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The Vocabula Review - August 2007 - Table of Contents
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August 2007, Vol. 9, No. 8
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Back  Special: The Leet Wars

August 23, 2007 — The Wall Street Journal publishes "What Did U $@y? Online Language Finds Its Voice." More ... 

by Adam Freedman

President Bush's decision to commute the sentence of Lewis "Scooter" Libby has sparked an intense legal debate on the proper punishment for those who are convicted of lying to officials — except that lawyers don't say lying. Instead, they throw around terms like perjury, making false statements, and obstruction of justice: the three offenses in the Libby case.

That lawyers have a multitude of words to describe fibbing is perhaps no surprise — just a matter of supply keeping up with demand. In Black's Law Dictionary, the entry for false (definition: "not true") includes a list of twenty-one synonyms. There you'll see false representations and misrepresentations, frauds and deceits, counterfeits and forgeries, to name only a few. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by Edwin L. Battistella

The word like gets plenty of attention but too little respect. In the 1960s, the conjunction like was the bête noire of such critics as Wilson Follett and Jacques Barzun. They worried that the preposition like was inappropriately replacing the conjunction as in such expressions as "I don't dance like I once did" or the cigarette ad "Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should."

Today, like is singled out for the kind of scorn that is heaped on ummm and y'know. In Microserfs, Douglas Coupland's protagonist worries about his speech:

I also say the word like too much, and Karla said there was no useful explanation for people saying this word. Her best guess was that saying "like" is the unused 97 percent of your brain trying to make its presence known. Not too flattering.
More ... 

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If those three words are unfamiliar to you, it may be because you don't have an opportunity to talk with teenagers. Those three words — cool, whatever, and like — are familiar to teenagers because they are embedded in their teenage "slanguage." Each word has meanings not found in a conventional dictionary.

Cool has been around since like forever. Jazz musicians who used the term are responsible for its popularization during the 1940s. As a slang word expressing generally positive sentiment, it has stayed current (and cool) far longer than most such words. Slang expressions meaning the same thing as cool, like bully, capital, hot, groovy, hep, crazy, nervous, far-out, rad, and tubular have not had the staying power or continued universal appeal of cool. A young lady wearing new blings would be most happy if her friend, boy or girl, would say, "Wow, you look cool!" Incidentally, blings or bling-blings are flashy or gaudy jewelry, named for the sound generated when worn. More ... 

by Richard Lederer

In one of the megachain bookstores, a woman asked a young clerk for the author of Like Water for Chocolate. After the salesperson had spent five minutes searching and still could not locate the famous title, the customer realized that the young man had been looking for Water from Chocolate.

It's like ... you know.

Nowadays, three speech patterns of the younger generation squeak like chalk across the blackboard of adult sensibilities:

• The sprinkling of like throughout sentences, like, you know what I'm saying?

• The use of another species of like as a replacement of the verb say: "I'm like, 'Yeah, it's like totally wicked awesome.'"

• The replacement of say, a verb of locution, by go, a verb of locomotion: "She goes, 'Hey, that video game was totally cool.'" Linguists call this use "quotative," an introduction to direct speech.

More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back  The Like Virus
by David Grambs

And like I'm, like, really grossed out, like ...

The L-word. A kind of weightless backpack word that's more and more giving us humpbacked spoken English, the lite like has been airily clogging American sentences for years now. The war against the usage — well, it wasn't much of a war, alas — has been lost for some time, and we language-conscious losers are all trying to learn to live with the new, disjunctive babble.

Still, I believe the phenomenon is worth standing back from and taking a look at, as opposed to shrugging or winking at its growth. What does the new, gratuitous use of like really represent in our language, functionally and lexically? What do the purportedly authoritative dictionaries tell us? And, as I ask myself every time I hear it, what price is literate, listenable English paying for its increasing currency? More ... 

by Judy Gruen

I didn't want to draw attention to myself, but my behavior was decidedly peculiar and bound to attract attention. I walked into a Starbucks, but instead of waiting patiently for an organic, Ethiopian Antigua Supremo (refined with vibrant flavors and refreshing acidity), I strode to the head of the line, where I began to riffle through the stack of "grande" sized cups on the counter. I rejected the first one I pulled, and the second, but eagerly commandeered the third, the sixth, and the ninth cups in the stack. Eureka! I had finally found them!

