from my belief that a university is a house of argument and that training in narrative (1) repeats what the students have already been taught in K–12, (2) emphasizes descriptive papers, (3) invites diffusion, and all too often, (4) invades student privacy. More ... 

by Michael Berger

When someone says we need an epicene pronoun, what do they mean?

Since when has they been third-person singular? That's what he or she means. The epicene pronoun is a gender-neutral device for referring in the third person to the generic human being, without falling back on the discredited universal masculine or stumbling forward over the incipient singular they.

Here are some candidates for this esteemed role, to fill a need in the evolving English language: More ... 

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by Richard Lederer

You're sitting at a table and after a long time elapses, someone finally brings the food. Why are they called the "waiter"?

I've used this quip dozens of times in my talks and asked the audience if anyone has been offended by any grammatical atrocity I have uttered. Almost no one raises their hand.

Yet some purists grow apoplectic about the use of the pronoun they to refer to indefinite pronouns, such as anyone, each, and everybody, or with singular nouns, as you've just experienced (without trauma, I reckon) twice in the previous two paragraphs. Why is this usage ubiquitous? One reason is that we have been doing it for centuries, all the way back to Middle English. It's been more than 600 years (1387) since Geoffrey Chaucer wrote, in The Canterbury Tales, "And whoso findeth hym out of swich blame, / They wol come up ...." More ... 

by Peter Corey

In her book, Verbal Hygiene, linguist Deborah Cameron refers to those who advocate prescriptivism in grammar as verbal hygienists. She is, of course, preaching to the choir, since her book (written during a public outcry in the United Kingdom over the issue of literacy) is a strategy manual for linguists, taking seriously the Roman adage "It is right to make your enemy your teacher." It might be fair, therefore, to refer to Cameron and other linguists as verbal nihilists, but I prefer to defend prescriptivism, which is a tradition I find liberal, honorable, and more sensible than linguistics. As a result, I will refer to linguistics by its name, and to prescriptivism — because its philosophical premises are key — as humanistic grammar.

My claim in this essay is that linguistics has effectively killed humanistic grammar, especially as a subject in the public schools, though also as a topic worthy of serious discussion in public discourse. Linguists perceive themselves (and are generally perceived by others) as "scientists," whether or not they deserve that label. Humanist grammarians are perceived as "language mavens," to borrow a phrase from linguist Steven Pinker. Yet, if linguists really are scientists, they spend an awful lot of time writing essays, books, and reviews that are hostile to the positions of humanist grammar on various issues. Many books on linguistics, from those meant for general readers to those meant for serious students, contain disclaimers, often hostile, in which the authors dissociate themselves from any taint of humanistic grammar. In addition to the hostility, these disclaimers often completely misrepresent humanistic grammar in the following ways: More ... 

The world's most famous — maybe only famous — copy editor was Eleanor Gould Packard, who worked in that capacity at The New Yorker for nearly fifty-five years and merited not only an admiring obituary in the Times but also a thank-you from E. B. White in The Elements of Style. She was known to sometimes go too far: one of her claims to fame was the finding of four grammatical errors in a three-word sentence.1 As the magazine's longtime fiction editor Roger Angell has commented, if all her recommendations had been carried out, the magazine's famously lucent prose "would be like the purest water — absolutely tasteless." And yet she was revered for her abilities, and generations of New Yorker writers claimed that she was vital to the magazine's excellence.

I have not always been a copy editor. I've considered myself a writer since I was a kid and have been publishing fiction and essays for twenty-five years, but it was only a few years ago that I became a professional copy editor — i.e., someone who messes with other people's prose and gets paid for it. For me, transforming an almost good sentence into a very good sentence is a satisfaction equivalent to dipping strawberries into whipped cream. More ... 

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

"I cannot live without books." Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) wrote this in 1815 in a letter to John Adams.

I agree and assume that you do, though you may not be so devoted as to be a bookworm or bookish (a person devoted to reading and studying). Bookish is an adjective sometimes used by drama critics and others to describe a play or other work that is literary, which may or may not be a compliment.

A book is a set of written or printed pages, usually bound. A book can be many other things and book-terms abound in various media. For example, a book is a libretto or text, without the music, of a play or other work. Libretto is Italian for "small book." It's written by a librettist. More ... 

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

by Karen Bjorkman

Borges and You

Borge's slight scent
leaks from the shelf.
It may hit if I approach the window
in the right frame:
about to gaze on the white day above the brick
with no other mind
or if the jay in the spruce whistles
and I go to look. It can't be called. More ... 

by John Kilgore
Good poets borrow; great poets steal. — T. S. Eliot

In "Politics and the English Language," that curious classic that is so elegantly and impressively wrong in much of what it asserts about language, George Orwell decries the use of "ready-made phrases" and the practice of "gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else." By implication he is lobbying for the supposedly pristine practice of assembling sentences one word at a time. But who does that? At best the proscription is far too broad, lumping together cheesy clich้s and canting jargon with sturdy, serviceable, and unobtrusive idioms. Every English teacher knows, and every foreign language teacher knows twice over, that gumming together phrases is what writing and speaking mostly are; it can be done badly of course, but so can anything else. It is not really much more logical to inveigh against ready-made phrases than to scorn ready-made words, and no one suggests that the individual writer should reinvent the lexicon.

