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The Vocabula Review - March 2007 - Table of Contents
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by Joseph Epstein

The magazine Edge, on its tenth anniversary, recently asked a number of scientists and thinkers what they found in the world or in their particular lines of interest to be optimistic about. I'm pleased to say that I was not asked. I am of course not a scientist, but I might possibly have passed for a thinker. I'm pleased, though, that I didn't. A certain portentousness, sententiousness, general pomposity goes with being a thinker. Nobody has ever called me a thinker, and I'd like to keep it that way.

I have on a few occasions been called a "national treasure," which I much resented. You never want to be known as a national treasure. Walter Cronkite is a national treasure, so is Studs Terkel. Russell Baker may be a national treasure. Poor Bill Moyers seems to have been born a national treasure. The actress Helen Hayes was a national treasure. A national treasure is someone you can count on to say predictably uninteresting things while giving off the blurry aura of wisdom. More ... 

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by Richard Lederer
My friends are the best friends
Loyal, willing, and able.
Now let's get to drinking
All glasses off the table!

A Dubliner shows up in a pub one day and orders three pints of Guinness. He takes a sip from each glass until they are empty and calls the bartender for three more. The bartender says, "Sure it's up to yourself, but wouldn't you rather I was bringing them one at a time? Then they'll be fresh and cold."

"Nah," says the man. "I'm preferrin' that ye bring 'em three at a time. Ye see, me and me two brothers would meet at a pub, down some cool ones, and have good times. Now one is in Australia, the other in Canada, and I'm here. Before we split up, we agreed that we'd drink to each other's health and honor this way."

"Well," says the bartender, "that's a grand thing to do. I'll bring ye the pints as you ask."

Time passes, and the man's peculiar habit comes to be known by all the pub regulars. Well, one day the man comes in and orders only two pints. A hush falls over the crowd, as everybody figures that something has happened to one of the brothers. With a heavy heart they offer their sincerest condolences. "What happened to your dear brother?" they ask.

"Oh, no, no! 'Tis nothing like that," says the Irishman. "You see, I've given up drinking for Lent."

The Irish are known not only for the quantity and atmosphere of their pubs, but also for the lyricism and sentiments of their toasts — often called "blessings." Across the Irish countryside and throughout Irish folklore, countless toasts and blessings sing of life and hope. More ... 

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by Skip Eisiminger

For some twenty-five years, I played slow-pitch softball for the Mercenaries, a team whose name was chosen to suggest "ruthlessness, big salaries, and notoriety." In fact, I never made a dime playing for this team, but our enviable record led one opposing pitcher to wear a T-shirt whose caption under an impaled heart read, "I HATE THE MERCENARIES." He played for the Bleeding Hearts, a team from the school of social work at the university where intramurals once was a way of life for many like me. As I recall, every time this pitcher wore his heart on his chest, the Hearts bled.

As a child who made lists of nicknames of major-league ball players, I have maintained an interest in sporting names. (Curiously, the Mercenaries have few nicknames themselves. Exceptions include John "the Pagan" Idol, a rarely used Chris Berman-style nickname; Robert "Knee" Harrison, whose right knee was crushed in an automobile accident when he was a boy, and Eddie "the Phantom" Payne, who played center field in a cape.) Indeed, despite the scarcity of personal nicknames, the intramural program, which has as many as 150 teams playing in a semester, is an excellent place to feed my name frenzy. My friend John Idol became so interested that he wrote schools around the country for a list of their softball team names, and it is from this list that I have drawn many of the names that follow. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back  Kabbala of the Spin Top Vehicle
by Joe Kelly

My son, Owen, recently received a little battery-operated, remote-control car at his sixth birthday party. When we finally figured out how to open the package (no mean feat itself), we were faced with a perplexing complexity of toy. And if you think my "perplexing complexity of toy" is an infelicitous phrase, you should, in Matthew Arnold fashion, hold it up to the light of these classics, which we discovered in the "Usage Manual":

1. Is not suitable for the 3 years old and the following child.

That's not so bad, except that it was followed not by a child but by this admonition, rendered, I think cleverly, in the apothegmatic tradition of the fortune cookie: More ... 

by Barbara Goldowsky

How to Become a Future Unremembered Poet

Oh Youth, beware of great ambition,
Crave not for lasting recognition,
Strive for obscurity, not fame,
Seek to obliterate your name.
Let your life's work be to become forgotten,
Pray that your reputation moulders—yea—turns rotten! More ... 

