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The Vocabula Review - October 2007 - Table of Contents
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October 2007, Vol. 9, No. 10
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Poem, Revised
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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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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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In my last column, I expounded upon the origin and the form of the limerick, the only universal poetic stanza indigenous to the English language. Once the English writer Edward Lear popularized the limerick in his Book of Nonsense (1846), it was only natural that people would begin to play around with the rhymes, the meter, the punning potential, and anything else they could think of.

For example, there are limericks that rhyme without scanning:

There was a young man of Japan
Whose limericks never would scan.
     When someone asked why,
     He replied with a sigh,
"It's because I always try to get as many words
Into the last line as I possibly can."
More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

Back  Arabber
by John E. McIntyre

On the streets of Baltimore, one can still see vendors coming down the street with wagons of produce drawn by ponies, their approach heralded by bells jingling from the ponies' harnesses. Once numbered in the scores, these relics of the city's past have dwindled to around forty. They are African-American, they work hard to make a living, and the name by which they are called recently kicked up some dust in a minor controversy.

They are arabbers or a-rabs, pronounced in the local patois as AY-rabbers or AY-rabs. And some people are disturbed by this — though not many from Baltimore. More ... 

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Sometimes I've been stupid, and sometimes I've been naïve. And sometimes I've walked in the rain and didn't know I was all wet until someone told me. In early December of 2005, I wasn't stupid or naïve, and I kept dry. I had been teaching with a textbook dysfunctional in more than one way, but I knew if I went to the department head who chose the textbook, I would get nowhere.

But in late December, I got stupid, naïve, and wet, all on the same day. I wrote six pages of suggestions to McGraw-Hill concerning the 8th edition of Communication Works by Teri and Michael Gamble. In October 2006, the 9th edition came out with no suggestions taken but with one major improvement, which I will discuss later. After all, I would like to end this essay on a positive note. More ... 

With morning's first light, I wake up in the Crownpoint, New Mexico Campus building of the Navajo Nation's Diné College, where I go each week from my Albuquerque home in the twilight of a long academic career as an English professor. Since there are no motels within fifty miles of that isolated spot just west of the Continental Divide, I sleep on the library floor. Mornings, I get up and exercise at a tier of windows facing east before beginning another day with adults learning to read and write. There, while I stretch and bend, I watch the horizon redden, as if to reignite my perspective not only on nature, but on familiar old literary works that I thought I knew well. Then I see the sun rise out of strands of early haze, mount clear and shine free until its light radiates to an incandescent glow that unites indoors and out and my early career with this still new one. More ... 

For the last thirty years, I've been writing poems about my parents' experiences as slave laborers and concentration camp prisoners in Nazi Germany. I've published four books of these poems and have given about fifty poetry readings here in America and overseas in Poland. I've read in high schools and universities, in coffee houses and libraries, in synagogues and churches. Someone once asked me at one of these readings if I was "all Holocausted out"? The question was terribly insensitive. It implies on a deep level that the Holocaust is something that you can get your fill of, something like chocolate or Seinfeld re-runs or Hummels, those kitschy little figurines that were popular a few years back. I didn't respond to the question at that time. It's not the kind of question you can really answer. The person asking it wouldn't understand that the grief, suffering, and terror my parents experienced are things that you can't walk away from. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back  Ain't We Got Fun?
by Steven G. Kellman

"Fun is fun," observed Anita Loos, "but no girl wants to laugh all the time." Sometime between 1925, when Loos published that quip, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and 1983, when Cyndi Lauper laughed all the way to the bank singing "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," human nature changed. Though life once seemed a vale of tears, it had become a barrel of fun. Today only a sourpuss insists that the best use for barrels is to accommodate pickles.

Are you having fun? Is there a more oppressive question? The interrogator is the simpering superintendent of amusements on a Caribbean cruise. To answer yes, you must try somehow to make yourself into the very model of mirth, contorting a grimace into a goofy grin and embracing salvation through shuffleboard and cha-cha-cha. To answer no, you confess to a fundamental moral failing. The ingrate who, offered all the advantages of contemporary diversion, still refuses to have a good time must be an enemy of the human race. "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?" Sir Toby Belch interrogates Malvolio. In the fast-food court that is America, those who prefer to fast are force-fed cakes and ale. No Puritan parson was ever more severe than the current enforcers of fun. More ... 

by Kathryn Brenden


Sorry I missed your birfday. Was it in Febuary? Supposably, I always have trouble with holidays, excetera. But aside from being disorientated about Valentime's Day and your birfday, I haven't missed a one! Your ginormously sweet to forgive me. My bad! More ... 

