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The Vocabula Review - June 2007 - Table of Contents
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by Frank E. Keyes, Jr.

It is popular these days, and has been for years, for critics of our culture to complain that college graduates write poorly. Some critics have even become topics of conversation at cocktail parties because they complained so well. They also appear in journals and sometimes wear tweeds.

Critics in college departments other than English say that English professors are the cause of poorly lettered graduates. English professors parry by stating that students do write well enough for them, and they accuse their colleagues in physics, psychology, and sociology of failing to demand that the students maintain the same standards.

English professors normally, of course, also point to high school English teachers as having failed to teach students properly, and these teachers, in turn, mention society, television, lack of parental control, DDT, too early toilet training, too late toilet training, and affairs of state. More ... 


by Hugh Aaron

Last July, our local church put on an encore staged reading of my comedy drama, The Ultimate Success, which drew a capacity audience and a standing ovation in the same church the previous March. It also raised a good sum of money for the church from voluntary contributions. Our town in Maine, population 1,200, is located at the tip of a peninsula jutting out to sea from the mainland. It's called Wyeth country because here is where three generations of Wyeths, our nation's most famous artist family, have spent their summers. It's also the year-round home of several published writers and a number of outstanding but less renowned artists besides the Wyeths.

To me the play's success is an outright anomaly because it had been rejected by several dozen theater companies around the country. When you know the play's plot, you may wonder why. The subject is quite timely. A celebrity CEO commits fraud, bringing disgrace upon himself and his family. The last half of the play deals with the daring scheme the CEO devises to extricate himself from his troubles. The final scene ties it all up neatly with a surprise. Throughout the reading last March, the audience sat fastened to their seats, laughed precisely where they should have, and when it was over asked if we would do it again for the summer crowd who double the population of the town during July and August. More ... 

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by Mark Peters

Let's say you went back in time a month — with a gun. If you had put that gun to my head, and instead of asking for something sensible like my wallet, you wanted to know my opinions about word origins, I'd have assured you that the terms AI, blast off, exoskeleton, and genetic engineer must have been coined by scientists. Based on my geektastic childhood (and adulthood), I'd feel even more confident insisting that the verb beam was coined to describe Trekkie-style transportation on Star Trek, the noun blaster was first used for laser-type guns in Star Wars, and matrix first meant a type of virtual reality in The Matrix. I'd even go out on a limb and guess that "little green men," "stun gun," and "worm" (in the bad-for-computers sense, not the writhing-on-the-floor sense) were invented by UFO buffs, police officers, and programmers, respectively.

Thank goodness this trivia-by-gunpoint scenario is hypothetical because a well-informed shooter could've nailed me for wrong answers across the board. The truth is all these terms first turned up in science fiction stories or fanzines, often decades before they gained prominence elsewhere. Along with giving the histories of hundreds of terms, Jeff Prucher's Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction Words demonstrates how the language of sci-fi has been absorbed into our vocabulary and culture. More ... 

by Richard Lederer

"Hey, First-of-May! Tell the butcher in the backyard to stay away from the bulls, humps, stripes, and painted ponies. We have some cherry pie for him before doors and spec."

Sound like double-talk? Actually, it's circus talk — or, more technically, circus argot, argot being a specialized vocabulary used by a particular group for mutual bonding and private communication.

First-of-May designates anyone who is brand-new to circus work. That's because circuses used to start their tours around the first day in May. A butcher is a concessionaire who sells cotton candy (floss) and other food, along with drinks and souvenirs, to the audience during the show. The backyard is the place just behind the circus entrance where performers wait to do their acts. A bull is a circus elephant, even though most of them are female. Among other circus beasts, humps, stripes, and painted ponies are, respectively, camels, tigers, and zebras. Cherry pie is extra work, probably from chairy pie, the setting up of extra chairs around the arena. Doors! is the cry that tells circus folk that the audience is coming in to take their seats, and spec is short for spectacle, the big parade in which all performers take part. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back  Fallout from the Battle of Hastings
by Judge Mark P. Painter

A recent case in our court pointed out the danger of the lawyers' habit of using two words for one. The dispute was whether the seller had to indemnify the buyer for an undisclosed easement on a piece of real estate.

The seller contended "Although a 'clear title' is one that is not subject to any restrictions, the case at bar involved a 'free and clear' title, which is the same as a marketable title." The attorney went on to explain that a marketable title could have easements. So, according to the seller, a free and clear title was worse than a clear title. Say what?

Would that Harold had not lost the Battle of Hastings. More ... 

by Kevin Mims

<pulpman>
Hello. Remember me?

<gaddison>
Ah, yes, the Irwin Drew biographer.

<pulpman>
Biographer sounds too grandiose. Just call me a storyteller. Yesterday I told you the story of the birth and meteoric rise of Bloodbound Books. Are you ready to hear about its decline and fall?

<gaddison>
I'd rather hear about Kimberly Shaw. I don't know why you think I might be interested in your secret history of American pulp fiction.

