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February 2007, Vol. 9, No. 2
There are now 205 people reading TVR.
Coming in the March issue of The Vocabula Review:
"Don't Call Me Ishmael" by Joseph Epstein
The March issue is due online March 25.
A Definition a Day
insouciance (in-SOO-see-ans) n. lack of concern; indifference.
Type word here:
More than one million English, Spanish, and Latin entries.
Type word here:
More than one million English, Spanish, and Latin entries.
The Dictionary of Disagreeable English
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.
Two New Second Editions by RHF
New from Vocabula Books
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.
101 Foolish Phrases encourages you to speak and write more carefully and thoughtfully.
101 Elegant Paragraphs encourages you to speak and write with deliberation, style, even beauty.
Outbursts, Insights, Explanations, and Oddities
Want to read The Vocabula Review in print, on paper, in a book?
Vocabula Bound, twenty-five of the best essays and twenty-six of the best poems published in The Vocabula Review between 2000 and 2003.
One of the best collections of essays about the English language available today.
For centuries, fair-haired sea-rovers from North Germany Angles, Saxons, and Jutes habitually cruised about the British coast in beaked Viking ships and attacked cities for booty and a lust for battle. In the middle of the fifth century, around AD 449, these Anglo-Saxon plunderers sailed across the North Sea and came to the islands then known as Britannia. They found the countryside pleasant and the people, fighting among each other, easy to conquer, and so they remained there and took the land for themselves. That is how Anglo-Saxons came to be the ancestors of English and why English is, at its heart, a Germanic language. The hundred most frequently used words in English are all of Anglo-Saxon origin, as are eighty-three of the next hundred.
Two women of exceeding importance to my life have helped to bring home to me the continuing influence of the Germanic tongues on our English language. More ...
Most people associated with The Chicago Manual of Style would assert that this book is an authority on our language. The book cover even claims it is "The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers." I would caution writers, editors, and publishers not to blindly accept this manual's advice. Although Chicago does have the trappings of being an academic authority on language, its most prominent trapping is overuse of the passive voice.
In this essay, I discuss the following: Hedging, Voice Mix and Fogginess, Misuse of Always, Ignorance, Carelessness, Bad Advice, Contradictory Advice, Two Improvements over Chicago's 14th Edition, Logic, Blandness, Hypocrisy, and Chicago Mob. The purpose of this gentle essay is to in some small way influence the next edition of Chicago. More ...
Vocabula button free for the asking.
Vocabula RevisitedTo Hell with Language: The Language of Comedy
Language is a system of thought that we impose on the chaos of experience in order to screen ourselves from the incomprehensible, the inarticulate, the indifferent, and the hostile. It is supposed to "make sense," that is, be consistent with itself, like a dictionary, and be consistent with the outside world, whatever that may actually be. Language is the material we use to construct our model of reality, which enables us, in turn, to construct memory, experience, behavior, morality, identity, and consciousness.
Our conscious, and unconscious, mind runs on language the way the car goes on gas. We "talk out" our problems, and kingdoms rise and fall on catch phrases. Once a candidate named John E. Powers was defeated for mayor of Boston with the help of the powerful slogan: "Stop Power Politics." In the Republic, Plato blamed writers for knowing words better than the things and ideas that words stand for. But the talking heads go on, on talk radio, in the mind, over the backyard fence, on email, in chatrooms. We can't live without the talk. Even the worst action film has dialogue. Only in the silent world of dreams are words replaced with pictures. And silence can be frightening. More ...
Sound OffWhy Can't I Get Published?
Why, after eighteen years of trying, can't I get any commercial house to publish my books? It's a question that has dogged me ever since I submitted my first novel, set in WWII, to a major publisher who rejected it because at that time "nobody cares about WWII." The publisher suggested that the novel might well be a masterpiece, but that didn't matter.
After filing it away, and almost forgetting it, ten years later, prompted by an editor friend to whom I gave the manuscript to read, I sent it to a smaller publisher. Their response: change it from first person. Never, I replied in outrage. So I self-published the work and learned from readers whether it captivated them, whether it was any good or not. Of course, the author is the last person to know such things. Scores of unsolicited comments by phone, mail, and email came in, the editor of the local weekly newspaper reviewed it, as did a reviewer for The Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance: it captivated, it was good. More ...
Write in sentences, not in phrases.
Quiet, industrious, patient, and organized.
Well, lots of critics, to start.
Because a disembodied voice won't do.
And no wonder.
The greatest love of all? Maybe not.
Writing phrases is unremarkable, talentless. If you want to distinguish your writing, avoid writing flat, uninspired phrases as though they were sentences. More ...
