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The Vocabula Review - April 2007 - Table of Contents
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April 2007, Vol. 9, No. 4
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In recent years, many people have no doubt seen a white van driving around the South Park neighborhood of Beaumont, Texas, bearing the label "East Mount Olive Baptist Church Day Care Center," but I may be the only resident who has thought about what a long compound noun construction, or noun phrase, the van publicizes. This particular long title is easier to grasp because it is made of familiar units, "Baptist Church" and "Day Care Center"; and if we don't know where "East Mount Olive" is or exactly what the word East refers to here, we have heard of other Mounts and other phrases beginning with East. The title is therefore "digestable"; it could serve as a unit, a subject or object in a sentence, but in my experience it seems to be pushing the limit, for I haven't come across any such phrases with more than eight elements. If you added "bus drivers" or "teacher roster," I think many people would balk and want to rephrase. Few people have received any instruction on the limits of compounds, but we all have a sense of limits set by common sense, experience, and short-term memory.

A core assumption in elementary linguistics holds that speakers of a human language (unlike other species with their more rigid systems of communication) can segment words in a stream of speech even though words are often not separated by pauses. A native speaker, even an illiterate one, considered the expert in a language by linguists, should know the morphemes "rain" and "coat" and also know that "raincoat" is a unit, a word. Sometimes stress or intonation patterns provide a guide to word boundaries. People pronounce the terms "blackbird" (one word) and "black market" differently, as they do "green house" and "greenhouse." However, in many cases, word boundaries are not so clear. In fact, a major cause of even highly educated people consulting a dictionary is to find out if a certain utterance is written as two words, one word, or two words joined (and separated) by a hyphen. The issue is not as important in speaking as it is in writing; if people are unsure about whether to hyphenate "teenager" or not, it must mean that its pronunciation doesn't vary much either way. More ... 

Sound Off
Back  Just Pencils
by Donna Gorrell

I bought three boxes of pencils last week. That hexagonal orange kind made of wood, with a number two lead at one end and a pink eraser, wrapped in silvery metal, at the other. Unsharpened, unused, each end flat as the day it came off the press. They're marvelous. Three boxes, twelve pencils to a box, and all together they cost me less than two dollars. That's a little over a nickel apiece!

Why did I wait so long to get them? In fact, when did I ever go out to the store just to buy pencils? The stubs just collect in drawers — dull points, hard or nonexistent erasers, barely enough shaft to hold onto. Once, I ordered a pencil box from Levenger's, and it contained some beautiful number twos with black wood and black erasers. They were almost too nice to use. But I don't think I ever set out just to buy ordinary traditional orange wooden pencils. More ... 

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by Richard Lederer

Like Billy Pilgrim, in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, I often become unstuck in time.

While tooting around on a promotional book tour, I suddenly find myself in one o'clock in the morning on a Wednesday, which means that I must have just landed in Los Angeles. I've flown in from Denver, where I did an interview with the Denver Post and a signing at a Denver bookstore. That same day I winged my way to Denver from Houston, where I had done some other radio work and book signings. I've flown from New York to Boston to Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., to Atlanta to Milwaukee to Chicago to Houston to Denver, and I'll be winging my way from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Seattle to Vancouver to Winnipeg to Toronto — one day at a time. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back  Like
by Maggie Balistreri

The Undercutting Like

Translation: I'm not smart; I'm cool. I don't know where I picked up that knowledge.

• "I think he meant it like, metaphorically."

• "You can't do that; it's like, a federal offense."

• "That was by like, Beethoven."

• "I just used the like, law of contrapositive to figure out the answer."

• "Who? That guy? Oh, he's the ambassador to like, Nigeria."

• "That's, like, an umlaut or something."
More ... 

Avoid the back-to-back, the pleonastic, is.

• Basically, what this is is a standardized procedure for saying letters — "A as in Alpha," "B as in Bravo," through to "Z as in Zulu."

• What he really is is a man at peace with his legacy and where he is in his career.

• The thing of it is is that in order to articulate the point properly, Democrats are going to need to re-learn the word "inequality."

• What this sordid, 286-page mish-mash really is is a biography.

These sentences, and many others like them, are as badly written as they are poorly thought out. To avoid the back-to-back is do not begin sentences with expressions like what (this) is and the thing (of it) is. More ... 

