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December 2008, Vol. 10, No. 12 There are now   10500   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

Coming in the January 2009 issue of The Vocabula Review:
"Talking to Students About Academic Discourse" by Missy-Marie Montgomery
The January issue is due online January 25.

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.

Speaking of Silence
(or Agnes and Otto)

A play in two acts

Speaking of Silence

This is a Vocabula Book. The plot is but scant. Agnes and Otto, octogenaries, and man and wife, who, though they live in the same house, have not, we soon realize, seen, much less spoken to, each other in many, many months.

Agnes, believing she is soon to die, writes Otto a note asking him to visit her. She does not want to be alone when she dies. She wants his company and whatever comfort he may be able to give her. But comfort Otto seems unable to offer.

You can order Speaking of Silence from Vocabula Books.

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 December 2008 Vocabula

by David R. Williams

Most of us who are concerned with language and usage must certainly be relieved that George Bush, with his mangling of the language, is finally leaving the stage, no longer serving as a negative role model for the young.

His replacement, Barack Obama, typed as a Harvard elitist by his Republican opponents, promises to restore the dignity of language. For the most part, he has been, and remains, a joy to listen to. But even the great Obama could use some small words of advice, and despite his obvious effort to choose each word deliberately as he speaks, he could be still more careful. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

R u there? K. ttyl.

If you understood any of that, you probably have a kid who's nine or older who is already fluent in "Texting as a Second Language" via cell phone or computer. As the mother of four text-message crazy teens, I am doing my best not to fall into a deep, text messaging–induced depression because people under 30 now spell "Thank you" as "thnx" and are cavalierly lopping off letters from thousands of other innocent words. This has reduced the overworked and underpaid verb "are" to a single, lonely consonant, and "later" now arrives that much sooner, since its two vowels have been ditched. More ... 

by Richard Lederer

How do cats greet each other at Christmas?

Have a Furry Merry Christmas and a Happy Mew Year!

How do sheep greet each other at Christmas?

Season's Bleetings and Fleece Navidad! Fleece on earth, good wool to men!

Punnery is largely the trick of compacting two or more ideas within a single word or expression. Punnery challenges us to apply the greatest pressure per square syllable of language. Punnery surprises us by flouting the law of nature that pretends that two things cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Punnery is an exercise of the mind at being concise. Punnery is a rewording experience, especially around Christmas time. That's when people exchange hellos and good buys with each other, the time of year when every girl wants her past forgotten and her presents remembered, the time of year when mothers have to separate the men from the toys. More ... 

Culture and Society
Back  The Making of Homo Scavengecus
by Abbas Zaidi

Recently, on a visit to Lahore, my home city, I went around with a journalist friend to observe and interview Lahore's scavengers in connection with an ethnographic research paper that I had been planning to write for some time. My friend dropped out soon since he could not stand the stench of the rubbish dumps. I managed to persist, however. After two weeks of research, I was able to bag a few facts. Here are a couple of them: (1) there were hardly any adult scavengers in those dumps, and (2) the number of boy and girl scavengers was almost equal. Based upon my observations, I can claim that the age group of the scavengers is between 4 and 18. I learned from them that since their elders cannot stand the stench of the rubbish dumps, they dispatch or force their children to do the scavenging. Personally, it was very painful to hear a number of little boys and girls say in Punjabi: "I do not feel the stench because it has become a part of my being" (my paraphrasing). The striking thing was that these kids were not just mechanical scavengers; that is, scavenging was not just a routine job that they did thoughtlessly without looking askance at the dumps. Though immune to the stench, they were aware of the filth and dirt that was a despicable and shameful source of their living. But what was exceedingly demoralizing to me was the indescribable helplessness in their tone. I wished they had been furious over their condition. But mine is only wishful thinking because in Pakistan fatalism is a basic component of the nationalist–Islamist discourse. Through the media and the mullahs, the elites have been able to convince the people that their condition is the result of the divine will; if they stay pious and law abiding, all blessings await them in paradise. Hence theirs (the scavenging children included) is what I would like to call passive awareness. This partly explains why poor Pakistanis are committing suicide every day instead of protesting against the system that has mired them in poverty. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back  Perilous Pronouns
by Ada Brunstein

First: I argued over we.

Me: So, we went out for pizza and beer.
Him: We?
Me: Yeah.
Him: Fine.
Me: What?
Him: You're a we?
Me: A what?
Him: A we.
Me: You're nuts.