The Elder StatesmanA Traipse Through Johnson's Dictionary
No one can write as brief a definition as the good Dr. Samuel Johnson could. In his 1755 masterpiece A Dictionary of the English Language, Johnson defines misanthrope as "A hater of mankind." Well, there you go. Nothing more needs to be said. It is a model of concision. To read a Johnsonian definition is to have the word under consideration branded into your recollection, without the slightest shade of ambiguity. A libertine is "One who lives without law or restraint" (second definition). Anyone not understand that? It couldn't possibly be put any more concisely or clearly. And Dr. Johnson being Dr. Johnson one couldn't possibly miss the Olympian sneer directed at the term, and at all those covered by the term. His third definition is "One who pays no regard to the precepts of religion." I doubt whether anyone in history has been able to dismiss so devastatingly as Johnson dismisses and with (you will notice) a minimum or an absence of negative or pejorative terms. (His definitions are not as subjective as they are bruited to be.) The more one assumes the truth of one's moral judgments, perhaps, the less one is inclined to indulge in invective. Dr. Johnson was not without doubt in many of the departments of life (he was often tortured with visions of personal damnation), but he was more convinced of the Moral Basics the Fundamentals of Ethics 101 than perhaps any intellectual who has ever lived.
Can orbity be defined any more succinctly than "Loss or want of parents or children"? Imagine how long and involved the definition of scholiast must be in the Oxford English Dictionary. Johnson dispatches it with "A writer of explanatory notes." More would be interesting but unnecessary. He gives you only what you need, and the effect of his lapidary style is to leave you in greater command of the word than you would be if he had exuded dozens of qualifications and refinements. This, of course, is a virtue of his age. The Augustan period was more trenchant than the century that succeeded it. But the gruff and precise style enjoyed a long lingering sunset: Webster is still nailing down complex concepts with a handful of words as though fixing vast multicolored moths with only a few pins in his 1828 dictionary. Later, the average length of a definition would grow and sprawl, but in Johnson's day, the less said the better. More ...
The Critical ReaderRichard Posner, Expert on Plagiarism, Fails to Copy from Someone When It Counts
In June 2003, The Vocabula Review published my critique (O, What a Noble Mind is Here O'erthrown: Posner on Plagiarism) of two essays that Judge Richard A. Posner had recently published on the subject of plagiarism. In my opinion, I cut the ground from under Posner's position on plagiarism, and I was confirmed in my feeling that I had done so when I read Posner's comment on my piece. Robert Hartwell Fiske and I had agreed that when my essays for TVR attacked a position taken by some named person, that person should be sent a copy of the essay, and invited to reply to it in the pages of this journal. Accordingly, Posner was sent a copy of my attack, with an invitation to reply to it, and sent back this answer: "I have no desire to respond to this intemperate piece."
To anyone familiar with Posner's own style in controversy, as displayed in his many books and essays in such journals as The New York Review of Books, this answer is astonishing. Posner is an eager and accomplished polemicist, and not inclined to shrink from battle or to be merciful to his opponents; he not only doesn't suffer fools gladly, he doesn't suffer anyone gladly. For him to let an attack pass without hitting back is virtually unheard of unless, that is, he found that there was nothing he could say in his own defense. In view of his falling back on that weakest and for him, unheard of position, a dignified silence, I supposed that he had slunk off the battlefield to lick his wounds, and would not be heard from again on the subject of plagiarism. I was wrong; he has just published yet a third treatment of plagiarism, and in book form: it is The Little Book of Plagiarism (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007), 115 pages. Readers who are familiar with his two earlier pieces on the subject will find that in his new book he has slightly modified a few of the views he took in those two journalistic pieces, but in all essentials he remains the Posner I thought I had scotched. More ...
The Last WordThe Race Is Off
I think I know how Immanuel Kant felt. I do not pretend to know how he thought, but I think I know how he felt. Feelings are easy to imagine. (Yes, I am aware of how ridiculous that sounds coming from a male.)
He felt that he was running out of time.
In his middle years, Kant decided that he had had enough of la dolce vita, that he had wasted too many nights playing Texas Hold-em, smoking and cussing, and staggering home at midnight. Even his friends worried that he was wasting his life. More ...
Bethumped with WordsNo Rhyme for the Word Orange? Poppycock!
Classical Latin obtundere gives us in English a verb meriting broader use than it has heretofore received. To obtund is to blunt or to deaden. There are urban myths so stupid as to obtund one's senses upon hearing them repeatedly. But squads of Internet dullards also circulate verbal myths. These tedious falsehoods about words traipse their tiresome way across the net, tiptoeing onto one's computer screen clad in deceit's daily robe, namely, the statement of fact. I'm going to bury one such falsehood today.