Back  The Frog Princess
by John Kilgore

The dying King of Palawan
Called to his bed his three young sons.
"Boys," said the King, "there's something I
Want you to do before I die.
Go get yourselves securely married
To lovely brides before I'm buried.

"And do it fast, don't take all week.
Employ the following technique:
Go knock on the first door you see;
When a maiden comes, say 'Marry me!'
Don't talk of Love and all that rot
Just pop that question on the spot." More ... 

by Susanna Rich

Admission: Of and To

This isn't my poem. Its every turn
         has turned or been before.

Each word is someone else's
         word talking to someone

else's word. I can unscrew
         my wrists for metaphors,

pluck caesuras from my teeth,
         raise rhymes from my toes More ... 

by Clark Elder Morrow

I want to talk to you about a very depressing thought — something that has been nagging at the back of my mind for years now, and that only recently became explicit in my thinking. If you really desire to grow dismayed at the vanity of human wishes, and to grow chilled in your heart at the folly of aspiration, imagine for a moment all the efforts that have gone into trying to make the world a better place. And for the sake of brevity, let us restrict our imagining to merely the last hundred years.

Picture to yourself all the monumental contributions to humanity made in the public arena since 1907. I'm not talking about the sheer increase of knowledge — the growing superabundance of things known — as much as I am about efforts made by countless beneficent human beings to improve our minds and make us better people, better speakers, better thinkers, more polite citizens, and so forth. Think of all the self-help and self-improvement volumes of the past ten decades; think of all those reference books and learn-a-language tomes; of all those bestsellers and not-so-well-sellers that offered to explain everything to us, and to map out roadways to wellness, and make us masters of so many well-visited and near-virgin realms of experience. I see, year after year, articles and essays and textbooks and manuals and helpful columns all striving manfully and mightily to bring about The Just Society (at least in terms relevant to the world of the writer) — and I wonder what was the cumulative effect of all this hauling of humanity up out of turbulent seas into a supposed lifeboat? I imagine all those parallel and simultaneous efforts in the fields of art and politics and economics and dance and music and sociobiology and God knows what else. Think of all the statesmen who have struggled to make things better, all the everyday citizens who have worked hard to improve their children's lives, and all the scientists and laborers who have strained every nerve to make real progress for society. In many respects, the record of the last 500 years in the West is a record of Herculean self-betterment. More ... 

by Mark Halpern

Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amateur: How the democratization of the digital world is assaulting our economy, our culture, and our values (Doubleday, June 2007; 208 pp. + index)

Many thoughtful people have worried about the effect of the Internet on our health, wealth, culture, and morals. And we all know, in a way, of the various bad consequences that have come along with near-universal access, at least in the developed world, to indigestible torrents of information and misinformation; of pornography; of "free" (that is, easy to steal) music; of endless and unavoidable advertisements, much of it sly and hidden; of access by predators to children and others who are vulnerable sexually and financially; of texts that can be safely plagiarized; of invasions of privacy — the list could be greatly extended if there were any need. But although many of these dangerous developments have been discussed in magazine articles and other ephemeral media, what has been lacking is one sustained and documented treatment of all of them, preserved in the more enduring form of a printed book. This is what Andrew Keen has attempted with considerable success to provide in the book under review. In addition to putting together between one pair of covers a great deal of material that has previously appeared only in bits and pieces, widely scattered and in perishable formats, Keen brings to the task some qualifications not often seen in those who share his views. He is not an assistant professor of education or child welfare or psychology, as is usually the case with those warning us of the insidious effects of the Internet and the "virtual" world, but a former adept in the very technology he is warning us about. He is a whistle-blower from within the world he is exposing; a defector, if you like, from the enemy camp. As he puts it: More ... 

The Last Word
Back  Culture vs. Clutter
by Christopher Orlet

I live in a small house whose designer seems to have taken to heart Mies van der Rohe's dictum that "less is more." Like most modern homes, it was constructed simply, on the cheap, without those cultural amenities once thought essential to a civilized life, by which I, of course, mean bookshelves.

