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August 2008, Vol. 10, No. 8 There are now   205   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

Vocabula On Call
Coming in the September 2008 issue of The Vocabula Review:
The 2008 Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest Winners
The September issue is due online September 21.

Good Words Vocabula Press Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher

Silence, Language, & Society
A guide to style and meaning, grace and compassion

Silence, Language, & Society

"a remarkable little volume" — Midwest Book Review

"Silence Language & Society ... is an elegant little book, and I am very pleased to own it." — Joseph Epstein

"Robert Hartwell Fiske is one of the most quotable writers alive, and Silence, Language & Society positively oozes epigrammatic sentences from every page. If you like great writing, and if you enjoy reading pithy observations about language, literature, and life, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of this book." — Slade Allenbury

You can order Silence, Language, & Society from Vocabula Books or Amazon.


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.

Poem, Revised
54 Poems, Revisions, Discussions

Poem, Revised

You can order Poem, Revised from Amazon or Vocabula.




 In the August 2008 Vocabula

Back in the day, the early 70s, when some say passion for the written word was at its pinnacle, a young woman named Evangelina Nouveau came to us at Walters State Community College in Morristown, Tennessee. Walters State, nestled deep in the bosom of the Smoky Mountains, was in its own infancy in 1973, and when the exotic Ms. Nouveau moved here from New Orleans (or "N'Awlins," as she said it), there were whispers (yes, whispers). But all rumors of "Coon Ass" and "Voodoo" aside, none of us could question her everlasting enthusiasm, and we knew the Humanities was known the "touchy-feely-overachieve-y" division anyway. She worked hard (so hard), and the very, very local phrase "bless her heart" followed Evangelina in her onerous load of teaching and academic duties.

Evangelina was young and ambitious, and ever on the lookout for ways to enrich her classes, bless her heart. One fateful year she took a trip to Italy, to research Italian literature (The Decameron at a Community College!), and she met and married a man named after salvation itself. She returned in the fall to us reborn: Evangelina san Salvatori. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

I am a linguistic iconoclast. Throughout my life (I am now in my seventh decade), I have heard the mantra that learning a foreign language gives you invaluable insights into the cultures of the people who speak it. I don't believe it.

In addition to my native English (I grew up in Southern California), I have become fluent in two other languages and have a good working knowledge of three more. I doubt whether all this effort has given me any insights into the cultures of the people who speak these languages. At least no insights that I couldn't have acquired more easily in thirty to sixty minutes by reading a well-written essay or in a few hours by attending well-crafted social-cultural lectures.

By contrast, I have acquired a deeper understanding of science. More ... 

by Richard Lederer

In the rigid expressions that wear tonal grooves in the record of our crazy English language, beck can appear only with call, cranny with nook, hue with cry, main with might, fettle only with fine, aback with taken, caboodle with kit, and spick and span only with each other. Why must all shrifts be short, all lucre filthy, all bystanders innocent, and all bedfellows strange? I'm convinced that some shrifts are lengthy and that some lucre is squeaky-clean, and I've certainly met guilty bystanders and perfectly normal bedfellows.

Why is it that only swoops are fell? Sure, the verbivorous William Shakespeare invented the expression "one fell swoop," but why can't strokes, swings, acts, and the like also be fell? Why are we allowed to vent our spleens but never our kidneys or livers? Why must it be only our minds that are boggled and never our eyes or our hearts? Why can't eyes and jars be ajar, as well as doors? Why must aspersions always be cast and never hurled or lobbed? More ... 

I teach a class in advanced creative writing. At the beginning of the class, I ask students to populate their sentences with muscular verbs. "Find your power verbs. Avoid overuse of the 'to be' verb."

"Well, Shakespeare wrote 'to be or not to be,'" a student responds. "So what's wrong with using the 'to be' verb?"

"Find verbs to animate your ideas. Verb variety engages your reader. Choreograph sentences. Make verbs dance and tumble," my reply.

I focus on breaking a habit all writers fall into. It feels natural to write sentences with is, am, was, and were, and contractions such as that's or there's. On a subconscious level, we move into the "to be" groove. Many students do not know how to use passive voice intentionally, but that becomes another issue. Overuse of "to be" usually means inattention to the world of verb choices. More ... 

by Valerie Collins

"As far as translations go," said my colleague on the phone, in a bid to hook me into her team, "this is a real Mercedes-Benz project."