When referring to one person, use a singular, not a plural, pronoun.

• Piss off an anti-war progressive and they will go home to fume on the Internet. USE he or she.

• I like to date a person whose words match their actions. USE his or her.

• The scent of this person just drives you crazy, and all you think about is seeing their face, hearing their voice, or touching them. USE his or her; his or her; him or her.

• If there is any one patient who doesn't get the care that they deserve, that's unacceptable. USE he or she.

That the English language has no pronoun that neatly includes both genders is a shame, but to use they, them, their, or themselves when you mean one person, one man or one woman, is utterly foolish. Even though many thousands of people use a third-person plural pronoun when a third-person singular is called for, you need not. Distinguish your writing and speaking from others', and you distinguish yourself. More ... 

The Elder Statesman
Back  Nonsense!
by Clark Elder Morrow

What is the most carefree of literary genres? Nonsense! What category of expression promises the most delights with the least amount of effort? Nonsense! What would you say if I told you that the purest form of self-expression never makes any sense at all? Nonsense!

Now before you insist that surrealism is the more rewarding and satisfying genre (when weighed in the scales against nonsense), let me aver at once that it is precisely its minute measure of purpose in surrealism that taints it from the perspective of Edward Lear and his fellow practitioners. Dada and nihilism and surrealism all want to make a point — albeit a subtle one in most instances. Salvador Dali's flaccid watches in the most famous of his paintings make a vivid and memorable point about the Persistence of Memory. Nonsense, on the other hand, simply wants to have fun. It enjoys a child's romp in the land of unadulterated silliness for the sake of silliness alone. Nonsense would never try to say anything meaningful, and instinctively avoids all message-making in the same way a nun unthinkingly avoids all ribaldry in her talk with an archbishop. That is why it is so much fun. More ... 

Shibboleths
Back  Zombie Metaphors
by John Kilgore

Give him free reign, the student writes, and I grit my teeth. What's wrong with this kid, anyway? Doesn't he know about horseback riding: how sometimes, rather than hauling right or left on the reins, you let the horse choose the route, giving her free rein?

Well, no, this student doesn't. And come to think of it, neither did I at his age, in any direct sense; my knowledge of horseback riding came mostly from reading Westerns, together with large quantities of "horse books," vaguely descended from Black Beauty and urged on me by my older sister, such books being to us at one stage what videogames and DVDs are to kids today. But the agrarian world in which so much of our language is rooted had already vanished for the most part, dooming to slow (almost excruciatingly slow) extinction many idioms that had done good service for generations. The day had passed when people kept either pigeons or forty-pound grindstones in their sheds, and so the day was coming when otherwise bright youngsters would say hone in on, not home in on, mishearing it, oblivious to the underlying metaphorical logic. John Deere tractors had long since replaced oxen in the spring fields, so it was fated that a passionate letter writer would one day denounce "the yolk of tyranny." The rules of boxing had long since changed, and no doubt a significant minority had already begun to conceive of good behavior as a matter of towing the line. Unlike these whoppers, free reign at least makes good operational sense; the difference between leaving a king free to rule and leaving a horse free from rule will not be crucial for most purposes. More ... 

by Bill Casselman

Auto-neo-kako-nymia. Yes, fellow drivers, as spring peeps furtively over the next hill, rising Obama-like to encourage us, I was forced to coin a new word, a clumsy clunker of a neology, too. It means "making up bad names for new cars."

