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January 2007, Vol. 9, No. 1
There are now 603 people reading TVR.
Coming in the February issue of The Vocabula Review:
"Oys and Joys" by Richard Lederer
The February issue is due online February 18.
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.
A Definition a Day
indocile (in-DOS-el) adj. resistant to authority or discipline; recalcitrant.
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.
I was working on a section of my memoir describing the small house in Illinois where I grew up back in the '30s and '40s. That house had only four rooms, small ones, and our family had seven people my mom and dad, three sisters, our brother, and me. To accommodate us all, our parents had plans to expand the living area by digging out the crawl space for a basement, converting the enclosed back porch to a kitchen, making the original kitchen into a dining room, and finishing the attic for another bedroom.
The problem was which came first? I didn't remember, but I reasoned this way: before the basement, Mom did our laundry at the kitchen sink with her old wringer washer and two 20-gallon tubs of rinse water setting on old backless wooden chairs; she couldn't have done it in the porch-converted kitchen because it was too small for all that equipment. So the basement must have come before the kitchen conversion. And that's the way I wrote it. On weekends and evenings and when International Harvester was on strike, our dad dug out that basement by hand and by shovel, bent over in the crawl space, sending black dirt out a window on a conveyer belt he'd rigged up, getting a backache that lasted the rest of his life. Then he did the kitchen. More ...
Many meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous begin with someone reading aloud the opening pages of the fifth chapter of the "Big Book." Although, in keeping with the tradition of anonymity of AA there is no personal author on the title page of this book, it was written by Bill Wilson, the founder of AA. This chapter is simply called "How It Works." I think Bill Wilson must have been inspired when he wrote these words. "How It Works" is a remarkable example of writing that is both practical and beautiful: it is hand-crafted like a fine piece of Shaker furniture. These words work, like the program they describe, because there is nothing false or pretentious about them.
To members of AA these words are like secular Scripture. Bill Wilson speaks in everyday language about extraordinary things. Bill Wilson has been where we have been, done what we have done. It is as if he were reading our minds. More than our minds: our souls. Many of us feel we can't really take part in an AA meeting unless someone reads the beginning of the fifth chapter first. We can get a lot out of reading these words to ourselves alone, but they often mean more when read aloud at a meeting. It is not only that the famous twelve steps were first published in this chapter, but the paragraphs preceding and immediately following them are important as well. More ...
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More than two centuries ago, the most famous poet in Scotland was untimely ripped from this mortal coil. When Robert Burns died in 1796, he was but thirty-seven years of age.
The life of Robert Burns might have furnished the plot for a romantic novel. He was born on January 25, 1759, in a clay cottage of two rooms in Alloway, near the southwestern coast of Scotland. His father was an unsuccessful farmer, and young Robert was assigned heavy work in the fields when he was only eleven. The strain resulted in a progressive heart disease that was to prove fatal. More ...
TVR RevisitedThe Melancholy of Anatomy
When children are old enough to commit follies that make others swear at them, they are at that very moment old enough to begin learning how to swear competently at someone else's foolishness. But our younger contemporaries have never gotten the hang of the thing. Their cussing is dully unimaginative drawing as it does almost exclusively on body parts and functions and so I've been tempted over the years to take a few minutes with each of my classes to discuss the art of expressing civilly displeasure with persons, places, and things.
This, though, was not to be. Although the students were persuaded that the hours between the end of classes on Thursday and their dismal resumption on Monday morning were to be spent enjoying the activities more or less exhaustively depicted in Hieronymus Bosch's painting of the garden of earthly delights and most certainly not cooped up in dusty libraries my department heads seemed to be of the opinion that the world to be found within the confines of classrooms and library carrels constituted all the paradise anyone of good character would, or should, ever experience. And so they steadfastly interdicted any in-class discussions of swearing and cussing. My modest intention was only to brighten somewhat the classroom hours by helping students expand their amazingly small store of impolite expletives and thus to encourage them to reflect on the relation between cussing, swearing, and cursing. I planned to spice things up a bit by reminding them of the relation between socially acceptable cussing and the dark arts of cursing of pronouncing spells that either can cure individuals who are spellbound by their foolish habits or, when the individuals are incurably foolish, can assign them to live out their sorry lives in regions far removed from our sight and hearing. (The reader is reminded, quite seriously! that all the language arts involve either spelling the laying of spells or grammar glamorie, the knowledge of magic.) More ...