Bookshelves were once as much a part of the design of a home as window sills and porches — now obsolete as well. Upper-class homes once contained elegant darkwood floor-to-ceiling shelves, and even the most humble of abodes, the shotgun shacks, frequently featured a built-in bookshelf. They had to. Historians have long remarked on the ubiquity of books in nineteenth-century British working-class homes, due in part to the corresponding societies in 1790 England set up to spread literacy among the poor. Those days are gone. It is not an exaggeration to say that I have been in homes where television sets outnumber books. More ... 

Postcards from Babel
Back  Where Are You From?
by Amalia Gnanadesikan

No one gets any points for correctly guessing where china originally comes from. Its recipe a fiercely guarded secret, Chinese porcelain was the envy of Europe from its first arrival there in the sixteenth century until it was successfully replicated in the eighteenth. Similar stories can be told about silk, paper, and tea, all originally protected under Chinese monopoly but eventually produced elsewhere as well. Any of these substances could have been named china (anyone for a nice hot cup of china? a sheet of writing china? a pair of china pyjamas?), but the honor of being named after its place of origin went to porcelain. Chiné silk and China tea come close, but the place name (or toponym) remains a descriptive adjective and not the name of the substance itself. In china, the proper noun has become the name of a substance that can theoretically be made anywhere, not just in China.

Cheeses and wines are famous for being named after their places of origin, a small sampling being Camembert, Cheddar, Gouda, Edam, Stilton; Bordeaux, Chardonnay, Chianti, Madeira, plus others we might not immediately recognize: port from Oporto, Portugal, and sherry from Jerez, Spain. In many of these cases, however, the toponyms remain toponyms, still linked to their original locations: though champagne may be used loosely to describe any kind of sparkling wine, a purist will insist that a real champagne, whether sparkling or still, can be produced only in Champagne. More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back  Oh, For the Love of Mike!
by Bill Casselman

In word study, a phrase like "for the love of Mike" is called a minced oath, a form of euphemism. To mince your words means "to choose words so as not to offend anyone."

The Oxford English Dictionary says this: "for the love of Mike: for goodness' sake! (a colloquial exclamation of exasperation or surprise, with no notion of the literal sense.)"

I think the evidence suggests that this expression began as a substitute for an outcry of anger, dismay, or frustration, namely, "for the love of God!" or for the much more vilified expression "for the love of Christ!" But the speaker decided that using a holy name in this way was blasphemous and therefore substituted something milder for the holy name, in this case, St. Michael. British etymologist Adrian Room, in his 1999 revision of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, suggests that "the expression may have evolved among Irish Roman Catholics as a euphemism for 'For the love of Christ.'" More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  However Is for Wimps
by Carey Harrison

Time for brutal tactics in the classroom. We're ten months into Stalingrad and no reinforcements. The lines of supply are broken, ammunition is running out, and still the enemy forces keep coming, piling dead upon dead. They have no ammunition at all, only their bodies, but we are beginning to lose purchase on our sanity, mein Führer. Who are these zombie soldiers who keep returning to the fray, writing alot, loosing (as in loosing the battle), we runs, he run. Is there any hope left of defeating them? We are loosing [sic] the battle, and I find myself writing loosing for losing, which I've never done before. We runs, he run, we may as well all run.

But maybe not. Last week I took a desperate recourse, brought out a grenade, drew the pin and watched an eruption of laughter carry the day. The fight was over, until next week. The battleground was however, my students' favorite, ever-present substitute for but. No good wine without bush, and no student essay, in the last ten years, without a misplaced and misused however, which they believed to be both a more elegant and a more formidable but, and, as such, interchangeable with it. I came to school, however I change [sic] my mind and went home. This is completely standard fare (bog-standard fare, I was about to say, but let me not be racist in the age of Imus) in the undergraduate essays I receive. I have spoken, lectured, hollered about however, and the virtues of but. In vain. How ever is it, by the way, that my students retain from their early schooling only one piece of information with regard to syntax, namely, that no sentence may begin with and or but. It's no surprise to come across this piece of idiocy, which was retailed to me in my own childhood; but why is it the only guide to sentence construction that they possess? And how on earth did it come into being? Can there ever have been schoolchildren who wrote interminable sentences beginning with and, and who needed to be discouraged? And I got up. And I brushed my teeth. And I put on my clothes. And I went to school. It's actually rather elegant, stylistically, not to say powerful; it's almost a song; the great Raymond Queneau once wrote a sneering stylistic exercise using alors in precisely this way; but I doubt if any child ever wrote in this fashion. Did the "rule" against an initial and or but arise because schoolteachers wanted to induce their pupils to embark on more interesting, compound sentences than they would otherwise do? In any case, the result is a torturous one: goodbye but, hello however. My friend likes grapes. However I like apples. Sometimes, howsomever, just to keep my mind from seizing up — and in honor of the Cappadocian Bishop who, after delivering a sermon entirely in Latin to a rural congregation without a single Latin speaker in it, explained, "I did it that they might wonder" — I describe to them the arcane scrap of linguistic history whereby the Latin function of tamen, which was never to be used to begin a sentence, carried over into English, making I, however, like apples the classically correct form. I feel as if I am trying to explain to them the Dardanelles campaign or the Crimean War, neither of which I understand all that well myself. More ... 