She could have said high-quality, first-rate, first-class, or even top-end. But how much more vivid and enticing to tell me it was a Mercedes-Benz. It immediately triggered a picture of the gorgeous sleek car gliding weightlessly through the snarled-up metropolis, and of the translator an underpaid and underappreciated clerical worker no longer but, well, a Beautiful Person. More ... 

by Kevin Mims, Donna Gorrell, Carey Harrison

Do we still use that word
To describe the feeling
Over a glass of wine,
Red burgundy maybe, pinot noir?

George Maurer's piano is
Whispering over your fireplace

And the cold winter sun is setting golden
On Saturday's snow,
On the icicles growing in the warmth that will destroy them, More ... 

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Vocabula button free for the asking.

The Critical Reader
Back  Rescuing the Hero
by Mark Halpern

Traditional literary heroes embarrass us nowadays; the idea of wholly good people — especially wholly good men — fighting wholly bad ones (and winning!) is just too childish. We moderns know that no one is wholly good or bad; that all parties to disputes have their dark sides, and that only primitives and Manicheans believe in contests between Good and Evil. Samples of our new-found sophistication are to be found everywhere in modern books and articles; just within the past few months we've seen books from two reputable writers1 arguing that even the Allies in World War II were not totally in the right, and that we should stop thinking of them as simple crusaders against wickedness. (Of course these two are coming rather late to the party; as early as 1943 Arthur Koestler observed that we were "fighting against a total lie in the name of a half-truth";2 but having said that, he sternly commanded us to continue fighting for the defeat of the total lie.) But what I'm interested in doing here is not arguing with those deep thinkers who are questioning the idea that any of us, including the Allies in that war, are simply Good; I want to explore the more homely question of how our new-found sophistication is working itself out in popular literature, principally in thrillers and detective stories. More ... 

Postcards from Babel
Back  Lies My Alphabet Told Me
by Amalia Gnanadesikan

It looks so innocent, parading across elementary-school walls in twenty-six pairs of capital and minuscule letters, but our alphabet is actually a dishonest set of characters. As a way to represent the English language, it's pretty marginal. In fact, it's a kluge.

You'll have heard that there are five vowels in English, sometimes six (when y gets in the game), and occasionally seven, for the sticklers who point out that w can be a vowel, as in now. The vowel in hat is the same vowel as the one in hate, but short instead of long.

That leaves twenty-one consonants, from b and c to x and z, though sometimes consonants work together. If you add an h-sound to an s-sound, you can change same to shame. Similarly, three has one more sound in it than tree.

Lies, all lies. Sure, the alphabet made these claims, just by being what it is, but none of it is true. More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back  Of Lariats, Lassoes, & Lou Dobbs
by Bill Casselman

I pondered the origin of the word lariat a few weeks ago, while watching crazy old Lou Dobbs, CNN's resident manic xenophobe, frothing about illegal immigrants. One imagines Lou stark upright in bed nightly at 3 a.m. screaming, "Wetbacks! There's wetbacks under my Sealy Posturpedic, waitin' to rape my schnauzer! Guards, git 'em!" Besides a good shrink, Lou could use a lariat to round-up "them thar varmints." Or a friend might point out to Lou that his invalid racism disguised as economic concern is utterly vile.

A lariat is a long rope with a running noose for ranch and range work with cattle and horses. Originally made of four plaits of braided rawhide, the lariat has an eye or loop at one end, through which the other end of the rope runs, enabling the formation of a noose to catch horses and cattle. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  How Was That Again?
by Carey Harrison

Since the dawn of language people have, I imagine, been asking each other to repeat what they just said. Even more frequently, you might suppose, at the dawn of language, when you were expecting "Harumph!" and heard "Elephant!" instead. In fact, you'd think that speakers of the same language would, over time, be increasingly comprehensible on first utterance, especially since dentistry has surely improved our diction, over the millennia.

I wonder. I believe I hear more instances of "Excuse me?" (British English: "I'm sorry?" or possibly "I beg your pardon?"), or just plain "What?" than ever before, in my lifetime. There are many other ways of saying this, of course, from "Hunh?" to "Would you mind repeating that?" A British pal of mine since our boarding school years found himself in San Francisco during the high old days of the late sixties, and returned to London with a wad of the locally printed Digger Dollars — I still possess one — and a habit, which he has never lost, of saying "Pardon me?" instead of "I'm sorry?" He says it with great courtesy, ducking his head, and the effect is almost flattering. More ... 

