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December 2007, Vol. 9, No. 12 There are now   75   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

Coming in the January 2008 issue of The Vocabula Review:
"Sound and Sense" by Richard Lederer
The January issue is due online January 20.

Good Words Vocabula Press Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher

Click the image to orderToward the Making of a Sentence — Kindle Edition by Robert Hartwell Fiske

The Vocabula Bookstore Is Now Open.
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People long to write a clear, a readable, even, at times, an elegant sentence. Toward the Making of a Sentence will show them how to go about it. Toward the Making of a Sentence is a collection of rules or guidelines, followed by sentence examples. You may buy the manuscript as it now reads (Version 1.0 has some 70 pages). Later versions of this book will become available over time. Also included: "Silence, Language, and Society."

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 In the December 2007 Vocabula

In America today, there is a general sense of rapid change, a hunger for new styles, products, and forms of entertainment, and, of course, rapidly developing technology for vocational, recreational, and communicative purposes. As a result, more people are aware of the processes of linguistic change, of the need for our language to borrow, coin, or redefine words, and of the increased ability of young people and special interest groups to coin, use, and spread new linguistic forms through the Internet and ever more sophisticated telephones and various electronic devices. There is less awareness of the less intriguing process of words going out of use than of the process of creating new terms, but the climate of dazzlingly rapid change does make many Americans irritated at the irrelevance of words for last year's technology or the past generation's slang. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

You may not have thought about it, but newspapers provide the best examples of clear, concise, dense (factual) writing you can find anywhere. Otherwise people wouldn't read them.

Journalists not only write superbly well, they do so extremely rapidly. When a news event occurs, they don't have the luxury of spending several days to put together their text. At best, they have a few hours.

Learning how journalists work their "daily miracles" can help you write better at your much more leisurely pace.

Here is an article from an international newspaper: More ... 

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by Richard Lederer

The Reverend Clement Clarke Moore created "A Visit From Saint Nicholas" in 1823. The poem, better known as "The Night Before Christmas," from its first line, is largely responsible for the contemporary American conception of Santa Claus, including Santa's appearance, the night he visits, his method of transportation, and his bringing toys to boys and girls. It has become a tradition for parents to read this poem to their children on Christmas Eve: More ... 

death, euphemisms for — "Passed on." "No longer with us." "Gone to a better place." "Handed in his cards." "Gone to meet his maker." "Negative patient care outcome." "In the RAF." "Old Newton got him" (i.e., gravity brought him down to earth). A comprehensive list would be endless, and therefore I go no further. (But for the ultimate death euphemism, see life.)

decimate, tov. For the information of journalists and for all radio and TV presenters: to "decimate" a group of people or things does not mean to kill, destroy, ravage, defeat, or lay waste all or most of that group. This all-too-common usage is a classic example of the mistake that can be made by learning the meaning of a word solely from the context in which it is first encountered, and not from the dictionary. To decimate is to kill, destroy, or otherwise remove from the scene one in every ten of the members of that group. Get it right! More ... 

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

Are you one of those people who learned (in grade school, I suppose) not to begin your sentences with and or but? For some reason, this bit of lore has come to take precedence over more important aspects of style such as coherence and rhythm. I'm only guessing at its origin, but I suppose it was a second-grade elementary teacher who was getting tired of her pupils starting every sentence with these conjunctions and stringing their words together into a single boxcar-length thought, who finally said "Enough already! Never begin your sentences with and or but." And the admonition stuck. Those little kids may not have remembered anything else about writing, but when they grew up to be teachers themselves they never failed to remind their budding writers, "Never begin your sentences with and or but." More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back  Things They Told Me Not to Do
by Amalia E. Gnanadesikan

"Do not use," says my bottle of pain reliever, "if seal is broken or missing." I puncture the foil cover on the bottle with my thumbnail. Oops, now the seal is broken. I pull off the foil. Worse. Now the seal is missing from the bottle. What should I do? Disobey the instructions? Just suffer through the headache? Try another bottle, but this time saw through the bottom of the bottle so as to leave the seal intact?