What angers me most is the air of utter certainty in which this nonsense is couched. Please note that I address this column to the letterless yahoos who make this stuff up, not to Vocabula readers. More ...
Harrison's CornerRecently, in the Cretaceous
In my September "Corner," I alerted a dozing world to a campaign initiated by my distinguished co-religionist, the Right Reverend Bishop of Annandale (since elevated to the crimson and now Cardinal), urging the preservation and indeed revival of the Strong Verb, which uses what Jacob Grimm dubbed the ablaut to signal the gradations of tense: I sink, I sank, I have (or am) sunk, as opposed to I sink, I sinked, I have sinked. Some verbs, it's true, maintain their dignity without the ablaut; some majestically so: I sin, I sinned, I have sinned. We could not wish sinning to be other than itself, monitory echoes of the German Sünde, and every quotidian transgression a repetition of aboriginal Sin. (I sin, I san, I have sun: this is no good at all. It sounds like an evasion of sin.) But I sing, I sang, I have sung these modulations not only dignify singing itself, they register the ineluctable deficits of time. We are not what we were. Hence we singed not, once upon a time, but rather sang. And the Cardinal himself, in his youth, clomb rather than climbed, he recalls. The Strong Verb gives us something to remember the past by, a greater revelation than the mere addition of "-ed."
This or words to this effect formed our opening salvo, a trumpet distantly calling, "To horse!" to linguists professional and amateur, slumbering by the fire, and to anyone who cares about the vigor and melody of language that betokens a vivid and tuneful culture. More ...
The Common ReaderChapter Twelve: The Jumping Man
In March of 1997, the Stanford women's basketball team was trying to win a national championship and I was trying to lose weight. For months I had been attempting to establish a pattern of jumping rope every day. I would faithfully adhere to my plan for three or four days in a row, and then I would take a day off. And having taken one day off, I would decide to take two. Before I knew it, a week would pass without my jump rope ever leaving its hook on the back porch. I felt certain that I could lose weight if I could just muster the discipline to jump every day. So, on March 22, with college basketball's March Madness already at fever pitch, I made a deal with the gods of women's basketball. I would jump rope every day until the Stanford women were bounced from the tournament. Since I didn't particularly enjoy jumping rope, I figured this would guarantee my beloved Cardinal a long stay in the tournament, perhaps even another national title.
For seven days, I jumped rope every morning and the women of Stanford repaid my diligence by advancing to the Final Four. On the evening of Good Friday, March 28, 1997, I rushed home from work to watch the Cardinal battle Old Dominion in the national semifinal. The game started out like a dream. Cardinal power forward Kristin Folkl was unconscious, hitting all eight of the shots she attempted from the floor. And Kate Starbird, the shooting guard, was nearly as perfect, scoring 21 points in the first half. The Cardinal rapidly built up a 15-point lead over the Lady Monarchs. The broadcasters pointed out that no team in the history of the men's or women's NCAA basketball tournament had ever lost a Final Four game after leading by 15 points or more. But then the unthinkable happened. Led by its brilliant point guard Ticha Penicheiro, ODU started to mount a comeback. By halftime, Stanford's 15-point lead had been cut to 6. The Cardinal fought hard in the second half, but when Kristin Folkl fouled out of the game early, things started to really go bad. At the end of regulation, the teams had battled to a tie, forcing a five-minute overtime period. The Cardinal lost in overtime when Jamila Wideman's 20-foot jumper clanged off the rim, and Vanessa Nygaard's attempted put-back came up short as time expired. Final score: 8382. The gods of basketball had let me down. More ...
Vogue Words and Buzz PhrasesFace Time and Human Interface
Many people today spend more time interacting with others on cell phones, email, or live-chat than they do face to face. Face time is a wonderfully ironic word describing what it feels like to be "unmediated." The state of being unmediated is increasingly rather abnormal. It is no longer natural to be in the presence of another person without some form of electronic technology coming between us. Artifice has become natural. We are so used to interacting with others via some electronic medium that "real-time," nonvirtual interactions are virtually the norm; face-to-face interactions, the exception.
I've experienced this bizarre state when I have found myself trying to use my TV remote to quiet people who are talking so loudly I can't hear the television. This isn't just a reminder that a person in the room might be more important than the TV. This also tells me that I am so conditioned to the wraparound consciousness of TV that I have lost direct contact with the (presumably) real world outside it. 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 VocabulaThe 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 VocabulaTop Twenty Dimwitticisms
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