Maybe you read about the GM brain trusters who came up with the Buick LaCrosse? To teenagers in the French Canadian province of Quebec, the car's name means "Buick Jerking Off." I put it to you that such a phrase is a not inaccurate summary of the Buick division's business acumen over the past few automobile seasons. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  College English in the Classroom
by Carey Harrison

As the icicles on my beard gradually begin to melt, dear reader: a little report on college English in the classroom.

Freshman composition stands pretty much where it did. The word alot continues to gain ground and has settled in as a kind of Mason–Dixon line between, to the north, the shrinking world of literacy as defined by (for instance) my spellchecker, which persistently separates alot into two words on this very page, and, to the south (perish my metaphor!), the real world, in which those who write alot are propagating so much faster than those who write a lot that the analogy that springs to mind cannot be spoken. Dare not be spoken, that is; cannot is a word moving in the opposite direction to a lot, separating into can not even as a lot elides, in my classroom. It is a multitudinous classroom, divided almost equally between black and white, between first-generation immigrants and more recent immigrants, predominantly Russian, Pakistani, or Bangla Deshi, Middle Eastern, among them Jews devout and not so devout, with a few old-guard, old-world Italians and Anglos of mixed extraction thrown into the mix and sticking out like pale blue-hatted UN peacekeepers at a third-world checkpoint. Can not is what they write, and they gaze in puzzlement at the oddity of cannot, which I proceed to write on the chalkboard, in almost exactly the same way that I stare at alot on their handwritten assignments. I browbeat them by asking whether they would write that they like to eat abit of cheese. They might well write in answer, if they dared: Professor, we donot. More ... 

The Common Reader
Back  The Elemerts of Styl
by Kevin Mims

The New Yorker has a reputation for being the most carefully edited and fact-checked magazine in the world. That's why I was surprised when I received my copy of The Complete New Yorker, nine compact discs containing photo-reproductions of every single issue of the magazine published since its inception in 1925, and discovered that the abstracts of the articles provided in the search archive are full of errors.

These abstracts provide brief descriptions of every article and story ever to appear in the magazine. Writing them all must have been a Herculean task, but if so, it left the Augean stables far from clean. More ... 

Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases
Back  Excremental Choices
by David Isaacson

I like to think I have a good ear for new euphemisms, but crap happens startled me. If you're going to be blunt as well as vulgar have the guts to use the correct slang phrase: shit happens. Many of us would rather not have our attention called to it, but only the most cloistered fool would attempt to gainsay the irrefutable, inevitable fact summed up so graphically in the phrase shit happens. One of the problems with shit happens is that it is no longer all that graphic. That's why someone, undoubtedly thinking he was a wordsmith, came up with the rather demure substitute, crap happens. This presents those of us who like to think of ourselves as discriminating, even in our choice of buzz phrases, not so much with an agonizingly existential as a delicate excremental choice. Shall it be shit or crap?

If we are not squeamish, we must face facts; we must acknowledge the metaphorical as well as the literal truth of shit happens. There are some facts of our psychological lives we would just as soon gloss over as delicately as the genteel among us treat similar facts of our biological lives. But in the twenty-first century, some of us think we have finally learned to face unpleasant truths. It's not a particularly original or complex philosophy, but a sad lifestyle is summed up in shit happens. (Mind you, I'm talking only about a lifestyle, not a life. I will take up the subtleties of get a life in my next column.) 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 Vocabula
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 ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back  Top Twenty Dimwitticisms

Analysis conducted by Factiva showed that of two hundred dimwitticisms used by the U.S. press during February 2007, the fifth most common was move forward or go forward. More ... 

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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 editor@vocabula.com. More ... 

 Features

 Columnists


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Nonsense!

John Kilgore: Shibboleths — Zombie Metaphors

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Autoneokakonymia: Bad Names for New Cars

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — College English in the Classroom

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — The Elemerts of Styl

David Isaacson: Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases — Excremental Choices

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