The answer, clearly, is to stop being so daft and take the instructions in context. Only the very literally minded, those whose professional deformation makes them overly conscious of language use (I plead guilty), and perhaps Rowan Atkinson have trouble with these instructions. In general, people have an astounding ability to take things in context — things that would otherwise be utter nonsense, or that even break grammatical rules that are so basic to most forms of the language that no one bothers to teach them to us. More ... 

by Peter Swanson


The hour gone, he drained a second drink,
Unwrapped the cookie from its plastic seal—
"Life is a tragedy for those who feel,
And a comedy for those who think."
A sign, these words appearing a lunch
To which she hadn't showed. Their fate had sealed
At last and what was left?—pink sauce congealed,
An unfilled booth, substantiated hunch. More ... 

Do you prize well-spoken, well-written language? Do you believe all right is correct and alright is nonsense, that predominant is an adjective and predominate a verb, that they and them are exclusively plural pronouns, that blithering politicians ought not to be elected to higher office, that a society is generally as lax as its language? If so ...

Become a Card-Carrying Votary of Vocabula

Votary of Vocabula
____________[Your Name Here]____________
prizes well-spoken, well-written language.

The Vocabula Review
A society is generally as lax as its language.

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The Elder Statesman
Back  Prayer as Literature
by Clark Elder Morrow

It was Samuel Johnson who led me to understand that a written prayer could be part of a unique literary genre. Dr. Johnson's prayers are some of the best on paper, but he does not rule the orisonical roost alone. In fact I think he must find it a bit irksome, there in the Elysian Fields where he romps with elephantine joy, that his old earthly prayers must always share pride of place in the English-speaking world with those of the Anglican Prayer Book (a volume justly famous for its eloquence). These two heavyweights of the prayer-in-written-form world are in truth polar opposites, and comprise between them the obverse and reverse of imploratory utterance. On the one hand, you have Johnson's heartfelt — indeed, heartrending — cries of desperate supplication, full of the sincerity of mortal dread, and wrenching by dint of their all-too-human shame. Here is a well-known sample, written on the eve of Easter, 1761: More ... 

The Last Word
Back  Disorderly Words
by Christopher Orlet

When I was a teenager, it was hard to find a pop song that contained a four-letter word. Not that I was looking for one. I remember my parents confiscating my record of The Rolling Stone's "Brown Sugar" because the B-side contained the song "Bitch." I promised not to listen to the B-side, but it didn't matter. My parents were determined to save my soul from the evil influence of the vulgar and decadent Mick Jagger. Of course, the irony is that "Brown Sugar," with its lyrics about slave rape and drugs, was by far the more scandalous song.

Nowadays, teenagers are partial to hip-hop, gangsta rap, and something called "sleaze glam" or "sleaze metal." A hip-hop "artist" (and I use the term loosely) who doesn't use a dozen four-letter words in every stanza is like a chef that refrains from using spices. He would be out of a job after one performance. More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back  Catnip, Catnap, and Cat Word
by Bill Casselman

Catnip's other common names are catmint, catswort, field balm. It is a member of the mint family.

Genus: Nepeta < nepeta, Latin word for Italian catnip < Nepeta Etruscan. Nepeta was an ancient city in Etruria, modern Tuscany, that may have supplied herbs to Rome, or invented some use of the plant.

The English word catnip does not arise from cats "nipping" at the plant (which they do with tireless gusto) but from a shortening of nepeta to nep and then to nip. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  Shakespeare's Sonnets
by Carey Harrison

My upcoming task, dear readers: a series of graduate seminars devoted to Shakespeare's sonnets. To Shakespeare's peerless, wonderful Sonnets, the foundation, the sounding board, the tuning fork of English as we know it, yes, but how to teach it, how to introduce it to that terrible reductive place, the classroom, how to begin?