Back  Uniformity
by Bruce D. Bromley

She thought she wanted him to stay in the same place. She did not know where that was. She wanted to be able to return to him, to come back with bags of vegetables, coffee and cheese, to open their apartment door and smell the rosemary soap he showered with on weekday evenings, before Noah was born. She would track him through the kitchen and down the hall, into the living room where he would be standing before the window, spotting the snow that must be about to fall. The back of his legs would gleam with water that had not dried. She touched his tail-bone with her hand: "Keep it there," he said, the bone screened by her hand.

She could not protect him.

She carries the weekend shopping up the stairs, imagining the scene behind her apartment door. Louisa would have wanted to read to Noah, but she had to do her nails. More ... 

by Gary Margolis

Tree in the Mirror

A few days a year, like today,
I am home alone.
With the furnace coming on,
With the wind seeping through
the willow leaves and through
a doorsill. With dust and cobwebs,
light reflecting off the wooden
floors. Alone with shelves
and windows, empty beds,
books read and half-read,
newspaper and silverware. More ... 

The Elder Statesman
Back  The "Rot" of Henry James
by Clark Elder Morrow

After I told a friend of mine once that a famous writer had described the late nineteenth century as the height of human civilization, my friend responded thoughtfully: "No, the rot had already set in by then."

The remark is interesting not as the token of a reactionary mind (my friend was a liberal Democrat at the time), but as a simple recognition of at least one element or aspect of the truth. In the late nineteenth century there really was a certain overripeness in the more elevated spheres of thought and life throughout Europe. And Oscar Wilde is only the most conspicuous figure representing this development. The world we see in An Ideal Husband may reveal the highest refinements and most sophisticated flights of fancy, and may show us a level of civilized observation rarely before achieved, but the world of Salome exemplifies quite clearly the "rot" my friend undoubtedly had in mind. More ... 

Do you prize well-spoken, well-written language? Do you believe all right is correct and alright is nonsense, that predominant is an adjective and predominate a verb, that they and them are exclusively plural pronouns, that blithering politicians ought not to be elected to higher office, that a society is generally as lax as its language? If so ...

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The Last Word
Back  Dangerous Books for Boys
by Christopher Orlet

For more years than I care to imagine, I have been peddling to literary agents and book publishers an anthology of essays about bachelorhood. Besides the somewhat familiar "Of Marriage and Single Life" (Francis Bacon) and "A Bachelor's Complaint of the Behavior of Married People" (Charles Lamb), I found and dusted off some real gems, notably George Ade's masterful "The Joys of Single Blessedness," Bruce Jay Friedman's hilarious "Eating Alone in Restaurants," and Martha Sherrill's poignant "My Father, the Bachelor." And yet the response I receive from agents and publishers is invariably the same: "Men don't read. Especially single men." Now a collection of essays about the lives and loves of spinsters — okay, bachelorettes — the publisher could not print copies fast enough. More ... 

Back  War and Self-Deception
by John Kilgore
Only the dead have seen the end of war. — George Santayana

Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories. — Tim O'Brien.

A few years ago, called upon to design an English Senior Seminar in a bit of a hurry, I hit upon the topic of War Stories. The seminars are supposed to be interdisciplinary, eclectic, adventurous; my plan was to mix literary readings with light reconnaissance into military history and theory, letting the social sciences provide a reality check. And perhaps — why not? — the literary works would add something distinctive to the sober statistical studies. The approach proved intriguing, at least to the instructor, and before long the topic gained extra urgency from 9/11 and the tragedy-cum-farce of the War on Terror. More ... 

by Bill Casselman

Avril Ramona Lavigne (born September 27, 1984) is one of the most popular singers in the world today, a chart-topping Canadian entertainer-songwriter known for her lively "skater punk" persona. Her name is French, but Avril does not speak much French, and her surname is pronounced, anglicized, as "La-VEEN."

