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The Vocabula Review - September 2007 - Table of Contents
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September 2007, Vol. 9, No. 9
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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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by Skip Eisiminger
We should have a great many fewer disputes in the world if words were taken for what they are, the signs of our ideas, and not for things themselves. — John Locke

[We must] guard against attempts to micromanage casual conversation [that have] invited people to look for an insult in every word, gesture, [and] action. — President George H. W. Bush, University of Michigan commencement exercise, 1991

Do we really want a language in which we "darn the torpedoes" and ride "heck-bent for leather"? — Anon.

On September 8, 2005, Ms. Renee Holcombe called her staff of about fifty together and directed the drivers of "the big yellow boxes to [go to] the Palmetto Center to pick up the little yard apes." The Associate Vice President for Student Services at Greenville Technical College was speaking from the edge of her desk with a coffee cup in one hand and a clipboard in the other. Her audience was her personal staff, twenty-two of whom were African-American, and most of whom she had hired. The "big yellow boxes" were Greenville Tech's school buses, and the "little yard apes" were the mostly black children of Hurricane Katrina evacuees with a few "Bart Simpson types" as well. At the time, no one questioned Ms. Holcombe's choice of words because the bus drivers on the staff understood that they were to pick up all the children at the Palmetto Center in Greenville, S.C., where they were temporarily living, and deliver them to the school. It was here that despite hurricanes their education was to continue thanks to the services of people like Holcombe. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

In The University as a House of Argument (Vocabula, November 2006), Paul Levitt offers several cogent objections to the teaching of narrative as argument in university writing courses.1 However, we should look not only at the kind of work that arises within the narrative assignment itself, but also at the kind of work that arises from that assignment, particularly from the subcategory often called "the personal narrative."

One of the objections to Professor Levitt's argument will surely go something like this: Even if the narrative assignment itself doesn't serve well to teach argument, the assignments that follow from it, particularly the inquiry paper, certainly do. Professor Levitt alludes to this type of objection when he recounts the response of an instructor teaching personal narrative: if we find in the narrative a personal experience about, say, cancer, the student can go on to do an inquiry paper on cancer. And Levitt suggests that the resultant assignment will amount to "moving bones from one graveyard to another." Though Levitt goes on to express his (in my view justified) concerns about teachers delving too much into students' "emotional or social problems," I think we should look more carefully at the alleged bone-moving, asking whether these "inquiry papers" amount only to that, or whether they amount to something more worthwhile, something perhaps involving critical thinking. Because, after all, many of the resultant papers at least look like arguments. More ... 

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by Richard Lederer
The limerick packs laughs anatomical
Into space that is quite economical.      
But the good ones I've seen      
So seldom are clean,
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.
                     — Vyvyan Holland

In late 1907 into 1908, the London Opinion ran a series of limerick contests that were so popular, it nearly brought down the postal service, as tens of thousands of entries flooded the Opinion office.

On the centennial of the Great British Limerick Craze, let us celebrate the limerick, a highly disciplined exercise in verse that is probably the only popular fixed poetic form indigenous to the English language. While other basic forms of poetry, such as the sonnet and ode, are borrowed from other countries, the limerick is an original English creation and the most quoted of all verse forms in our language. More ... 

Book Excerpt
Back  Plain vs Precise
by Adam Freedman

What is to be done with the language of the law? There are two opposing schools of thought on this question: "Precision" and "Plain English." And let's just say that if you belong to one of these groups, you don't want to wander onto the other side's turf after dark. Accidents do happen.

The Precision camp holds that the complexity of legal language flows naturally from the need of lawyers to be super-precise. According to this theory, there is nothing to be done about legalese — it's fine just the way it is. The multiple subordinate clauses and technical jargon found in legal documents are there to describe highly complex relationships and to stamp out ambiguity.

The Precision School probably reached its zenith a few decades ago when, for example, one legal scholar exultantly praised legal textbooks as ranking "in the exactitude of their language with the classic studies in physics and natural science." More ... 

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

by Lucy Yarlott Graca

It has often been noted, sometimes with admiration, that English is heavy with synonyms. Lovers of English tend to describe this heaviness as "rich." Speakers of other languages call it "excessive," "redundant," "repetitious," or even "overloaded."

English is a melting pot, a hodge-podge, a conglomeration, a dog's dinner of synonyms. Most of them come from the fact that folks from all over the world have been invading, occupying, settling, and migrating to England for many thousands of years, and for the last 500 of those, the English have been invading, occupying, settling, and migrating all over the world. This has caused English to acquire words with the ease a woman with many lovers acquires children: they all look something alike, but not exactly.

