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April 2008, Vol. 10, No. 4 There are now   744   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

Vocabula On Call
Coming in the May 2008 issue of The Vocabula Review:
"The King's Coughers" by Richard Burnett Carter
The May issue is due online May 18.
Meet Mike, our newest Vocabula Community member.

Good Words Vocabula Press Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher

Vocabula Bound 1 and Vocabula Bound 2

Vocabula Bound 1 and Vocabula Bound 2

Vocabula Bound 1 and Vocabula Bound 2

Want to read The Vocabula Review in print, on paper, in a book?

Vocabula Bound 1: Outbursts, Insights, Explanations, and Oddities — twenty-five of the best essays and twenty-six of the best poems published in The Vocabula Review.

Vocabula Bound 2: Our Wresting, Writhing Tongue — twenty-eight of the best essays and ten of the best poems published in The Vocabula Review.

Certainly, two of the best collections of essays about the English language

You can order Vocabula Bound 1 and Vocabula Bound 2 from Vocabula Books.

 In the April 2008 Vocabula

I didn't set out to be a word geek.

It may have been a latent talent — I was one of few to earn "teacher's pet" status in Mrs. Germann's honors English class at Heritage High School.

Later, when I was working as a temporary clerk in the features department of The News-Sentinel in Fort Wayne, and the copy desk supervisors learned I was sending along clean content without benefit of a style guide, they were so impressed that they asked me to join their team. "Sure," I said, "what does a copy editor do?"

It was then that I learned to live and die for perfection. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

Back  Mentor
by Julian Burnside

At Australia's Victorian Bar, new barristers are called readers. They serve a kind of apprenticeship with a more experienced practitioner in order to learn the craft. There was a time when we were unenlightened and readers read with masters. That word was conceived to have sexist overtones and was abandoned; consigned to the scrap-heap of undesirable words.

This was misguided although well intentioned. Master in this sense has nothing to do with the sex of the person referred to, as a Master of the Supreme Court knows. A master's degree in any discipline is equally available to women and men. And magistrates can be men or women notwithstanding that magistrate comes from the same etymological root as master. More ... 

by Mark P. Painter

Of course, gender matters in many contexts, but here we will talk about writing. The English language has no singular gender-neutral personal pronouns, which creates problems.

Years ago, and without question, everyone used he and him generically. These pronouns were said to encompass everyone. But they don't — they leave out at least half the audience. More ... 

It is truly astounding what havoc students can wreak upon the chronicles of the human race. I have pasted together the following "history" of the world from genuine, certified, authentic student bloopers collected from teachers throughout the world, from eighth grade through college level.

Read carefully, and you will learn a lot.

The inhabitants of ancient Egypt buried their mummies and daddies in the pyramids, and they all wrote in hydraulics. They lived in the Sarah Dessert, which they cultivated by irritation and over which they traveled by Camelot. The climate of the Sarah is such that the inhabitants have to live elsewhere, so certain areas of the dessert are cultivated by irrigation. Ancient Egyptian women wore a calasiris, a loose-fitting garment which started just below the breasts which hung to the floor. More ... 

Book Excerpt
Back  Passive Voice
by Lawrence Weinstein

A relative of William James once tried to explain passive voice to a small girl: "Suppose that you kill me: you who do the killing are in the active voice, and I, who am killed, am in the passive voice." (Here the passive construction is "am killed.") That smart girl was not satisfied, however:

"How can you speak if you're killed?" said the child. "Oh, well, [said the adult,] you may suppose that I am not yet quite dead!" The next day the child was asked in class to explain the passive voice, and said, "It's the kind of voice you speak with when you ain't quite dead."

The theme of most commentary on the passive voice in our times appears to be its sad unfitness for use by writers who are not on their deathbeds. Strunk and White lead the way. In The Elements of Style they proclaim as their rule no. 10, "Use the active voice," and they press the case for "direct," "vigorous," "forcible" language. They don't favor the elimination of all passives; they themselves use the construction "can be made lively" on the same page where their rule no. 10 appears. But their thrust is clear: it is to inspire more writing like their own, writing that has thrust. More ... 