Her first name Avril is French for the month of April, borrowed into twelfth-century French as avrill from some Latin phrase such as mensis aprilis, literally "the opening month," that is, when flower buds and perhaps nature itself in the sprouting surge of springtime can be said to "open." April greens up the midst of European spring. Aprilis is a Latin adjective from an earlier Latin form like *aperilis related to the Latin verb aperire, "to open." More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  Rise of the Nothings
by Carey Harrison

I've been teaching the work of the great Anglican poet, R. S. Thomas, undervalued by the reading public but admired by the likes of Ted Hughes, Kingsley Amis, and John Betjeman, almost to the point of reverence. His terse, bleak, magically evocative verse lodges obstinately in the mind, like a wildflower on a mound of Welsh slag. Thomas, who died in 2000, aged eighty-seven, wrote about two subjects only, God and hill farmers. The latter were present in the rural churches where Thomas was pastor; the former was hauntingly absent, especially in church, yet luminously present in his absence.

I knew that there would already be two strikes against me if I tried to introduce to my class matters (a) rustic, and (b) religious. Twelve years ago, I presented a class with "Fern Hill," by R. S. Thomas's more celebrated contemporary and namesake, Dylan Thomas. "As I was green and carefree, famous among the barns...." It went down like a damp squib, because no one in the classroom, it transpired, had ever seen a barn in real life, or indeed a live cow. They couldn't relate, they explained. Maybe, I thought, it's just New York. More ... 

The Common Reader
Back  Spiral Man
by Kevin Mims

I carry a notepad everywhere I go. Currently, I have a Mead memo pad in my pocket. It contains 60 three-inch-by-five-inch sheets. That's 120 pages if you write on both sides of the sheet. And I always do. I also have a Papermate ballpoint pen in my pocket. Without it, the notepad would be worthless. More ... 

Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases
Back  Don't Quit Your Day Job
by David Isaacson

I love the phrase don't quit your day job. It strikes me as a quintessentially American saying. It is almost always said with a combination of affection and sarcasm that is one of the defining characteristics of our casual and egalitarian culture. I don't think I've ever heard anyone use this phrase in a mean way. If someone says "don't quit your day job" to you, he is trying to kid you into admitting that you have just claimed something impossible about yourself. The most frequent function of this phrase is to pop a pompous balloon. For instance, suppose you said: "If I only had the time, I could write a novel a lot better than Moby-Dick." This is the kind of boast best met with "don't quit your day job." The speaker has rightly called attention to the fact that your statement is inflated while leaving you just a little bit of gas in your balloon. More ... 

Letter of the Law
Back  Don't Want Clever Conversation
by Adam Freedman

In June of this year, a Chicago jury ordered a man to pay $4,800 for stealing the heart of another man's wife.

Literary types might call this a dangerous liaison; country music buffs might refer to the pain of a cheatin' heart; but to use the precise legal formulation, this was a lawsuit for alienation of affections.

Alienation of affections is an old-fashioned term, but then virtually all legal terms concerning sexual conduct have an archaic ring to them. Laws forbidding seduction, fornication, and solicitation of chastity can still be found in various American states. More ... 

by Ada Brunstein

I'm determined to make photoelectric the next big catch phrase. I don't see why it should be relegated to a life of obscurity in the pages of seldom read and even seldomer enjoyed physics books. It has so much more to offer than that! I'm going to spread the word, and the word I'm going to spread is photoelectric. I'll start with the bars of New York. A bartender will slide me a flaming fuschia cocktail, I'll smile and say, photoelectric, thanks!

As I take my first sip, I see a pair of hazel eyes across the bar that I can't ignore. I walk right up to him. Drink in hand, I do a little half twist and lean my back against the bar, looking at Mr. Hazel Eyes over my shoulder. With my free hand I slip a finger under his designer tie just below the knot, and slide it down slowly until it reaches the tip. Photoelectric, I'll whisper. More ... 

Just for kicks, let's define a BS Quotient as the number of syllables in a phrase divided by the number of syllables in the small word equivalent of that phrase. From a communication standpoint, the smaller the BSQ, the greater the information content. Moreover, the higher the BSQ, the harder it is to find the real message buried in the BS. 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 ... 

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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 ... 

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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 — The "Rot" of Henry James

Christopher Orlet: The Last Word — Dangerous Books for Boys

John Kilgore: Shibboleths — War and Self-Deception

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Skater-Punk Onomastics: Avril Lavigne's Names

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Rise of the Nothings

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — Spiral Man

David Isaacson: Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases — Don't Quit Your Day Job

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — Don't Want Clever Conversation

Ada Brunstein: Ada's Ardor — Photoelectric, Baby: A Linguist Tackles Physics


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