I, of course, come down on the side of "richness." One example of richness is the group of synonyms for the word friend, which illustrate two prongs of the migrations into England: the speakers of the Romance languages and the Gothic barbarians speaking Germanic ones. The synonyms that have resulted go a long way to describing every imaginable way one could think about a friend, and also tell us many of the things we might do with a friend. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back  Thanks for Sharing
by Joseph Epstein

Your basic language snob — that, friend, would be me — is never out of work. Just as he gets his wind back after railing about one or another overworked or idiotically used word, fresh misusages appear to cause him to get his knickers in a fine new twist. Everyday evidence of the inefficacy of my own fulminations in print against the words focus and icon is available in the public prints, the airwaves, and what is laughingly called civilized discourse. With freshly twisted knickers, then, I persevere, "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

I can bear the basketball announcer Marv Alpert's fulsome toupee — fulsome: "abundant to excess; offensive to normal tastes or sensibilities" — but I cannot bear his regularly misusing differential, as in "The Lakes have wiped out a twelve-point differential in the third quarter," when what he really means is difference. A differential is a gear in a motor, a kind of equation, and a few other things, but never a twelve-point lead. More ... 

by Kevin Mims

— Did you bring the money?

— I've got it right here in my briefcase.

— Mind if I check it?

— You got the picture of Kimmie I asked for?

— First things first. Let me see the money.

— You better not be scamming me.

— I'm not scamming anybody. I just want to make sure it's all there.

— Here you go.

— Thanks. The kitchen is through there. Help yourself to a drink if you want. I'm afraid all I've got is Diet Cokes.

— Naturally.

— Now let me see, we've got ten stacks of money here, each with fifty $100 dollar bills. Math was never my strong suit, but I guess that adds up to $50,000.

— Your guess is correct. Now where's the picture?

— Don't worry. I've got it but I'm reluctant to hand it over just yet.

— Why is that?

— Because once I give you the picture and you leave this cabin, that's the end of our story. And I don't think it's a strong enough ending for my book. More ... 

Fiction
Back  Fatted Calf Blues
by Steven Mayoff

The eighteen-wheeler pulled into the parking lot of a truck stop about thirty miles out of Dauphin, Manitoba, and found a spot beside a line of other rigs. Mavis Jean Bates opened the passenger door and stepped down from the cab, dragging her duffel bag after her.

"Thanks for the ride," she called up to the driver. "You hear of anyone heading west give me a holler. I'll be around."

"Sure thing." The driver remained in the cab and punched the buttons on a cellular phone.

The sweltering July morning stank of hot rubber and exhaust. Stifling waves of heat warped the air and gave the chrome grilles a liquid brilliance.

Mavis Jean's cowboy hat was tilted back, the wide brim framing the hollow-cheeked, nut-brown parchment of her face. The hard angles of her body poked against her denim shirt and faded Levis, like a scarecrow made of coat hangers. She strode across the parking lot, boots crunching over sun-baked pebbles and nodded to a small group of truckers standing around one of the rigs. More ... 

by John Timpane

Overpass

(I-95 south between Trenton and Philadelphia)

I'd driven underneath my death
A hundred times before I saw that steel,
Unfinished gesture arcing out
Across four hundred yards of emptiness.
I guess
The workers gathered every day must feel
The thing'll work. Time, cash, risk, breath
Expended, all to launch across the doubt
This tonnage of design-made-real.
... What a mess More ... 

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The Elder Statesman
Back  A Retro Look at Faculties
by Clark Elder Morrow

The word intelligence originally meant "normal understanding." From Roman times (intellgentia), it had referred to the average man's ability to discern and reason, and suggested nothing of superior perspicacity. It wasn't until the early fifteenth century that a man of intelligence was thought of as someone who exceeded his fellows in cognitive acumen, rather than as someone who was simply qualified to stand among them as one of them, at least in terms of mental agility. It was intelligence — the capacity to reckon from observed facts and first principles, and to draw commonsense conclusions — that made all men one in the medieval period, and served to establish a sort of democratic base beneath the feet of all people, regardless of rank. Mankind was homo sapiens: the "wise" animal, and his wisdom consisted of his universal ability to move mental counters about in his mind and to extrapolate from simple premises. More ... 

Postcards from Babel
Back  The Three Little Pigs Learn Latin
by Amalia Gnanadesikan

If you want to know what words of English are the homegrown ones descended from Anglo-Saxon, read The Little Red Hen. You will find simple words describing ordinary actions and a rustic way of life. This plain, unembellished vocabulary is our meager lexical inheritance from Old English (or, as they spelled it then, Englisc). It gives an inaccurate picture. Old English actually possessed a sophisticated heroic, literary, and theological vocabulary, but after the Norman Conquest of 1066 the ruling class was replaced with French speakers, opening the floodgates to French vocabulary and sweeping away the more cultured aspects of the mother tongue. Later, the Renaissance brought us a spate of words directly from Latin, some of them originally Greek. Despite its origins as a Germanic language, English can now trace the majority of its vocabulary to foreign sources, most often Latin, whether directly or indirectly via French.

