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The Vocabula Review - July 2007 - Table of Contents
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July 2007, Vol. 9, No. 7
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hymnody (HIM-nah-dee) n. 1. the singing of hymns. 2. the composing or writing of hymns. 3. the hymns of a particular period or church.

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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.

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On page 15 of my copy of Moby Dick (the 2000 Modern Library paperback edition), Ishmael stands before the Spouter Inn. After meditating on the rather ominous name of the innkeeper (Peter Coffin), and remarking on the way in which an icy window looks considerably different to an observer inside the room beyond it than to a passerby on the frozen street, he firmly resolves to enter the inn: "Let us scrape the ice from our frosted feet, and see what sort of a place this 'Spouter' may be."

So ends Chapter II — and so ends, as well, the text on page 15. On turning the page, then, we read the opening lines of Chapter III: "Entering that gable-ended Spouter Inn, you found yourself in a wide, low straggling entry." In other words, we're suddenly inside the inn. And, if we pause to consider this slight change of scene, from before the inn's door to just across its threshold, we soon also realize that the simple physical structure of the book has allowed us to imitate, in a sense, Ishmael's own motion. Much as he has presumably opened the door to the inn ("the door," he's already noted, "with a white painting upon it"), we have turned the page, and now find ourselves inside the inn. The page, in short, resembles the door both in its effect and in its general physical form, and as we turn it, a new room thus lies before us. More ... 

by Donna Gorrell

I tend to think literally. When I hear someone say "It's raining cats and dogs," I do think "rain," but my thoughts also run toward house pets. There's Bitsy and Bootsy and Penny and Sheba .... Encountering figurative language, I do get the idea, but there's also the literal lurking in the background. If two groups are "on the same page," I imagine paired reading groups. If someone is accused of "flip-flopping," I see students scuffling across campus on the first early spring day.

Actually, metaphors are meant to do double duty, the figurative making a literal point. "An audience explodes in laughter." "Storms hang over the city." "Rome falls." The figurative informs the literal mind. John Keegan knew that full well when, in The First World War, he constructed this sentence to describe Adolf Hitler: "He was sowing the seed that would reap another four million German corpses." A stunning metaphor. By the time I get to its end I am reacting emotionally to the too literal, though first my literal lurking views a planting scene. Rachel Carson too was adept at wringing emotional reactions, describing in Silent Spring a land of "drought biting deep into the soil, and drying winds stealing moisture from leaf and stem." Biting. Stealing. I like metaphoric verbs. Sometimes the play is humorous. Samuel Eliot Morison said of John Paul Jones, "He now hatched a trip to France out of the prize-money egg." More ... 

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"A nation's language," wrote Mark Twain, "is a very large matter" — and he should have known. His concern with the relationships of speech and nationhood place him on a distinctively American philological trajectory running from Noah Webster to H. L. Mencken. His writings constantly reflect on the nature of regional dialect, on differences between languages, and on the discipline of linguistic study itself. He counted among his correspondents the Yale professor William Dwight Whitney (known in the late nineteenth century as the greatest living scholar of languages) and Sir James A. H. Murray (the patriarchal editor of the Oxford English Dictionary). In fact, when Twain went to visit Murray at Oxford in 1900, he did so (in the words of Murray's granddaughter and biographer) "with the excuse that as a last resort he was thinking of making a dictionary, and wanted to see how it was done." More ... 

by Richard Lederer

The other day I went to the bookstore to buy a dictionary. The clerk showed me a really cheap one. I couldn't find the words to thank her.

Then she directed me to a thesaurus. I thought that was an accommodating, altruistic, benevolent, caring, compassionate, considerate, courteous, decent, empathic, gracious, kind, magnanimous, nice, obliging, solicitous, sweet, sympathetic, and thoughtful thing to do.