<pulpman>
But the story I'm telling you isn't the secret history of American pulp fiction. It's the secret history of Gavin Addison.

<gaddison>
And what qualifies you to tell me my own life story?

<pulpman>
Because I know some things about it that you don't. More ... 

Fiction
Back  Chrysler
by Melissa Palladino

I guess it was in mid-January that I first noticed the Chrysler 300. It was metallic green, with tinted windows. I saw it in the Shaw's parking lot, toward the back, as if the owner didn't want anybody to park near it and scratch it. I would see it at the lights turning up toward 128 about the same time I was. Sometimes it would be ahead of me, sometimes behind. It always caught my eye because it seemed so masculine — kind of burly and muscular, and definitely powerful. If Al Capone were alive today, I thought to myself, this is what he would drive. I would like to drive one myself, but my wife, Michelle, had picked out our commuter car, and her priorities were different from mine. Value, fuel economy, and color were uppermost in her mind, and so we had a pretty little sky blue Honda Civic LX. It wasn't exactly an expression of the inner me, but it was comfortable, and shelling out twenty-eight bucks at the pump was better than the fifty-five we were paying with our Econoline van.

Her other priority was safety, because we had another new addition to our family, a human one. Our baby boy, Stanley, was the center of our universe, and we handled him as if he were gold bullion and we were Brinks Trucks. His car seat was in the middle of the back seat, the safest place in all possible crash scenarios. And the Civic had these cool "crumple zones" — places that were sort of pre-crimped so they'd take the impact from a crash, not you or your wife or your precious cargo in the back seat.

We live in a modest neighborhood, full of what you might call start-up houses. Bungalows, ranches, everybody with a little patch of yard. A lot of kids. We knew most of our neighbors, and they were pretty much like us; couples in their twenties and thirties with dogs and cats and mortgages. Nobody was divorced yet, nobody was rocketing into the stratosphere, powered by luck or ambition or connections. We mowed the lawns in the summer and sang Christmas carols in December. We watched out for each other, as much as we simply watched each other.

So I was surprised when the Chrysler showed up on our street on a Saturday morning. It was parked at the curb, not too far away from the driveway, but on the other side of the street, so the windshield was facing us. It was there all day, from the time I woke up to the time I went to bed. More ... 

by William Aarnes

always

Five months along, she finds
there's always something

somewhat off—like the cheery claim
on a church marquee

that "It is always springtime
in the hearts God loves,"

a thought that starts her brooding
over those spacious hearts More ... 

The Elder Statesman
Back  Let Shakespeare Be Shakespeare
by Clark Elder Morrow

I recently took part in a public debate on the supposed "controversy" over the authorship of the Shakespeare plays. I plumped for the man from Stratford, while my opponent claimed that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays. It was a debate sponsored by a thriving local Shakespeare Festival under the direction of my opponent, a director and actor who reveres the Canon, and who has dedicated his life to the advancement of all things Shakespeare. Yet if candor is to take precedence over courtesy, it should be said at once that this young man — let's call him Brutus — is far too clever for his own good. He is so clever, in fact, that the sparse and scanty items in the historical record concerning William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon are just not enough for him. He must, as it turns out, have more grist for the whirling mill of his mind to work upon. Brutus is not so simple as to rest content with the few paltry facts one can glean from the record of the great Bard's life. No. There must be more — there must have been a vast and intricate skein of intellectually intriguing facets and counterfacets involving the life of his hero. If Shakespeare is the reigning deity of your inner life, you cannot just sit back in your chair like an oaf and allow the biography of your god to consist largely of frustrating lacunae. Witness the ever-growing number of people who simply must explain what Jesus of Nazareth was really up to in those undocumented years between ages twelve and thirty. More ... 

The Last Word
Back  The Selfish Reader
by Christopher Orlet

On the top row of my best bookshelf there sits a fat, weighty tome 1,232 pages in length. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia is the title, and Dame Rebecca West, the author. More than a travelogue, it is regarded as one of the great works of twentieth-century literature. Many of my favorite writers recommend it. That's good enough for me.

And there are similar works of equal bulk causing my top shelves to sag and my conscience to prick: Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station, Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism to name but a few. Some day I intend to tackle Martin Gilbert's ten-pound book on the Holocaust, but probably not this decade, though I shall continue to lug it from rented room to room until I do. As you probably guessed, I am going through a nonfiction phase at present, doubtless because I spent much of my youth reading novels, and feel that my learning of history, philosophy, and the history of ideas is sorely lacking, which no doubt it is. More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back  A Swarm of Bee Words
by Bill Casselman

From a recent news item:

Since October 2006, 35 percent or more of the United States' population of the Western honey bee, Apis mellifera — billions of individual bees — simply flew from their hive homes and disappeared.

Does this spring's frightening, widespread, and so far only partially explained die-off of the honeybee vault the little pollinator into new admonitory status?