As I turned to leave, an actual paying customer (unlike a cup pirate like me) who had been watching me with suspicion, shouted, "Hey! What are you doing, taking those cups!" Did Starbucks have undercover security?

I explained that I was only taking cups with my own quote on them. More ... 

by Tom Roeper

Ordinary sentences have the creativity of poetry in them. But like couplets, Haiku, or iambic pentameter, the creativity in poetry — and in everyday language — follows delicate and pinpoint sharp rules. What are the rules for language? Partly they are traditional "rules of grammar," which we may struggle to learn. But the more interesting, more powerful rules are unconscious and unlearned ones that reflect the essence of human nature.

With those rules our words can endlessly create new worlds. As the critic R. P. Blackmur once said, "Poetry adds to the stock of available reality." We can only "add to reality" by following grammatical rules lodged in the subterranean depths of the human mind. We no more learn those deep principles than we learn to have a nose. More ... 

by Kevin Mims

— Well, Gavin, what have you got for me?

— Pulpman?

— Why don't you call me Pierce. Charles Pierce. It's still an alias, but it sounds a bit more grown up. Pulpman sounds like someone who might team up with The Recipient and The Riddler and try to take over Gotham City.

— I thought you'd be contacting me by email again, not by telephone. Aren't you afraid I'll tape this conversation?

— Do you happen to have a tape recorder handy?

— No.

— I didn't think so. But even if you did, it wouldn't do you any good. I've had a year to plan this little scheme of mine. I can assure you that I have anticipated every possible contingency. There's nothing you can do to trip me up.

— I believe you.

— Smart man. More ... 

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The Last Word
Back  Old School Prose
by Christopher Orlet

For some time now, I have made a conscious effort to avoid the use of contractions in my writing. It has been overall a fairly painless experiment with few of the common side effects associated with going cold turkey. I decided it was time to clean up my prose, to mop up the sloppiness, as it were. I believed then and I believe now that contractions and other forms of casual speech reflect not only a sloppiness of style, but of thought. Avoiding contractions forced one to think harder about sentence structure and often had the added benefit of promoting elegance and clarity. Hence I had to make a choice between sounding ironic and hip — like most contemporary writers — and old fashioned and, dare I say it? British. It was the choice between formal and informal prose. I chose formal.

I seem to be swimming against a rather strong tide. Contractions are not only popular, they are alleged to have amazing therapeutic properties to cure stuffy, mechanical prose. The old school marm admonition against using contractions has been turned on its head so that textbook authors, teachers, and copy chiefs are encouraging their use. They are said to impart to prose a relaxed, natural, and more human rhythm. More ... 

Shibboleths
Back  In Praise of Inattention
by John Kilgore

My five-year-old grandson is becoming a bore, in the strict sense of the Ambrose Bierce definition: "A person who talks when you wish him to listen."

It's eight a.m. We're at the table. Mom and Dad are away on separate business trips, so the kids spent the night here, but this morning Grandma left early for the office. This leaves me with an unusual special assignment: feed the kids breakfast, brush their hair, change their clothes, and drive them to day-care. More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back  Cappuccino and Its Monkish Origin
by Bill Casselman

Such bliss to be trendy! You sip a cappuccino on a Paris quai, languidly riffling through the foxed pages of your most recent incunabulary acquisition, a 1495 edition of Ovid's Ars amatoria, purchased from a bouquiniste's stall pitched on the parapets along the slow-flowing Seine. Past your table saunters a learned throng of students ambling toward the Sorbonne, perhaps drinking a "cap" on the way to class.

At your Parisian patio table, you comment to your cappuccino-tasting companion on how Starbuck's, hot coffee merchants, had to tidy up their corporate logo of a mermaid in the United States. American fundamentalist Christians thought the rippling waves under the mermaid's split tail fin were pudendal and therefore obscene and alarming. Goodness! A sea-going yoni in the middle of a God-fearin' American coffee shop. Summon the Marines! Eyes left, soldier! Possible yonic visual reference in a public food emporium. Ready! Aim! Censor!

