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|November 2007, Vol. 9, No. 11||There are now 182 people reading TVR.||ISSN 1542-7080|
Coming in the December issue of The Vocabula Review:
"How to Improve Your Writing by Standing on Your Head" by Philip Yaffee
The December issue is due online December 16.
|Good Words||Vocabula Press||
Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
A Definition a Day
insessorial (in-se-SOR-ee-el) adj. perching or adapted for perching.
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.
Two New Second Editions by RHF
Party of the First Part
Give the gift of legalese
In this witty, user-friendly discourse, TVR columnist Adam Freedman explores the origin and meaning of legal language, from its beguiling oxymorons (attractive nuisance) to its cautious redundancies (null and void). Order this "lighthearted but lucid explanation of legalese" (William Safire) for the lawyer or law student on your list.
In the November 2007 Vocabula
Although the major European countries have been prolific in bringing dictionaries to press since the early seventeenth century, dictionary production in the twentieth century has grown exponentially in all the major European languages. It is worth mentioning that although in the last two decades there have been revolutionary electronic innovations in format, searchability, presentation, and design, in many fundamental respects monolingual general dictionaries produced today, whether in the United States or in Europe, are very similar to those of earlier centuries.
As metalexicographer Henri Béjoint explains, their similarities are due to the common origins and parallel historical evolution from the Renaissance to the present through the turning point of the eighteenth century of the European peoples who wrote them. And they have remained virtually unchanged because their traditional form their conservativism, their being "almost mythical emblems of learning" exert a powerful influence on popular ideas of what they should continue to be. More ...
Many years ago, I gave the Mencken Day lecture at the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore. After my lecture, a man in his late seventies, possibly early eighties, came up to tell me that he knew H. L. Mencken. He then drew out of a battered briefcase a small light brown frame, in which, tapped out on an old-fashioned typewriter, was a letter from Mencken himself. The letter went something like this:
Dear Phil, I want to thank you for being so good a bartender all these years at the Rennert Hotel. You have always done your job with tact and craft, and I admire a man who brings these qualities to his work, no matter what a man's job is. Sincerely, Henry Louis Mencken.
I thought about that letter the other night at a restaurant called the Chicago Firehouse, lodged in a converted firehouse built in 1905, in the city's south Loop neighborhood. I had not been to the restaurant before. The rooms were decorated in a calm and understated way, and there wasn't any of that din that contemporary restaurants seem to feel gives customers a go-go feeling of success. The people already seated seemed serious feeders, not there for status or other nongustatory purposes. More ...
Vocabula button free for the asking.
I want to meditate with you about the failure of language, about failure as limitation, and about limitation as the door to abundance. As image-makers, writers are charged with the shuttle that weaves abstract thought in and out of galloping life. The words, if they are muddy enough to accustom the mind to ambiguity, also lend flexibility to the mind. Such flexible, indirect language the Taoists called living words, goblet words, and dwelling words, and used them to subvert absolutes and create conditions favorable to life. More ...
Have you ever wondered what's so pleased about punch in the expression "pleased as punch"? The answer reposes in the world of show business. The punch that is so pleased in the expression is not the lunch we drink but the Punch of the Punch and Judy puppet shows, created in the early seventeenth century. Punch, traditionally, is an extroverted, self-satisfied puppet, who is enormously pleased with himself until Judy strikes him with a two-sided stick. When the two sides were slapped together, they would make a loud whack. The stick became known as a slap stick, and the compound was applied to any knockabout farce.
From the art of puppetry, we gain another expression. Puppetmasters manipulate the strings or wires of their marionettes from behind a dark curtain. Unseen, they completely control the actions of their onstage actors. Whence the expression "to pull strings." More ...
As I write this, my friend Jacques Barzun approaches the legendary age of 100. But as he, with his long perspective and range of reference, would remind us, it is legendary largely because of the human race’s historically recent decision to adopt the denary system of numeration. Had we chosen, perhaps more wisely, the duodecimal system, Jacques’ age would be written as 84 the same number, but not as striking to the eye. We are thus partly culture-bound in making so much of a centennial birthday something I think Jacques would regard as worth noting in passing, but not brooding over, much less deploring; a culture can inform your life, indeed make it possible for you to have a human life at all, only at the price of binding you in some ways. And this is a bargain that Jacques accepts gladly for himself, and would have us accept for ourselves it is the bargain that makes us human. More ...