Of course dictionaries tend to promote Orwell's view. Proudly disassembling the language down to the level of the individual noun or verb or adjective, they leave the impression that words are hardy and self-sufficient atoms, ready to join with other words when they must, but rather indifferent to the prospect. It is only toward the end of each entry, and only in the better dictionaries, that the authors scratch the surface of the topic of set phrasing, and begin to notice how passionately partial words are to some liaisons, how averse to others. More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back  To Parp a Klaxon?
by Bill Casselman

Every now and then, I traipse past a British phrase that trips me up, flummoxes me, stops me dead in my polyglot tracks, and induces the onset of IWH (instant word humility).

It happened the other day with "parping klaxons."

How many North Americans, I wonder, would recognize that phrase? I certainly did not know what it meant when I read about the last night of the Prom Concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England. The BBC Sir Henry Wood Promenade Concerts ("The Proms") are one of the most pleasant and civil of London traditions. Can an event be civil and raucous all at the same time? Indeed yes! Londoners who attend the last night of The Proms are given to tossing paper birds that drift by the dozens under the vaulted span of the great hall's ceiling. The audience also brings to the concert all manner of noisemakers and horns and they do stand up, shout, and "parp klaxons." More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  News from the Front, Once More
by Carey Harrison

A new academic year; new recruits. I feel like a German soldier writing home from the Eastern Front. Shall I tell Mutti and Vati the truth? Can they stand more bad news? The news pertains to my City University students, whose linguistic abilities seem to be sinking to a new low. Certainly I encountered fewer undergraduates, ten years ago, who routinely wrote, "she have" and "he eat." A colleague asserted just the other week that the decline has been steady over the twenty-five years during which she has taught at our institution.

Perhaps this should be no surprise. The Teachers' Union diktat, issued to the public schools in the 1970s, which asserted that standardized English was a patriarchal conspiracy, has never been revoked. Nor need it be; its consequences, along with the half-baked liberal conceit that linguistic anarchy is a weapon in the class war, will be reversed not by a counter-diktat enforcing consistency of spelling, grammar, syntax, and punctuation, but by the refusal of parents to tolerate the consequences of their offspring's sloppy English. This is already happening. The counter-revolution has begun. The fact that America's class divides are policed by degrees of literacy is gradually being understood, along with the fact that class divides will not be penetrated by certificates. If you write "she have" and "he eat," it doesn't matter what degrees you possess, your earning capacity in the white-collar world will in all probability be limited — unless you're a genius in some extra-literary respect, which not even the fondest parents can go on believing about their children for ever. More ... 

When our eighty-year-old house starts feeling its age, my wife and I turn for help to a local contractor who is nearly as old as the house itself. He goes by his first two initials, D. K., and if this is some sort of inside joke about his physical condition, it's an inappropriate one. No seventy-five-year-old man I know displays less physical decay than D. K. He can push a 150-pound drum sander across a hardwood floor as if it were a dust mop, and last summer he almost single-handedly erected a gazebo in our backyard during a heat wave that pushed temperatures upwards of 110 degrees (he was "assisted" by a grandson-in-law who spent most of his time bemoaning the heat and lazing in the shade). The only things outdated about D. K. are his work ethic, which seems to predate the advent of the forty-hour workweek, and his vocabulary, which tends to be culturally insensitive. During a floor refinishing project, he kept assuring me that when he was done our floors would "shine like a nigger's heel." This is a bit of a catchphrase of his, and has also been applied to the tiles he has laid and the door trim he has repainted. Whenever I hear it I wince and check to make sure that the windows are closed.

D. K.'s phrase isn't original. My wife recalls hearing her grandmother use it occasionally back in the 1950s. But D. K. is the only one I've ever heard use it, and so I associate it with him as certainly as I associate "Take my wife ... please!" with Henny Youngman, and "I don't get no respect" with Rodney Dangerfield. When I think back on some of the colorful characters I have known through the years, it's always their catchphrases that I remember best. If I were a photography buff or an amateur genealogist, I might have a better memory for visages and surnames. But as an avid reader and word lover, it's not people's faces but their phrases I recall. If I outlive D. K. (by no means a certainty, despite the twenty-seven-year difference in our ages; he's in better condition than most fortysomethings), I have a feeling that the phrase shine like a nigger's heel will be the last thing I forget about him. 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 Vocabula
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. More ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back  Top Twenty Dimwitticisms

Analysis conducted by Factiva showed that of two hundred dimwitticisms used by the U.S. press during October 2006, the seventh most common was "hero." More ... 

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Back  Letters to the Editor

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



John Kilgore: Shibboleths — The Gypsy Canon: Idioms and Catchphrases

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — To Parp a Klaxon?

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — News from the Front, Once More

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — Chapter Nine: Big Dick and the Micrometer Man: Catchphrases from the Cubicles


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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.

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