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

An implicit and almost universal assumption of discussions published in professional and semipopular scientific journals is that the problem under discussion has a technical solution. A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.
          — Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons

Some thoughts about computer security that had been floating around half-formed in my mind for a few years crystallized for me when I read a recent issue of a popular personal-computing magazine. The cover story of that issue deals with what it calls the ten greatest problems in personal computing, of which the first and the third concern security against deliberate attacks — security for one's data and one's identity (the second is concerned with security, too, but only as threatened by software bugs). The article1 promises to tell us how we're going to "solve" the problems that it lists, but of course it does no such thing, it simply reviews a number of possible measures that may or may not prove to be of help in dealing with them. More ... 

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

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 ... 

Back  A Poem
by Janna Layton

A Retired Businessman's Reply to a Racy Magazine Questionnaire

I slept with X., my younger, former boss—
platonically, I swear. We're straight. I can
explain. You see, he fired me. Little snit.
The adolescent dared to axe me. Hell,
I worked for half his lifetime there. Of course
I sued for wrongful termination. X.,
to hasten resolution, flew first-class
to my vacation home in Maine. We hoped More ... 

Back  A Poem
by Lucy Blodget Neill

What I Need Now

What I need now is to bite into birch bark and find it sweet;
To drown in a black opal,
To braid a cantering horse's tail,
To rip a sheet of silver in half and see its edges drip like caramel. More ... 

Vocabula button free for the asking. Click here.
Vocabula button free for the asking.

It's the name of newly elected Russian president, Dimitri Medvedev, Putin's plastic puppet, the name that U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton could not even get close to pronouncing correctly. La belle dame sans souci, Hillary almost swallowed her tongue trying to enunciate an important name that was on the lips of every TV commentator that week of the Russian so-called election. It always shows class if the U.S. president mangles the very name of a potential Russian guest in the White House.

Medvedev (Med-VED-yev) is a compound surname made up of an initial word, medved, Russian "bear," literally "honey-eater"+ -ev or -ov, a surname suffix, based on an old Slavic genitive plural, that means "descendant of." Very much as English speakers might say, "That's Joseph of the Jeffersons." More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  Connecting to the Web
by Carey Harrison

Returning, after last month's sorties, to more a modest topic, closer to home: I've received a few enquiries from kindly readers wondering how my graduate class in Shakespeare's Sonnets, about which I made such a fuss in the New Year, has been going. Have the students succeeded in learning a sonnet every week? More ... 

The Common Reader
Back  Granny's Memory Book
by Kevin Mims

Recently, my 86-year-old mother-in-law had to give up independent living. Granny B, as everyone calls her, has begun to lose much of her memory. Though she recognizes them, she can no longer recall the names of her only child (my wife, Julie) or her two granddaughters (my stepdaughters, Andrea and Mary Ann). If you ask her what year it is, she'll tell you 1988. In her mind, Ronald Reagan is still president. She's not sure what country she lives in but "the people are so much nicer than Americans."

On a scorching hot weekend in August 2007, Andrea and Mary Ann moved Granny out of her apartment and into a single-occupancy 300-square-foot room at an assisted-care facility that caters to the memory impaired. Granny is free to wander from her room to the cafeteria and to the recreation center. She cannot go outside without supervision. If she started to wander outdoors, she might just keep on wandering until she became hopelessly lost and had no idea where she was, which is exactly what happened on her final day in the old apartment. More ... 

Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases
Back  Doctoring Language
by David Isaacson

Doctors usually deserve to be called doctors at least as much as bricklayers deserve to be called bricklayers. Many of us, especially if we have worked hard to earn a professional degree, are upset when we think someone isn't paying us the respect our professional status deserves. Even in such an apparently egalitarian society as ours, titles have a lot of clout. If job and professional titles were not important, the word entitlement would not have moral as well as literal significance.

Most physicians expect people they don't know to address them as "Doctor" rather than with the over-familiar and potentially insulting "Doc." On the other hand, the average American hates what he perceives to be false gentility; we are very quick to castigate anyone who seems to be putting on airs. This sometimes leads to a frustrating dilemma in choosing the appropriate way to address a physician, psychologist, judge, professor, or other person whose profession entitles him or her to be called "Doctor," "Judge," or "Professor." Even if we don't think much of the person holding the degree, polite convention suggests that we honor the person's profession with the appropriate title. But, being Americans, we don't want to seem to kowtow to bigwigs. Unfortunately, this often admirable skepticism toward people in power can lead some of us, often unwittingly, to be too informal in the way we address people whose professional identity is hard to detach from their names. If we are too informal, we may insult people whose office, at least, deserves the respect associated with titles like Doctor, Judge, and Professor. More ... 