If you've been in a relationship, this exchange will not surprise you. You know that words matter. Love makes linguists of us all. As close as we feel to our loved ones, we're always trying to get one step closer, hoping ultimately to end up inside their heads — and language is the best way to get there. We might grab on to a verb, lean on a noun, ponder a preposition (and later a proposition), wondering what was meant by each one. More ... 

by Serena Howlett

I am old. I wake up in bed and shudder. I know I must conquer this almost overwhelming fear that threatens to seep into the very crevices of my soul. Like dampness in the cave when the fire went out.

For strength I think of my father, a skilled and diligent hunter. One day he came home with a handsome young man as a helper. Even though my father is very strong, it took two to bring today's kill home. My mother is happy; she bows and smiles at the stranger, making a musical sound he understands to mean he will always be welcome here. Some days later he returns and the four of us crouch around the fire as the fat drips from the fleshy bones of the carcass he and father had dragged home, filling our cave with pungent aroma. Baby brother sleeps in Mother's lap. More ... 

by Desi Di Nardo

It's the copycats
The mimics
Who dream in colour
Of grandiose lexicons and astronomical stardoms
Unlike what we fall asleep to—
The organization and masterminding of planets and agendas
Looking for guarantees rather than reveries
Rummaging for petunias and strawberries
Our fields overflow with anorexic stench
Sometimes the big words trap our breath More ... 

The Elder Statesman
Back  Two Views of Jargonland
by Clark Elder Morrow

I am something of a connoisseur of jargon. I enjoy delving into the arcana of a profession's insider jaw-music — the private reserve of terms indulged in by a particular group of enthusiasts. One often finds a whole new world of poetic insights in the slang phrases and neologisms abounding in the vocabulary of a friend's avocation. I have written before on the patois of Renaissance Faire–type re-enactors (Snarking the Wire Weenies, Vocabula Review, July, 2003), and this time around I'd like to examine some of the more colorful verbalisms peculiar to an even more exotic congeries of people: teenage goths.

Goths today are descended from a splinter group that broke away from the punk rock movement of the late 1970s — in goth circles, these proto-goths are known as "the first generation." That movement died out, but there was a revival in the late eighties known as the second generation. Though goths are not as plentiful now as they were in the 1990s, they are lingering remnants of this second generation, and find themselves divided into a series of layers and levels. These strata include "wannabes," who are known as baby bats or spooky kids. People who dress normally day to day and then dress in a gothic style at goth get-togethers are known as weekenders. The more tragic or morbid goths are called doomandglooms or mopeygoths. On the other hand, those who like music and get an obvious kick out of "the scene," and are not morbid at all, are called perkies. Followers of the execrable Marilyn Manson are mansonites, of course, and while they're at a concert you might still catch them doing a dance called the gothicslide — a chaotic gyration in which their boots never leave the floor. Fans of technomusic are called ravers (because they're the ones likely to be seen at a rave party). More ... 

During April–September 2004, The Vocabula Review published six essays of mine about the practice of editing, collectively titled "Editing as You Would Be Edited." This essay may be considered the seventh of that series.

What follows is a study of certain problems in the communication of ideas to the reading public. It takes the form of documented accounts of a couple of my experiences in trying to publish pieces in certain print journals. The experienced reader, seeing an author recounting his personal experiences on the pretext that he is doing so for the public good, may suspect that his motives are not entirely altruistic, but that a certain amount of score-settling and getting-back-at one's adversaries might be part of the picture. In the present case, I will save that reader the trouble of suspecting, and freely confess that I feel resentment toward those who have, for what in my opinion are discreditable reasons, caused pieces of mine to be rejected, and that I take some personal satisfaction in publicly criticizing their bad behavior. But my enjoyment of a measure of mean, vindictive pleasure in doing so does not change the fact that the problems I point to are real, and that the reading public, and the editors and referees who supposedly serve that public, may benefit from the exposure of those problems. Revenge, a dish that we are told is best eaten cold, is one that when properly sauced and served can provide real nourishment, and not just for the aggrieved party. More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back  What's Behind the Word Fanny?
by Bill Casselman
Dear Bill Casselman

I have a niggling question & after reading your delightful & scholarly A Blunt History of the Word Cunt I decided you're the best authority I know after Eric Partridge & you may be able to answer it.

What are the origins of "fanny"? In my native U.S.A. , "fanny" means the behind. But my English friend Suzie says in Britain it means "cunt." Partridge gives only "female pudendum." But any U.S. dictionary gives "behind." Now, in Lyon, France, there's a legend of the woman named Fanny who lifted her skirts & displayed her backside to be kissed by the winner of their game of boules.