The multitudinous choice of words in English offers both a delightful and daunting challenge to native and nonnative speakers. In William Styron's Sophie's Choice, the heroine, Polish-born Sophie, expresses mock horror at the infinite variety of English words: More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back  Does Saying Make It So?
by Tina Bennett-Kastor

My cat stares at the door and meows in a demanding tone. The door opens and he saunters out. He is like the dervishes in cartoons I watched as a child, calling, "Open, Sesame!" at closed palace doors, which obediently spread themselves wide to allow entry, or perhaps like God at the creation commanding, "Let there be light!" And there was light.

In reality, my cat is not like a dervish or God. His voice has no divine dimension, and the relationship between his utterances and the actions that result is completely indirect. He requires human intervention (unlike my dog, who has learned to open the front storm door by himself). Without our cooperation, he could yowl until his vocal cords give out, and the door would not obey. More ... 

by Kevin Mims

In the summer of 1985 both my parents died during an Alaskan vacation. They were on a charter boat with a bunch of other tourists, looking at whales and glaciers, when the seas turned unexpectedly rough and the boat, which had been poorly maintained, took on water and sank in a matter of minutes.

In a roundabout way, I suppose you could say that Grover's naked portraits of my sister were responsible for my parents' deaths. You see, after the rift with Maria, my father became much more solicitous of my mother's feelings than he had ever been before. As if to make up for the fact that, through his own tactlessness, he had cost them a daughter, he started to direct a lot more energy into his marriage. He began taking my mother out on dinner dates nearly every other weekend. He also initiated a tradition of going off on a romantic vacation together every year, just the two of them. Prior to the rift, my father's idea of a vacation was a quick trip to Lake Tahoe for the weekend, or a few days in a rented house on the coast near Bodega Bay. But after the rift, he began taking my mother to exciting places like Paris and Hawaii and the Caribbean. It brought the two of them much closer together than they had ever been. Auntie Incivility herself couldn't have suggested a better method of strengthening their marriage. They became like high-school sweethearts all over again. But, ultimately, it also cost them their lives one stormy day up there in Alaska's Norton Sound. More ... 

Back  Heroic
by Mark Stevens

When Meir Avraham came to the ghetto, my father Jakob, who led the Judenrat, clapped his arm around his shoulders in the street and proclaimed him a hero.

"Survivor!" he shouted, "Arisen from the pit at Babi Yar. He shows us that even such a massacre cannot claim us all."

Meir was humble, his face down-cast, his shoulders folded in across his chest like a dove's wings. I thought at the time that he wanted to hide the bullet wound in his side with his posture. Still, I could see a smile, there, at the edge of his mouth. More ... 

by Francis Blessington

Gauguin's Debts

His island breathed blooded Maoris and gardenias,
and the rosewood sweetened at his bright knife.
Only in dream the children called out
and the wife from "unmonumental" Denmark.
The pebbles stabbed his feet no longer, so he bushwhacked
farther inland for "thunder-god" wood— More ... 

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The Elder Statesman
Back  Deconstruction = Destruction
by Clark Elder Morrow

A family of literary theories popular in the universities says something like this: words are very indistinct tokens of meaning; any word can be unpacked to yield any number of meanings; words cannot, therefore, be trusted to convey with any significant precision what the writer had in mind. This family of theories usually goes by the name of "deconstructionism," but some members answer to "postmodernism." They all share the conviction that — because so many possible meanings can be extracted from it — a literary text is a linguistic puzzle that cannot be "solved," ultimately, though it may provide pleasure of a very provisional and circumstantial kind.

Of course many words do bear multiple constructions: I've heard that the word set has approximately two hundred separate meanings. On the other hand, a word like antelope seems to be unequivocal, and appears on the surface to refer to only one thing; but postmodernist thought tells us that if forty-seven readers create forty-seven different images in their heads as a result of reading the word antelope (and if some of those images are far removed from actual antelopes), then real precision in verbal expression is ultimately impossible. (I know that "po-mo" is more concerned with cultural ambiguities of perception, and I will deal with those in a moment.) More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back  The Vein with the Wrong Name
by Bill Casselman

The illuminated medieval treatise on veins that illustrates our title today probably got it wrong, too. It's about the misuse of the word cephalic.