Vocabula RevisitedNaughty Words
Samuel Johnson defined fart as meaning "to break wind behind." He illustrated the usage with a quotation from Swift:
As when we do a gun discharge, Although the bore be ne'er so large, Before the flames from muzzle burst, Just at the breech it flashes first; So from my Lord his passions broke, He farted first, and then he spoke.
I have not been able to find out who was the object of Swift's attention. Probably Lord Chesterfield, who was much despised by Johnson. Johnson described Chesterfield's letters to his son as "teaching the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing-master." However that may be, it is apparent that fart was not treated in the eighteenth century with the reserve now accorded it. The OED2 says fart is "not now in decent use," which is about a 6 on the lexicographer's Richter scale of naughtiness. Compare damn: (no caution, but best not said to Duchesses or in Court, say, 2 on the Richter scale); bum, turd: "not in polite use" (say, 3); wank: "slang" (4); bugger: "low language" (5); fuck and cunt: "for centuries, and still by the great majority, regarded as a taboo-word; until recent times not often recorded in print but frequent in coarse speech" (off the scale). Bloody gets a "foul language" rating in the OED2, which is about 7, but in Australian usage, it is about a 3. Arse is noted as obsolete in polite use, which puts it with bum: appropriate anatomically, but in my view it rates a 5. Oddly, there is not much naughty language available above 6 unless you want to go off the scale. More ...
"Jules, we need you," Virginia implored.
Jules sat at the green kitchen table under a circle of shaded light falling from a shadowy ceiling. From a turmoil of papers scattered over the tabletop, he plucked a sheet.
"Jules, thank you for coming with us," Virginia said.
Annoyed, Jules raised his sunken eyes, flashed them into the gloom of his wife's cloudy outline, then dropped his gaze to his preoccupation.
"We've never had you all to ourselves like this," she went on, studying his tensed visage. "Not since we built the cottage eight years ago." Her thoughts caressed his high cheekbones, thick black brows, receding hairline, admired the lean composition, handsome still although wracked with resolve.
Stealthily she sidled behind him, glared at the memorandums bearing cryptic words: standard cost analysis, evaluation procedure, marginal operation. "Jules," she tried again. His head jerked up, and his foot stamped the floor as the small cottage trembled on its stilts. "Shh, you'll wake the children," she warned.
"Well, don't bother me."
"We'll talk later, then."
"Yes, yes." He waved her off. More ...
1. Will Work for Food
The things I do in your name surprise me
Dogs move. Dog moves
The Elder StatesmanGripeFest 2007
Time to grouse again. Every so often I grant myself the columnist's prerogative of complaining about matters pertaining to popular usage, grammar, and orthography. I hope to accomplish all this complaining without the grating tone of a whinge. After all, Olympian disdain is the proper style in all such things.
Have you noticed that the word saw has pretty much disappeared from everyday conversation? I hear very few people say, "I saw my friend at the party last night." Of course the prevailing usage is "I seen him go to the door and knock." I'm surprised: is saw really that much more difficult to pronounce than seen? Where do such seemingly universal habits come from? I suspect it's a matter of someone hearing a malefactor misuse a term, and then passing the solecism along in the fashion of a cold sore. When I hear a person practice this particular imprecision, I suffer the same reaction I undergo when I see a young man wearing, in public, the waistline of his pants around his thighs, exposing for the benefit of the world the pattern of his underwear. More ...
Bethumped with WordsSputnik: True Origin of the Word
With buoyant Soviet ballyhoo and much galactic vaunting, Sputnik was launched on October, 4, 1957. It was the first artificial satellite. Them there pesky Russkies had beaten the Americans to space, and paranoia held hourly parades through Washington for years afterward until the Yankees beat the Russkies to the moon.
Here's a brief note on the etymology of the Russian word sputnik, a note you will not find in the Oxford English Dictionary or anywhere else. There is even a common word in English related to the word sputnik. More ...
Harrison's CornerThe Last Words You'll Ever Hear
Like me, do you mishear no less than you misread? There's nothing wrong with my hearing or my eyesight. I just inhabit a place where misprision is more interesting. Only today I discovered that a radio program that bore (so I believed) the subtle and mysterious title, Just A Stocking, was in fact called Justice Talking. How drab!