Masks and Madness
She leaned on her brother's lego towers,
Being at that age when everything becomes
An aid to the miracle of mobility. Hers was
To sow disassembly on the industrious fields
Of a sibling's imagination. Innocently.
The Elder StatesmanEvery Word a Poem
Coleridge and Owen Barfield have written about the poetic metaphors buried in the workaday words of our language metaphors we might never have suspected. Our words tell stories, and encompass histories, that are telescoped within them. When we use the term mangle, for example, we do not realize that it once meant "a cylindrical, flattening, roller-type device for smoothing linen," and that long before that it signified "a military instrument for throwing stones, worked with an axis and winch" (W. W. Skeat, A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, 1882). In every use of mangle there is this unspoken history of catapult-like weaponry and fabric preparation. If we want to, we can translate every statement into its primordial meanings, and the sports headline "Florida mangles Virginia" becomes "Land of Flowers flings Land of Queen Elizabeth into air like projectile, then puts it through wringer."
I pull a book at random from my shelves. It is a volume of letters by the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies. I open it at random and extract a passage:
I am once again living out a lifelong pattern: people ask me to make speeches, months before the speeches are to be given, and out of foolish good-nature, or because they back me into some sort of moral corner, I assent, and then in the course of time the dreadful day arrives.
Here is the same passage, translated back into its etymological roots, and with a keen eye for all metaphorical underpinnings: More ...
Postcards from BabelThe Sound of One Hand Clapping
In one of my favorite cartoons, Pavarotti receives kudus rather than kudos for his performance. The bemused tenor faces a pair of equally bemused African antelopes across the stage on which he has just taken his bow. The mix-up, the caption informs us, is due to a clerical error.
The clerical error has done more than change acclaim into an antelope. It has produced two antelopes out of a single mistaken vowel. Kudos, meaning "glory" or "praise" is from Greek, and like any self-respecting Greek noun it carries a suffix indicating its gender, number, and case here the -os of the masculine singular in the nominative case. Its cognate, the better known -us of Latin, is found in words such as humus and focus. More ...
Bethumped with WordsOodles of Schnoodles: Revolting New Dog Names
Browsing through the pets and livestock advertisements in a recent newspaper, I was blitzed by an explosion of words never before encountered. Have you heard of Schnotties, Labradoodles, Puggles, Yorkipoos, Minpins, Schnoodles, Golden Doodles, and Shi-poos? What a revolting concatenation of glutinous cutesiness and smarmy nomenclatorial treacle parading under the name of canine hybrid breed names. Why, that list of names, spoken aloud, sounds like a mother cooing toilet-training advice to a particularly recalcitrant infant defecator!
How could any self-respecting bowwow hold high his muzzle and cherish his doghood while bearing so infantile a name? Hybrid puppies are fine, if such these creatures be. But, as I gazed through my tortoise-shell lorgnette at that word Schnoodle, the needle indicator on my barfómeter hit the top. One advertisement touted a Schnoodle already microchip-embedded. Another pathetic puppy had been "dedewclawed." I had to investigate that one. It was the semi-literate owner's attempt at the already existing negative adjective dewclawed. Therefore the first prefixed de- is redundant. But then so are the human hybridizers of these hideous caniculi (Latin "little dogs"). Dewclaws, for those of you who will be in first-time nearness to puppy paws soon, are vestigial digits, such as festoon the inner aspect of a dog's foot. More ...