Any hint of female sexual power naturally dismays and frightens worthy Christian gentlemen. For, of course, these sexist bigots and spiritual twits are the same evangelical rocket scientists who gave us that special gift to American pride, George "Dubyuh" Bush; so it's no strain to calibrate their knowledge (zero) of the history of female sexual repression in Western civilization. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  Historic Days
by Carey Harrison

Now that Barry Bonds has surpassed Hank Aaron's record tally of home runs, thereby creating what commentators having been referring to as a historical event, it might be worth pausing to consider that people who use the word historical when they appear to mean historic may, in fact, be using the more telling, even the more appropriate word. Bonds's 756th homer is indeed a historic event as opposed to an unremarkable one, and people who refer to this home run as historical may have simply forgotten that the word they want is historic, if indeed they ever knew it; they may think that historical is a fancier way of saying historic, or that historic is a vulgar or abbreviated form of historical. Yet what, today, is historic? Where events are concerned, the momentous and the quotidian are no longer at odds. In a world where we can all expect our 15 minutes of fame, who can tell the exceptional from the run-of-the-mill? Instead, the vital distinction falls between the historical, or what we would once have called the "real," and the purely notional or, as people say now, the mythical. Fiction and nonfiction are simply competing genres, increasingly hard to distinguish. In a culture saturated with simulation, who can be sure that Bonds's 756th homer, seen on television, is indeed historical, and not merely the infinitely replicated creature of computer graphics and special effects? The sports journalist who assures us that Bonds's mighty blow was "historical" — which even in defiance of the journalist's intentions we may take to mean, I was there, I saw it with my own eyes — is our guide, our Virgil in the virtual inferno of the image, assuring us that the decisive homer actually occurred, in "reality." In today's world of epiphenomena, the indisputably historical is historic. More ... 

In 1994, at the age of thirty-six, I found myself unemployed and in need of money. A downturn in the real-estate market had cost me my job in the title-insurance industry. To tide us over until another title-insurance job came along, I decided to look for work in a bookstore. I applied at a few local stores in Auburn and was rejected because I had no retail experience. Fortunately, I had a friend whose brother was a longtime Tower Books employee. My friend's brother put in a good word for me with the manager of a Tower Books store in Sacramento, and I was hired. That's how pathetic my resume was: I needed an insider to pull strings for me in order to get a minimum-wage job at a big chain store.

After about a year at Tower, I called it quits. I personally must have rung up about ten thousand copies of O. J. Simpson's self-exculpatory "I Want To Tell You" and I just couldn't take it any more. A local startup magazine that was looking for freelance writers contacted me and promised me plenty of assignments. None of these assignments ever came through, but the prospect of legitimate writing work enticed me into giving up the bookselling gig. More ... 

Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases
Back  Uptalk
by David Isaacson

Instead of a phrase or word, I'm devoting this month's column to an intonation: the phenomenon known as uptalk. Although not yet recognized by The Oxford English Dictionary, the fourth edition (2000) of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines uptalk as "A manner of speaking in which declarative sentences are uttered with a rising intonation as though they were questions." According to a July 7, 2007, article in The Santa Barbara Independent, James Gorman, a journalism professor at New York University, coined this term when he noticed his students using it. A Wikipedia entry notes that linguists refer to uptalk as a "high rising terminal," and that while some think it originated in the United States, others think uptalk may have originated in New Zealand. It may constitute what some linguists consider a dialect shift. 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.).

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Have you noticed that some word combinations always appear in the same order — as in nip and tuck, or nook and cranny? Of course, some couplets need to be in a definite order: hit and run, and cut and dried, for example, make sense because one action follows the other. But the majority of these conjoined twins are arbitrarily and permanently attached because no one ever dares to reverse their position. More ... 

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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 ... 

 Features

A Tangled Web — Adam Freedman

There's a Lot to Like — Edwin L. Battistella

Everything's Cool, Whatever, or Like — Marshall Dean

Like, Where Is Our Language Going? — Richard Lederer

Vocabula Revisited: The Like Virus — David Grambs

Sound Off: My Brush with Starbucks Fame — Judy Gruen

Book Excerpt: Grammar's Gift to Our Image of Human Nature — Tom Roeper

Fiction: Bloodbound — Part 4 — Kevin Mims

 Columnists


Christopher Orlet: The Last Word — Old School Prose

John Kilgore: Shibboleths — In Praise of Inattention

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Cappuccino and Its Monkish Origin

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Historic Days

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — The Legend of Steve Stryker: A Tale of the Writing Life — Part II

David Isaacson: Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases — Uptalk

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