The Common Reader
Back  The Bard of Foreclosure
by Kevin Mims

The current foreclosure crisis will someday produce its own memorialists, writers who will give us autobiographical poems, stories, screenplays, and novels about the horrors and hardships of home-loss. But until that wave arrives, those interested in immersing themselves in the literature of dispossession could do worse than to delve into the poetry of William Wordsworth. So rife are Wordsworth's poems with edifices abandoned by their occupants that browsing through his collected works is somewhat akin to driving through a contemporary subdivision in, say, Stockton, California (a town particularly hard hit by the mortgage crisis), where 10 or 20 percent of the homes stand empty and forlorn.

Wordsworth's characters can find themselves homeless for any number of reasons — the death of a parent or guardian, the loss of a husband, a sudden drop in income. In "Michael," a shepherd and his wife are threatened with homelessness not because of their own financial missteps so much as those of the shepherd's nephew. Here is how Wordsworth explains the details: More ... 

Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases
Back  Paradigm
by David Isaacson

Paradigm used to be a useful word when it was restricted to its original rather specialized contexts. Unfortunately, through overuse in vague or general or inappropriate contexts, paradigm is often pretentious. Used precisely, this word means (according to The Oxford English Dictionary): More ... 

Letter of the Law
Back  A Lawyer by Any Other Name
by Adam Freedman

Lawyer, n. One skilled in the circumvention of the law.

So said Ambrose Bierce in his 1911 Devil's Dictionary. For better or worse, our language offers an abundance of terms — both nasty and nice — to describe lawyers. We're known as attorneys, counselors, advocates, and, occasionally, solicitors. An expert in ecclesiastical law is known as a decretist, while an all-around distinguished lawyer might be honored as a jurist.

The word lawyer dates from the fourteenth century; it combines law, an ancient Norse word meaning "that which is laid down," with the Middle English suffix -yer (also spelled -ier), which indicates employment or profession. Thus, a lawyer is simply one who works at the law, much as a sawyer works at sawing timber, a cashier works with cash, and so on. More ... 

Summer Edition

In June, July, and August, The Vocabula Review will be published as summer editions; that is, we will publish Features essays and Columnists' essays but few, if any, of the Departments (Disagreeable English, Clues to Concise Writing, etc.).

More Good Summer Reading


According to Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock and The Third Wave, human history can be viewed in terms of tidal waves of change. First there was the Agrarian Age, then came the Industrial Revolution, and now we are riding the crest of the third wave — the Information Age. According to Toffler, we shall before long have the closest thing to a civilization with total recall. That was twenty-eight years ago. Today, practically every form of information can be photographed, scanned, digitized, computerized, and processed for storage and retrieval. In the DoD research and development arena, where I plied my trade as a chemist and engineer, there is a growing collection of files, records, reports, and documents assembled in specialized dictionaries, encyclopedias, databases, libraries, and repositories. This fount of stored knowledge resides in technical information centers (TIC). The biggest TIC is the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC). It is the DoD’s largest resource for government-funded scientific, technical, engineering, and business-related information. It is the central collection and dissemination point for scientific and technical information with over two million documents collected and archived since its inception more than sixty years ago and with an annual acquisition of over 25,000 to 30,000 new entries. DTIC also oversees the management of nineteen Information Analysis Centers (IACs) that collect, analyze, synthesize, and disseminate relevant information in clearly defined and structured subject areas. There’s a TIC or an IAC for every conceivable technical discipline. You can even look them up in the dictionary. For instance, you can find a cardIAC there, which you might want to consult before your next bridge tournament. There's also a manIAC, if you're interested in anthropology. And, God forbid, if you're into satanic stuff, you can go straight to the demonIAC. More ... 

 Features

 Columnists


Mark Halpern: The Critical Reader — Rescuing the Hero

Amalia Gnanadesikan: Postcards from Babel — Lies My Alphabet Told Me

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Of Lariats, Lassoes, & Lou Dobbs

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — How Was That Again?

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — The Bard of Foreclosure

David Isaacson: Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases — Paradigm

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — A Lawyer by Any Other Name

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