Is the honeybee this year's canary in the mineshaft, warning us of a toxic incubus perching gently on humanity's bedpost and gazing down upon our innocently sleeping forms with a soft smile, much as a fed eagle might perch upon a treetop, plump and content, its beak smelling pleasantly of field mice. More ... 

The Common Reader
Back  Cubicle Days
by Kevin Mims

For about twenty years, I supplemented my writing income by working, on and off, at various Sacramento-area title-insurance companies. Most of the offices I worked in looked like Hollywood's idea of the American workplace at its most soulless. They were bland, cubicled spaces that resembled large rat mazes. Self-expression was discouraged, and most of the cubicles, if they were decorated at all, were enlivened with nothing more than a few family photos. I usually kept my cubicle decorated with photocopies of what, at first glance, appeared to be nothing but ordinary documents from the County Recorder's office. But, on closer inspection, most of these documents proved to be far from ordinary.

One of the few pleasures of working in the title-insurance business was the opportunity it offered of reading through thousands of official documents. Granted, most of these were boring, standard-issue items: deeds, deeds of trust, articles of incorporation, reconveyances, and other examples of legal boilerplate. But every now and then, while sifting through a stack of documents pertaining to some parcel of real estate, I would come upon something unusual. In California, there are few restrictions on what can be entered into the official records of a given county. As long as you are willing to pay the five or ten dollars per page that most counties charge for recording a document, you can make just about any piece of printed matter a part of the county's permanent records. Over the years, while poring over tens of thousands of public records, I encountered everything from the detailed plans for a flying automobile to a declaration of secession from the United States by a disgruntled married couple up in Nevada County who drafted a constitution and a bill of rights for a new sovereign nation called The Republic of North California, which covered only their own few acres of property. At one point, I had a collection of hundreds of fascinating documents gleaned from the public records of the numerous northern California counties in which I had worked as a title examiner. I had death certificates for people who had died while engaging in all sorts of unwise activities, from the man who was killed while trying to unplug a clogged drain with a power drill to the man who strangled himself in the family's garage while engaging in an "autoerotic exercise" involving a noose, a pair of pantyhose, and one of those white dresses that nurses wear on duty. I used to fantasize about putting together a book of wacky documents culled entirely from public records. Alas, I changed title-insurance jobs frequently, often with little or no chance to pack up the contents of my cubicle. Thus I usually ended up leaving behind the caches of amusing documents I had compiled during my employment. Most of those documents are now just a distant memory. Although they remain in the permanent records of the counties in which they were recorded, it would be virtually impossible to track them all down without devoting years to the effort.

Still, while rummaging through the boxes of junk in my basement, I occasionally encounter some stray souvenir from my cubicle days. Not all the documents I collected contained ambitious design plans or the constitutions of new countries. Most of them appealed to me simply because of their oddity, like this little gem, executed by Glen Prater and Bhagar Singh, and recorded in Yuba County on March 6, 1986: More ... 

Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases
Back  Multitasking
by David Isaacson

People who multitask think they are doing more than one thing simultaneously. You are presumably a more efficient worker if you can multitask. (You know a new word has really become popular when what starts out as a noun becomes a verb or a gerund, for then the new experience named by the noun has become an established activity.) What this word blithely disregards is any sense of what kinds of tasks are being performed simultaneously.

When the media-created stereotypically bumbling Gerald Ford became president of the United States, the standard joke was that he could not walk and chew gum at the same time. The point of the joke, of course, is that people who can chew gum and walk at the same time aren't, in most circles, considered to be unusually adroit. On the other hand, certain very gifted and very highly disciplined artists, like Laurence Olivier and Michael Jordan, could do a number of difficult and admirable things simultaneously. Olivier at the top of his form as an actor could simultaneously fashion his face and body to do quite different things from his voice. Michael Jordan at his best could hang in the air, make a basket, convince the other team he was going to make a different move, and signal two members of his own team how to set up the defense as soon as the basket was made. 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.).

We will publish a regular issue again in September.

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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

Course Outlines and the English Language — Frank E. Keyes, Jr.

Sound Off: Do-it-Yourself Playwright — Hugh Aaron

Book Review: Oxford: The Final Frontier — Mark Peters

The Circus of Words — Richard Lederer

Vocabula Revisited: Fallout from the Battle of Hastings — Judge Mark P. Painter

Fiction: Bloodbound — Part 2 — Kevin Mims

Fiction: Chrysler — Melissa Palladino

Two Poems — William Aarnes

 Columnists


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Let Shakespeare Be Shakespeare

Christopher Orlet: The Last Word — The Selfish Reader

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — A Swarm of Bee Words

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — Cubicle Days

David Isaacson: Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases — Multitasking

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Today's popular dictionaries often fail to define words correctly or to distinguish between them; some dictionaries even maintain that one word means the same as another simply because people who do not know the correct meanings of the words confuse them. Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English — a supplement to whatever dictionary you own or use — is an attempt to combat this nonsense, to return meaning and distinction to the words we use.


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