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The Vocabula Review - May 2007 - Table of Contents
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May 2007, Vol. 9, No. 5
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"Course Outlines and the English Language" by Frank E. Keyes, Jr.
The June issue is due online June 24.

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A Definition a Day

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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Poem, Revised
54 Poems, Revisions, Discussions

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The Dictionary of Disagreeable English
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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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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.

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101 Foolish Phrases encourages you to speak and write more carefully and thoughtfully.

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101 Elegant Paragraphs encourages you to speak and write with deliberation, style, even beauty.

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Student writers often dwell on what's seen in their writing, not heard, smelled, or tasted. This habit involves the overuse of modifiers: beautiful woman, happy face, or blue sky. After discovering the possibilities of scent, taste, sound, temperature and touch, they can delve into a world of synesthesia. Senses bounce in play and provide enrichment for writing.

Through a variety of sensory exercises, students experience new ways to express abstractions and learn to apply active verbs and forge strong nouns. Fresh imagery adds to the rhythm and creativity of sentences. Metaphors replace adjectives and adverbs to show possibilities. Students discover that the more detailed their writing, the more resonance it has. Sensory writing creates spaces of wonder that invite readers to stroll into and experience on a variety of personal levels. More ... 

by John L. Pattillo

In high school, I learned about figures of speech: simile, metaphor, onomatopoeia, allegory, allusion, and so on. The list we were given was not long, and each term seemed readily understood.

Not many of these terms cropped up in daily life, except for metaphor and metaphorical. Then, perhaps fifteen years ago, no more than twenty, another of these terms began to appear in the daily newspapers, on television, on radio. To my dismay, because it was one of my favorites, the users missed the point of the term. It seemed that they just liked saying or writing it because it has such a nice sound: "oxymoron." More ... 

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by Richard Lederer

Not long ago, a woman telephoned an Atlanta library and asked, "Can you please tell me where Scarlet O'Hara is buried?"

The librarian explained, "Scarlet is a fictional character in Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone with the Wind."

"Never mind that," said the caller. "I want to know where she's buried." More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back  The Last Words
by Christopher Orlet

With few exceptions, the last words of history's great players have been about as interesting and uplifting as a phone book. We may expect pearls of profundity and motivational aphorism from our expiring artists, philosophers, and world leaders, but more often we are left with dry-as-dust clichés. But is it fair to expect deep insights into life's mysteries when the dying clearly have other things on their mind — hell, for instance, or unspeakable pain?

Bullet-riddled Francisco "Pancho" Villa doubtless had other things on his mind when he told a comrade, "Don't let it end this way. Tell them I said something." Likewise Thomas Jefferson believed the day on which he died to be of greater significance than any final declaration. "Is it the fourth?" he asked, shortly before expiring on July 4, 1826. More ... 

When you meet someone for the first time, you try to orient yourself as quickly as possible. What are you learning about the individual, and what about you is she learning?

You ask yourself what must she know about me in order to have an honest impression. What do I want her to know about me? How best can I convey this information? How accessible am I? How accessible is she? How surely is she conveying herself to me? Are we exchanging information about ourselves in a way in which we can easily absorb and manage it? More ... 

Authors, editors, publicists are welcome to submit excerpts of books about words and language for possible publication in Vocabula's "Book Excerpt."

by Kevin Mims

I've got a story that I'd like to tell.

you must have typed in the wrong email address. I don't know any — sorry.

I said I have a story to tell.

then tell it to someone who cares. I don't know who you are. Email me once more and I'll report your IP address to your host server.

Why don't you let me tell my story before you report me? It's a very good story, with all sorts of oddball characters and outrageous human behavior. You'll hear about The Man With The Shipwrecked Eyes, uncover the truth about the mysterious Swiss Cheese Letters, travel to a lake of noir secrets, and find out why a peace-loving old man once locked his son-in-law in the trunk of a car on a boiling hot afternoon. It's a tale filled with suspense, intrigue, romance, and crime. And you might even learn something about yourself while reading it. All it will cost you is a little bit of time. More ... 

by Elana Wolff


I answer to a synonym
     for tree
in lyrical Hebrew—
a nature rooted coolly, part deciduous,
Forgive me if I do not
bear a fruit you'd love to pluck:
I cannot yield what isn't in the seed.
With me as with the beech,
     now browning in the leaf.
Too much sun, too little rain—
perhaps the wrong location. More ... 

The Elder Statesman
Back  Self-Esteem vs. Self-Respect
by Clark Elder Morrow

It seems to me that it should be the duty of people who delve into words and definitions to investigate one of the most prevalent terms in schools today: self-esteem. The popularity of the word is eclipsed in the pedagogical mind only by the term diversity, which is itself as far removed from the immediate concerns of education as is "self-esteem." But whether either collection of letters should enjoy as exalted a place in the Academy as it does is not our topic today. Our study is rather that exquisite divergence in meaning between the terms self-respect and self-esteem. For in all certainty there is a subtle yet soon-widening gulf that divides them — an acute, then obtuse disparity in direction that leads in the former case to the upper plateaus of nobility, and in the latter to somewhat less exalted realms of behavior.