Recently the business of mishearing took a memorable turn. It happened because I managed to take almost three hours to travel from Manhattan to Brooklyn, delayed first of all by a long phone call home, and then by taking a train going in the wrong direction, not for the first time. ("I think there is a fatality in it I seldom go to the place I set out for," wrote Lawrence Sterne in A Sentimental Journey.) Well, there was nearly a fatality in this case. Once I reached darkest Brooklyn, I made the further mistake of entering a late-night deli where I stood in line for 30 minutes to get a large orange juice. More ...
The Common ReaderChinese Whispers
Earlier this year, humorist David Sedaris created a bit of controversy when he acknowledged exaggerating and embellishing some of the stories he has written for NPR and The New Yorker about his comically dysfunctional family. This seemed unfair to me. Embellishment and exaggeration are the very essence of a good family story. Take for instance the story that I call "A Thanksgiving Without Turkey," which I drag out of mothballs every year about this time.
I am a grocery store enthusiast. I love to shop for food. But I tend to avoid grocery stores in the days leading up to a major national holiday the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Super Bowl Sunday (not technically a holiday, but probably America's biggest secular feast day). I have a proprietary relationship toward the half dozen grocery stores I regularly visit, and it annoys me to have to share them with throngs of strangers. I prefer to do my grocery shopping during the workweek, at ten in the morning or two in the afternoon, when the supermarkets tend to be less crowded than usual. More ...
Vogue Words and Buzz PhrasesJudgmental
If you want to stay out of trouble these days, try not to be judgmental. This word once had a neutral connotation as well as denotation; if you were judgmental, you were inclined to make judgments. But for at least a decade, the most common connotation has changed so that a judgmental person is one who makes only negative, and frequently prejudiced, judgments. What’s more, these negative judgments are made when few people want to hear them. If someone describes you as judgmental, he is usually criticizing you for not being positive, upbeat, or at least neutral. It’s as if he is saying “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” More ...
Letter of the LawAll About Eaves
Feeling neglected? Cheer up: at least the government is listening to you. Eavesdropping once a term mainly associated with nosy neighbors is now a hot topic in legal circles. The federal government is locked in an epic battle with a number of states over whether private phone companies can be held liable for cooperating in the administration's warrantless eavesdropping program after September 11.
Personally, I haven't a clue who's right, but the whole thing does highlight what a curious word eavesdropping is. It is, of course, related to eave, the edge of a roof, which comes directly from an Old English word efes (also yfes). But how do you get from a roof edge to electronic surveillance? More ...
Ada's ArdorWord Economics
I have recently been thinking about the value of a word. While most of the country is paid for time (hourly wage, annual salary, time is money, and so on), as a freelance writer, I get paid by the word. In some ways this is liberating. I can wile away the hours, if I want, unconcerned with how much it's costing me. But I can't waste words. Instead of worrying about how I spend each minute, I worry about how I spend my words.
The cost of a word varies. Some magazines pay $1 per word; others are more, or less, generous. But regardless of the rate, I'm in no danger of making millions from this arrangement. Neither Cosmo nor the Times nor The New Yorker (should I ever be so lucky) would let a writer ramble on for an entire issue. They would tell me ahead of time when they want me to shut up, but they'd tell me nicely. "Give me 800 words," they'd say. More ...
Of the trillions of insects that crawl over this earth, the lowly ants are the most ubiquitous, conspicuous, and gregarious. A Science magazine article revealed that a species of leaf-cutter ants has been gardening fungi for 23,000,000 years! Not only are they everywhere, they've been there forever. More ...
Although few people can complain of another's grammatical mistakes with impunity, that is, without revealing their own, we are hopeful that "Disagreeable English" 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 ...
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 VocabulaMock Merriam
The eleventh edition of "America's Best-Selling Dictionary," Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (Frederick C. Mish, editor in chief), does as much as, if not more than, the famously derided Webster's Third International Dictionary to discourage people from taking lexicographers seriously. "Laxicographers" all, the Merriam-Webster staff reminds us that dictionaries merely record how people use the language, not how people ought to use the language. Some dictionaries, and certainly this edition of Merriam-Webster, actually promote illiteracy. More ...
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