The Common Reader
Back  The Freelancer's Dilemma
by Kevin Mims

The freelance wordsmith's life is no box of truffles. Take mine, for instance. Just about everything I write — short stories, poems, personal essays — I submit to some glamorous national magazine like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, or The Paris Review. Then, when a piece has been rejected by all the prestigious national slicks, I scurry about trying to get it published in some obscure literary quarterly or a local freebie newspaper. Sometimes, when a piece I've written pertains to some specific event — Christmas, the Olympics, a presidential election — I've got to send it out to the slicks months in advance of the actual event so that if they reject it (and they will), I'll still have time to find a place for it in some small local rag before the time-sensitive material reaches its expiration date.

In December of 2006, I wrote a short personal essay about how I have jumped rope for roughly a half hour a day every day since March 22, 1997 (a much longer essay, dealing with the connection between jumping rope and the language arts appeared in the February edition of The Vocabula Review). I figured my jump rope piece would be perfect for "My Turn," a weekly feature of Newsweek magazine in which ordinary Americans (that is, people who aren't regular contributors to the magazine) write about the triumphs and tribulations of their lives. And so, in late December I emailed the piece to Newsweek's website, suggesting they might want to consider it for publication in March, when my streak would hit its ten-year anniversary. By February, I hadn't heard a peep from Newsweek, and so, as usual, I set about finding a local outlet for the essay. I emailed it to a handsome local monthly called Inside The City, and within a week I had an acceptance and a check for $100. "The Jumping Man" was published in early March and was relatively successful as these things go. A few days after the issue hit the newsstands, I found myself at a medical laboratory where my doctor had sent me for some routine blood work. The lab technician took a look at my name on the chart and asked me if I was The Jumping Man. I assured her that I was, and a friendly conversation was kindled. Having some stranger comment favorably on something I've written is about the greatest reward my freelance writing ever earns me. But that is not an inconsiderable reward. More ... 

Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases
Back  Get a Life
by David Isaacson

Although it annoys me, I usually listen carefully when someone tells me to get a life. I am not irritated because this phrase is a cliché: it still sounds fresh to me. I am annoyed because the way this phrase is formulated and the tone in which it is usually said prick my cowardly conscience. Part of me wants to deny that I don't have a life, but a more honest part of me believes the warning may be true.

I think get a life has become so popular because of its deft exaggeration. (The only way I could imagine this phrase working literally is if it were used by someone reminding a biographer he didn't have a subject to write about.) I know, of course, that this advice isn't literal, that my actual life isn't so meaningless that I need to get to work as soon as possible to acquire a new one. But this phrase resonates because of the usually affectionate insult implied in the hyperbole. The phrase hurts, teaches, and amuses all at the same time. When someone uses this phrase about me, I feel accused, judged, and forgiven all in a flash. 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 March 2007, the third most common was basically. 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 More ... 



Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Excuse Me, But All Your Efforts Are Useless

Mark Halpern: The Critical Reader — On the Internet, Everyone Is a Dog: A Review

Christopher Orlet: The Last Word — Culture vs. Clutter

Amalia Gnanadesikan: Postcards from Babel — Where Are You From?

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Oh, For the Love of Mike!

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner However Is for Wimps

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — The Freelancer's Dilemma

David Isaacson: Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases — Get a Life


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