All the best,

Paula Yoni

Bill Casselman replies:

Fanny means "ass" or "bum" in American English. But in England it is a synonym for "cunt." But fanny is not quite as crude as the c-word in North America. British men use the c-word far more than North American guys. Sodden yobbos on the way to a soccer match may even criticize affectionately fellow British males with "You forgot the marijuana? You silly cunt!"

But still today British persons of quality, for example, Her Divine Though Withered Altitude The Queen, would never stoop to utter the vulgarism "fanny." More ... 

by Carey Harrison

My charming, patient Post-War British Fiction students are currently becalmed in the brackish waters of Lawrence Durrell's Justine, the first novel of his Alexandria Quartet. I say "brackish" because Mr. Durrell can scarce forbear to use the adjective when Alexandria's salt sea breezes blow off the torpid waters of the port. "Torpid" — there's another word to conjure with. T. S. Eliot speaks in the Four Quartets of "the torpid driven on the wind," a phrase that was once a source of amusement to my fellow boarding-schoolers. In the school slang, junior boys were known as "torpids," and during our compulsory afternoon runs our "torpids" were often driven on the wind, much as Eliot states, around the gloomy hills of North London. Of course Eliot didn't mean Harrow schoolboys; he meant those-who-are-torpid or listless, the febrile inhabitants of our godless cities and suburbs — but how many of his younger readers could possibly know the meaning of his chosen word? More ... 

As a girl, my wife's favorite book was The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Whenever I'm in a used-book store, I always check to see if they have an attractive older edition of the book. If they do, and I can afford it, I buy it for her. Through the years, I've given her about a dozen copies of the book. But not until earlier this year, after twenty-eight years of marriage, did I finally get around to reading this spousal favorite. I found it so enjoyable that I devoted much of the year to reading (or, in some cases, rereading) classic books for children, including Charlotte's Web, Black Beauty, Anne of Green Gables, The Swiss Family Robinson, and The Wind in the Willows. I also read some relatively obscure children's books, such as Knock Three Times! by Marion St. John Webb, The Children of Green Knowe, by L. M. Boston, and Tom's Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce. All three were excellent and deserve to be as widely known as Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz. More ... 

Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases
Back  Significant Other
by David Isaacson

Although it is often no more than a politically correct cliché, the phrase significant other is sometimes useful to describe a relationship for which the words husband, wife, spouse, mate, best friend, lover, partner, mentor, or soul-mate are not appropriate. This is how the Oxford English Dictionary, in a provisional recent definition of the phrase, glosses it: More ... 

Letter of the Law
Back  Nice Work
by Adam Freedman

In these recessionary times, the top priority for most people is keeping, or finding, decent work. But lawyers — perennial sticklers for first principles — are still trying to nail down the definition of work.

Is one, for example, "working" during those first few minutes at the office while "booting up" the computer? A number of enterprising lawyers have filed class-action lawsuits on behalf of thousands of employees who claim to have a federal right to be paid for the time spent waiting for their computers to wake up. More ... 

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

First came carpal tunnel, from so much typing; then an arthritic thumb from too much texting; and a recent study from the UK reports that the keyboard harbors more germs than a toilet seat. But this Language Module is about another kind of hazard. 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 ... 

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 ... 


The Enormity of It All — David R. Williams

You Never Call, You Only Text — Judy Gruen

A Stockingful of Christmas Puns — Richard Lederer

Culture and Society: The Making of Homo Scavengecus — Abbas Zaidi

Vocabula Revisited: Perilous Pronouns — Ada Brunstein

Fiction: A Long Way from Home — Serena Howlett

Two Poems — Desi Di Nardo


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Two Views of Jargonland

Mark Halpern: The Critical Reader — Some Problems with Editors (or Private Vices, Public Benefits)

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — What's Behind the Word Fanny?

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Mashie-Niblicks of the World, Unite!

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — The WOW Factor (Or Reflections on a Year of Reading Classic Children's Books)

David Isaacson: Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases — Significant Other

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — Nice Work


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Today's popular dictionaries often fail to define words correctly or to distinguish between them; some dictionaries even maintain that one word means the same as another simply because people who do not know the correct meanings of the words confuse them. Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English — a supplement to whatever dictionary you own or use — is an attempt to combat this nonsense, to return meaning and distinction to the words we use.

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