Cephalic is an adjective used in medicine and biology, meaning "pertaining to the head." Cephalic derives from the ancient Greek word for head, kephale.

We'll show some of its uses in modern English words in a moment. For example, encephalitis means inflammation of the brain. Egkephalos in ancient Greek is literally "what's in the head," that is, the brain. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  Gnome Sane?
by Carey Harrison

In British English (how is it that after all these years as an adoptive American I still feel the presence of redundancy in the phrase British English?), the ubiquitous addendum, "Know what I'm saying?" is a full five syllables, even in Cockney, where the glottal stop in "what" — wha', or wot as it's sometimes written — makes elision difficult if not impossible. Contrast American English, where the words "Know what I'm saying?" are even more popular than in the UK, perhaps partly because in the United States they can be and are rendered in two syllables: gnome sane? In British English the function of gnome sane as a virtual meaningless outgrowth of whatever the speaker is saying is largely covered by "Know what I mean?" — which is added to almost any sentence, without requiring an interlocutor to declare whether he or she does know what the speaker means. The reason, I suspect, for the American preference for gnome sane over "Know what I mean?" is that whereas in British English this phrase remains four syllables (with a glottal stop in the middle if you sport the appropriate regional accent), in American English gnomean doesn't really work. More ... 

When I was a kid, I played the title role in an imaginary TV show called Steve Stryker. Steve wasn't a cop or a P.I. or a secret agent. He wasn't a reformed safecracker like Robert Wagner in It Takes a Thief. He wasn't an interstellar explorer like Captain Kirk or a cowboy like the Virginian. For that matter, he wasn't a doctor, a lawyer, or a fire chief, either. He was sort of a freelance adventurer, a guy who mostly wandered around basking in the glow of other people's admiration. He had few real adventures because I had few real adventures. I had no interest in being an actual cop because I don't like actual danger. I had no interest in being an actual astronaut because I had no desire to be cooped up in a tiny spacecraft millions of miles from earth. And I had no desire to be a cowboy because I am not that fond of horses, cattle, or fence-repair. I liked living out these alternative existences only in my imagination, which is why Steve Stryker spent most of his time daydreaming as he wandered the streets of northeast Portland, Oregon. How the show ever managed to avoid being canceled after its first few episodes, I'll never know. It ran in my head for seven or eight seasons, and was the number-one rated program in that market for most of that time. More ... 

Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases
Back  Awesome
by David Isaacson

I'm one of those agnostics who lean more toward belief than unbelief. I am much more comfortable saying that I simply don't know if God exists than saying I am in a perpetual state of doubt. Although I am unable to make a religious commitment myself, I envy those who can. I like to think I am spiritually inclined rather than religiously deprived. I say all this by way of declaring that even though I am not religious I think I have experienced awe. For me, the awesome is a rare, mysterious condition that is quite separate from less intense experiences of surprise, excitement, or pleasure. The awesome is a blend of joy and fear, a condition that makes me feel I am in the presence of something so extraordinary that conventional language is speechless before it. More ... 

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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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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 ... 


Pages as Portals: On a Small Pleasure of Some Texts — Kerr Houston

Go Figure! — Donna Gorrell

Book Excerpt: Hello, Dude: Mark Twain and the Making of the American Idiom — Seth Lerer

Our Abounding English Language — Richard Lederer

Vocabula Revisited: Does Saying Make It So? — Tina Bennett-Kastor

Fiction: Bloodbound — Part 3 — Kevin Mims

Fiction: Heroic — Mark Stevens

Three Poems — Francis Blessington


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Deconstruction = Destruction

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — The Vein with the Wrong Name

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Gnome Sane?

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

David Isaacson: Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases — Awesome


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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.

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