Letter of the Law
Back  Taxing Vocabulary
by Adam Freedman

Now that our tax returns are in the mail — they are, aren't they? — let's take a moment to consider the lexical feast that is the Tax Code. I know, I know, you probably consider the IRS's formula-laden instructions to be the ultimate revenge of the math nerds. But the truth is that words are far more powerful than numbers when it comes to taxes.

The Internal Revenue Code contains no fewer than eighty-five definitional sections, each one parsing scores of words and phrases to a nicety. With the smallest shift in the definition of a single word, the IRS can visit misery — or relief — on millions of people. More ... 

Back  Duty, Honor, Country
by Verónica Albin

Remember the book Coffee, Tea, or Me that was later turned into a movie? It is some forty years old, so I had to go to Amazon to refresh my memory for you. The novel, purportedly the "uninhibited memoirs of two airline stewardesses," was published by Bartholomew House in New York under the names Trudy Baker and Rachel Jones. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times when people still put fancy clothes on to fly, and flight attendants, at least those on Braniff, took fancy clothes off, piece by piece, in that infamous play-on words ritual known as the "air strip." Back then the attendants were all female, young, and purty as a pitcher, and Braniff was not alone in selling meat. PSA conjured an image of its stewardesses of purity, sobriety, and availability; Southwest Airlines flew with "Love Birds"; and National Airlines, infamously, carried the slogan that enraged feminists: "I'm Cheryl, fly me." In any event, the novel was evidently popular because, in English, it spawned three sequels: The Coffee, Tea or Me Girls Lay It on the Line, The CToM Girls Get Away from It All, and The CToM Girls ‘Round the World Diary. Since one ought not to mention deep works of literature such as these in a journal of the caliber of The Vocabula Review without having done thorough research, I discovered a book called Coffee, Tea or Me, Mei Shih ai ching published in Taiwan a few years later, but Trudy and Rachel aren't the authors. I did find, however, an observation about Trudy Baker by one George Thompson that said: "RLIN (Research Libraries Information Network) also shows Trudy Baker to be the author of a number of elementary school math texts, published in Canada, so perhaps she has reformed, not that I necessarily think that one needs to reform from being an uninhibited airline stewardess, nor that writing mathematics texts would be a symptom of reformation." Indeed, Mr. Thompson. Indeed. Reformed or not, this important book just recently got republished by Penguin, which tells us a lot about the fine taste of the American reader. More ... 

A simile is a figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly compared. Often used to emphasize a point of discussion, a simile usually begins with the word like or as. "Since the very beginning of English literature, the simile has been a favorite figure of speech." That's according to Frank Jenners Wilstach, who began collecting similes in 1894 and published his 488 page A Dictionary of Similes in 1916 with over 15,000 attributed entries. Of course, they're as old as the hills and many are as dry as dust; but some are still as fresh as daisies. They seem to come in three flavors: 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 Vocabula
Back  Mock 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 ... 

Free in Vocabula
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 ... 


But What if it Really Is Fantabulous? — Julianne Will

Mentor — Julian Burnside

Gender Matters — Mark P. Painter

The World According to Student Bloopers — Richard Lederer

Book Excerpt: Passive Voice — Lawrence Weinstein

Culture and Society: How to Fight Malware: Personal Computers in the Age of Political Correctness — Mark Halpern

Vocabula Revisited: Ain't We Got Fun? — Steven G. Kellman

A Poem — Janna Layton

A Poem — Lucy Blodget Neill


Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Dimitri Anatolevich Medvedev: Etymology of the Names of the New Russian President

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Connecting to the Web

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — Granny's Memory Book

David Isaacson: Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases — Doctoring Language

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — Taxing Vocabulary

Verónica Albin: Wor(l)ds — Duty, Honor, Country


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