Harrison's CornerPresent-Tense Proust Project
In recent columns I've raised the specter of a whole new way of translating Marcel Proust's À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, following a whimsical proposal (at any rate I'm not sure how seriously he meant it) by a colleague who is both linguist and literature professor. Last month I deferred an elaboration of his hint, and while I realize that the world is not waiting for this elaboration with bated breath, here it is. My colleague's suggestion was that because of the problems attending the translation of Proust's imperfect tense, one could consider replacing it in English with the historic present. Needless to say, the effect would be a trifle startling; perhaps too startling. But the problems of narrating Marcel's life (and here I mean the life of the character, "Marcel") in the English imperfect and past tense, mirroring the French tenses, are twofold. First, the most faithful translation of "je marchais" would be either "I used to walk," "I would walk," or possibly "I was walking," but all three of these verb forms are formulae that would grate if repeated over hundreds, not to say thousands, of pages. The only comfortable mode of English narration of the past is the past tense itself yet "I walked" fails to convey the "imperfective" aspect of the imperfect tense, a tense that is all-important to Proust's great subject, Time; worse, "I walked" actually closes off the continuity of the past into the present, whereas the perpetually unconcluded action that is the imperfect tense anticipates, at every stage of Proust's great odyssey, its conclusion: redemption by and in time. The imperfect tense is that redemption, which seems to be inscribed in the consciousness of Marcel the narrator, since it is the tense he uses most frequently. Yet despairing Marcel doesn't seem to be aware of the redemptiveness his choice of tense implies. It's only at the end, when we understand that the writing of À La Recherche is now about to begin, that we grasp that it is the enlightened Proust who has written the book we have been reading, not the young Marcel, so certain that he has wasted his life. We have been reading a book in which, to our untutored eyes, as to young Marcel's equally untutored consciousness, the imperfect tense drummed on our unconscious like the blows that inaugurate a performance at the Comédie Française. Wake up! the imperfect seems to have been crying, no less urgently than the arrival of damnation for Don Giovanni or salvation for Faust. Happily it was salvation, in this case, that was inscribed in the imperfect; or rather, as we now understand, it was inscribed there by the mature Proust to represent the very enlightenment the past's fertility unveiled that we, like the young Marcel, our guide, could not yet see. More ...
The Common ReaderChapter Eleven: The Sacred and the Profane: Advice on Storytelling
Like many an aspiring novelist and short-story writer, I am a glutton for books about the art and craft of writing fiction. But I have discovered through the years that good fiction-writing advice can often be found in books not specifically about that subject. In an earlier column, I wrote about my 1957 edition of Black's Law Dictionary, which contains a number of phrases, translated from the Latin, that all writers might benefit from memorizing. Here is just a small sampling:
There is no prolixity where there is nothing that can be omitted.More ...
Vogue Words and Buzz PhrasesDon't Give Me Attitude
When slang moves from its origin in an outsider group into the mainstream of colloquial language, there is often an uneasy period when traditionalists like me try the new word or phrase on for size. I feel this way about the use of "attitude" to mean aggressive or hostile behavior rather than the more conventional meaning of a "habitual posture of the mind or body." The Oxford English Dictionary Additions series admitted this use of the word in 1997, tracing it as far back as 1962, mostly in black and prison use. This use of "attitude" is often preceded by the verb give. In 2007, the word is by no means restricted to blacks or prisoners.
I am uneasy around this use of "attitude" for two reasons. The first, more defensible reason has to do with clarity: in normal usage "attitude" is a neutral noun that requires an adjective to let the reader or auditor know if there is a particular emotional state associated with it. The second reason is that I fear that this loose use of "attitude" is just one symptom of an increasingly widespread lack of care for precise language that is, in fact, becoming so common as to be almost an unconscious attitude itself. We are living in a culture that not only doesn't question careless language but has come to expect that a negative attitude is going to be more common than a positive one. 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 ...
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. 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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