The result of the widespread Romance borrowing is that Modern English vocabulary exists on two planes: one the simple, homey, or rude words, and the other the words of courtesy, erudition, precision, technology, and modern institutions. So an Anglo-Saxon smell is forthright and unaffected, while a Greco-Latin aroma is too genteel to get to the point. Similar divided vocabularies exist in Japanese and Korean, which have borrowed extensively from Chinese, and in the languages of South and Southeast Asia, which have borrowed from Sanskrit. More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back  A Blunt History of the Word Cunt
by Bill Casselman

In a humorous piece about snooty gardeners who grow only the rarest of horticultural exotica, written years ago for an elite gardening magazine, I once invented a pernicious weed and named it "twatwort, scourge of the Regency parterre." The lady editor of Enchanted Loam magazine rose in outrage, charged down the hallway to my humble freelancer's desk, spread her arms like a wing-drying stork and sang in its entirety Brünnhilde's Schlactruf from Act Two of Die Walküre.

As her vowels of elongated fury died away, along with my hopes of a fee, the editor pronounced her refusal to publish my funny piece. I begged her pardon repeatedly, like the cringing, lickspittle toady I am. I crawled before her on all fours, emitting plaintive meeping noises learned from my study of voles and lemmings. But I was barred for life from the lilac precincts of the magazine. She pointed to the door, and I was forced to pick up from the desk my cheap plaster bust of Casanova and glumly exit the premises. Thank goodness I hadn't called it cuntwort. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  Millions Dead
by Carey Harrison

Back to school! — may the good Lord preserve us. It has been a while since I taught an undergraduate literature class. In recent times my sentry duty has alternated between the salt mines of hostility to reading — composition classes from which English Majors are excluded — and the parapet of graduate literature classes to which a few well-read persons are drawn. Beside them sit charming and willing but barely literate persons, a good many of these being teachers in pursuit of a Masters degree and with it a better pay grade. I like the salt mines, where there are always a few undergraduates who discover that reading is more rewarding than they had thought. I also like the graduate classes, where we read Proust and Mann and contemplate the literary peaks, from our parapet. The classes I have been avoiding, in between these two poles, are the English Major undergraduate classes, where it's more shocking and more distressing to meet the marginal degree of literacy I take for granted in my composition classes. You see, the English Majors don't read, either. More ... 

By the time we left Placerville, I had written seven novels. I had self-published two of them under a pseudonym. But they were published by a print-on-demand company, which is little more than a vanity press. Each of my two published novels sold about thirty copies. Most of those I bought and distributed to friends and relatives. What's more I hadn't sold a short story in ages. In fact, I had become so desperate to see my fiction in print again, that I began contacting literary magazines to see if I could buy pages in one of their issues. My idea was to buy four or five pages worth of advertising space in a reputable literary journal and publish a short story on those pages. I'd be happy to let the magazine's editors clearly label the story with the word advertisement at the top of the page. I thought this might be a way of catching the attention of people in the publishing industry. I contacted the Paris Review first. I felt sure that an adventurous editor like George Plimpton would have admired my chutzpah. Unfortunately, Plimpton had died a short while before I put this plan into action. Many times I had seen poetry books and chapbooks advertised in the back pages of the Paris Review. Frequently an entire poem from one of these books would be reprinted in the advertisement. If the magazine would let a poet pay to publish a poem in its pages, how could it refuse to let a fiction writer do the same thing? I argued this point with a young staffer at the Paris Review, but he told me under no circumstances would I be allowed to put a story into the magazine. More ... 

Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases
Back  Whatever
by David Isaacson

Whatever is a word that serves a number of functions. As a pronoun it often means "anything or everything that," as in, "Whatever happens, let's hope it works out okay." As an adjective, this word usually means "of any number or of any kind," as in, "He applied whatever means he could to persuade her not to commit suicide." But more recently, whatever has also become an interjection that expresses reluctance or refusal to take the time or make the effort to think.

Although this sense of whatever hasn't yet been quite recognized as a new definition in The Oxford English Dictionary, the "Draft Additions" for September, 2001, offers this careful gloss:

int. colloq. (orig. U.S.). Usually as a response, suggesting the speaker's reluctance to engage or argue, and hence often implying passive acceptance or tacit acquiescence; also used more pointedly to express indifference, indecision, impatience, scepticism, etc.: 'as you wish'; 'if you say so'; 'it makes no difference to me'; 'have it your own way'; 'fine'.
More ... 

I once was told not to use a big word when a diminutive one will do. This module is devoted to one particular diminutive word: UP. UP is probably the most frequently used and maybe the most versatile word in the English language. In my dictionary, UP has 93 definitions — 33 as an adverb, 7 as a preposition, 37 as an adjective, 11 as a noun, and 5 as a verb. Actually, I think they missed one. It is also an interjection when used as a command as in, "UP, Fido!" That makes 94. 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  Special: The Leet Wars

August 23, 2007 — The Wall Street Journal publishes "What Did U $@y? Online Language Finds Its Voice." 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 editor@vocabula.com. More ... 

 Features

 Columnists


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — A Retro Look at Faculties

Amalia Gnanadesikan: Postcards from Babel — The Three Little Pigs Learn Latin

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — A Blunt History of the Word Cunt

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Millions Dead

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — The Legend of Steve Stryker: A Tale of the Writing Life — Part III

David Isaacson: Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases — Whatever

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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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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. In The Dictionary of Concise Writing, Fiske shows how to identify and correct wordiness.


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