Throughout the history of our literature, authors have always employed the word esteem to indicate a place on a scale of values, to locate his or her estimation of an object on a "thermometer," if you will, of ascending and descending worth. A Regency writer is apt to have a character say something like, "I could not esteem Mr Hampton more than I do, if indeed he were architect of England's success on the battlefields of Belgium!" This shows us quite clearly, and at once, that the character and the writer think of esteeming as placing — putting someone or something either high or low on a ladder of perfection. And so the word has been used across the centuries. More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back  Yo Coach!
by Bill Casselman

The word coach, as in basketball coach, began as a Hungarian cart.

Here's the story. The coach was named after a small Hungarian village, Kocs, where superior wagons, carts, and carriages were built. Kocs, in the Hungarian district of Komarom-Esztergom, lay on the main road along the Danube between Vienna and Budapest. These two great cities needed well-built, fast vehicles that would carry more than two people over the bumpy roads of the day in as much comfort as was then possible. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  Au Revoir, Philistines
by Carey Harrison

It's the end of the Spring Semester — clearly overdue, given my state of soul. The word jaded keeps lurching to mind. This week, when I found that not one of my sixty undergraduate students had heard of Arthur Miller, I rudely asked them if any of them knew the meaning of the word Philistine, when used to describe a contemporary person or group of persons. Ashamed of my question, I was relieved to find that not one of them recognized the word.

On another front: the outer bank has yielded, and only a flaky mercenary group of nouns with their adjectival and adverbial allies, always ready to surrender their allegiance, stand between the citadel and the collapse of time-and-tense-specific American English. To be precise: Of the aforementioned sixty undergraduates, not a single one — not one — could tell me the difference in meaning between I wish I didn't do it and I wish I hadn't done it; and almost every one of them maintained that there was no difference in meaning between the two. I pointed out that an ex-smoker might utter the latter words, a current smoker the former. They looked puzzled. (It's true that, to my knowledge, few of them smoke; clearly, I live in the pluperfect in all respects.) Never has the title of James Kelman's Booker Prize–winning novel, How Late It Was, How Late seemed so apposite. It is that late for the past perfect tense, at any rate, and perhaps for the past itself. How shall we maintain the distinct nature of the past if we lose the tenses that define it? We shall say, Yesterday I am happy, and, The day before that I am happy too. It has a Beckettian ring to it, don't you think? But does that mean we are entering the house of literature or merely entering Endgame? More ... 

by Kevin Mims

It was Pythagoras (I believe) who said, "The beginning is half of the whole" (although he probably didn't say it in English). Writers, in particular, know this to be true, which is why the good ones put so much effort into the opening lines of everything they write. Hook the reader with a beautiful or startling opening line, and half your work is done. I imagine that almost everyone who reads the opening line of Donald Westlake's novel Kahawa — "Each ant emerged from the skull bearing an infinitesimal portion of brain." — goes on to read the second line as well. And who could resist this opening line, from Jeannette Walls's recently published memoir The Glass Castle: "I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster."

I am a connoisseur of great opening lines, but some of the best I've encountered have never, to my knowledge, appeared in the pages of a book. More ... 

Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases
Back  Are You Still Working on That?
by David Isaacson

Waiters and waitresses (if you think "waitpersons" should be substituted here, you should be ashamed of yourself) are likely to ask, when they suspect you may be through eating, "are you still working on that?" I'd rather be asked if I were done feeding, or stuffing my gob. How dare someone who is supposed to be treating me with some deference as a customer ask me if my food is a form of labor? If the act of eating a meal in a restaurant is equivalent to work, why would I pay money for the dubious privilege of performing this task in public? Is the meat so tough I have to tackle it like a trencherman, arms akimbo, cutlery poised in the attack mode? This can't be the case because the question is just as likely to be posed when you appear not to be interested in finishing your vegetables or dessert.

No, of course, the waiter or waitress only means to ask if I am finished eating. I think "are you still working on that" has become the preferred term because it is considered to be a more polite form of what must be perceived as the somewhat indelicate formulation: "Are you finished eating?" Ironically, the substitute phrase is more out of place to those of us who expect some measure of formality when we are dining in restaurants, rather than feeding in troughs. 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 ... 

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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 ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back  Top Twenty Dimwitticisms

Month after month, two of our two hundred dimwitticisms have been used repeatedly: ongoing and in terms of. Surely professional writers can do better than rely on these rather pathetic expressions. 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 More ... 



Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Self-Esteem vs. Self-Respect

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Yo Coach!

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner Au Revoir, Philistines

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — The Adjustor, the Vestige, and the King of Cashews

David Isaacson: Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases — Are You Still Working on That?


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