The Sonnets, that drama, that secret diary, that stripping away of the soul, that meditation on the very value of rendering pain and longing and rage and reverence into mere words, glorious imperishable words: they demand nothing less than utmost honesty. And so, de plus forte raison, the place to begin must be the same place as it always is in a classroom, in a literature class, regardless of the topic. Namely: why in heaven's name are we here to talk about literature? More ... 

I tend to cry a lot. Like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (whom we'll get to later on), I'm a sentimentalist. TV commercials, pop songs, chick flicks — I'm a sucker for the shameless tear-jerking manipulations of these genres. But mostly what makes me cry are words. More ... 

Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases
Back  Who "Is" We?
by David Isaacson

Except on the rare occasions when I pretend to be royalty, I refer to myself in the first-person singular. I usually am content with this comparatively modest, usually semi-private "I." But regal personages are not limited to this singular sense of personhood: they can shift into the royal plural whenever they want to remind lesser people of their status. When Queen Victoria said "we are not amused," everyone was supposed to know she was referring to herself alone; royalty are permitted, perhaps even encouraged, to assume a universal and very expansive sense of the singular not permitted, except jocularly, to anyone who is not a king or queen. Nevertheless, there must be moments when Queen Elizabeth II is caught in an awkward space somewhere between a conventional "we" and the royal "we." She either has to drop this formal construction when she talks to her family or use the royal "we" in a different tone of voice. We (that is, you and I) can imagine the Queen "we-ing" Prince Charles in a full courtly press when he first announced his intention to divorce from Diana. More ... 

by Adam Freedman

Was Shakespeare a lawyer?

At first blush, the question sounds absurd. How could the Bard of Avon possibly be accused of churning out legalese on the side? And yet, tucked away in the playwright's works, one can find dozens of legal terms, including "pleadings," "plaintiff," "defendant," "appellant," and "jury," to name just a few.

Shakespeare's use of legal jargon has fueled a long-running debate over whether the dramatist practiced, or at least studied, law in his youth. The question of Shakespeare's legal training has been around since the midnineteenth century and has yet to be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. More ... 

One of the easiest communication traps to fall into is the inadvertent use of genderist — some might even call it sexist — language. It's a very subtle trap because many of the words we communicate with are sexually biased. There are hundreds of words and phrases built around such gender-specific core words as man, master, john, jack, bob, tom, cock, bull, king, boy, brother, fellow; many of which have no female counterparts. This is not a hen and cow story; just ask any Jane Q. Public. More ... 

Although few people can complain of another's grammatical mistakes with impunity, that is, without revealing their own, we are hopeful that "Disagreeable English" 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 ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back  Mock Merriam

Merriam-Webster, which apparently embraces the idea of being mocked, announced this past Tuesday (December 11) that its Word of the Year is w00t — that's w, zero, zero, t. It's an alphabetic–numeric word that online gamers use to express their pleasure or approval, their happiness or triumph at, say, having defeated an online enemy. Some people exclaim yay; others w00t. More ... 

Free in Vocabula
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 — Prayer as Literature

Christopher Orlet: The Last Word — Disorderly Words

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Catnip, Catnap, and Cat Word

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Shakespeare's Sonnets

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — Them's Crying Words: "You was my brother" and Other Lines That Evoke Tears, Chills, and Sobs

David Isaacson: Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases — Who "Is" We?

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — William Shakespeare, Attorney-at-Law


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 Vocabula Books

Click the image to orderVocabula Bound 1 — Kindle Edition by Robert Hartwell Fiske

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Vocabula Bound 1 is a collection of twenty-five extraordinary essays about the English language, as well as twenty-six poems, that originally appeared in The Vocabula Review. The essays range in topic from the importance of teaching poetry to the "secret nature" of nicknames to how linguistics killed grammar. Price: $9.99

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