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February 2008, Vol. 10, No. 2 There are now   1947   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

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Coming in the March 2008 issue of The Vocabula Review:
"The Folk Art of Error" by Edwin L. Battistella
The March issue is due online March 16.
Meet Laura, our newest Vocabula Community member.

Good Words Vocabula Press Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher

All-in-One Whitesmoke

 In the February 2008 Vocabula

Nothing but darkness to lose — Bob Dylan

It all began with an email from the "dean" of the Emeritus College: "Dear Skip, Would you be interested in joining the Emeritus Idol's spelling-bee team? Several of your friends, I've learned, think of you as the ‘Wordspinner'! If you are interested, you would be joining Professors John Butler and Lucy Rollin who have already expressed a willingness to serve our college in this charitable endeavor to assist Helping Hands of Clemson." Though I had not competed in a spelling bee since the fourth grade, where I'll never forget misspelling chocolate, how could I say no when I was probably the youngest member of this college of antiquarians, having retired just three weeks earlier? Moreover, I'd hoped to teach part time for a few years in my dotage before rigor mortis sets in.

So off I went to McClure's Book Store, our sponsor, one Friday morning to hear the details of what I'd volunteered for. In the army, I'd discovered that, contrary to popular opinion, volunteering could lead to some interesting assignments while the rest of the company policed the parade grounds. Trouble was that by isolating yourself, you increased your visibility, and exposure meant pressure. Of course, most of this pressure was generated by the internal trash compactor called "the self." A few days would have to pass before I would learn if these insights still held. Meanwhile, I consoled myself by thinking that this was to be a team effort and that the humiliation, if that was our fate, would be shared. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by Ellen Graf

Florasee's foot hurt. It was the one the runaway horse stepped on when she was a child. Her lower back hurt from an old stab wound. I worked for a housing agency that helped adults with a mental-health diagnosis to live alone. They were usually lonely. I fixed vacuum cleaners, weather-stripped doors, and sat in hospital waiting rooms while people had gall bladders or brain tumors removed.

Florasee and I sat with our knees drawn up on the top tier bench of the community center's small steam room. The yellow tiled walls sweated in grape-sized drops, and vapor filled the close quarters. In one corner, a pile of rocks rose from a square receptacle sunk into the lower bench tier. Every ten minutes a tremendous Tssssuh! escaped the spaces between the stones, intensifying the heat tenfold. By the time the noise ceased, we could not see each other's faces or breathe without scalding our lungs. We said, "This is a no joke steam room," and "It helps to hold the towel over your mouth." I had heard steam was good for the body, that it released toxic chemicals, though I had never heard these chemicals named. They were just "toxins in the body." Florasee said they were demons that attached themselves to you for the ride. We tried to stick it out and let as many demons as possible go back where they came from. Florasee said this was not very far away — just outside the skin, in fact. More ... 

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It's potentially dangerous, I know, to attempt to base any observations too confidently upon the hurried, harried writings of college students. As Albert Lindemann has shown, in a selection of winning bloopers culled from years of student essays (the claim that "Sir Francis Drake circumcised the globe with a 100-foot clipper" stands as a titan in this field), the prose of undergraduates can read as more humorous than reliable. And yet, occasionally, the solemn marathon that is essay grading (and that forms a central part of my job as an art history professor) reveals a linguistic turn that is neither gaffe nor double entendre, but that points rather to a more general trend in contemporary language usage.

Take the word oftentimes, for example. For most of my seven years of college teaching, the word cropped up only rather rarely in student writing; I'd guess that I'd see it in a student essay once a semester or so. Shaking my head, I'd cross it out, scrawl the obviously better often in the margin, and then read on: professor as gardener, coming across a slightly exotic weed, promptly pulling it up, and then moving on, untroubled, down the row. But over the course of the past year, this specific weed has become absolutely profuse. "Oftentimes," I read, "medieval pilgrims left gifts at the shrines of saints." "Celtic manuscripts oftentimes feature complex, knotlike patterns." And "Baroque paintings are oftentimes characterized by theatrical compositions and dramatic contrasts of light and dark." More ... 

by Richard Lederer

I am a wordstruck, word bethumped, word besotted, wordaholic, unrepentant verbivore.

Carnivores eat flesh and meat; piscivores eat fish; herbivores consume plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. I am such a creature. My whole life I have feasted on words — ogled their appetizing shapes, colors, and textures; swished them around in my mouth; lingered over their many tastes; let their juices run down my chin. During my adventures as a fly-by-the-roof-of-the-mouth, user-friendly wizard of idiom, I have met thousands of other wordaholics, logolepts, lexicomaniacs, and verbivores, folks who also eat their words. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back  Grammar Matters
by Marylaine Block

My generation may well have been the last one to be taught to diagram sentences in school. Some of you may not even know what diagramming a sentence is: a kind of exploratory surgery in which you open up a sentence to see how it works by finding out what grammatical function each word is serving. You identify the subject, the verb, and its object; then you put the adjectives with the nouns they are modifying, the prepositions with their objects. It was boring drudgery, and I never knew anybody who enjoyed doing it.

But those of us who learned diagramming do not go around writing headlines like these:

British Left Waffles on Falklands

Chester Morrill, 92, Was Fed Secretary

We expect sentences to follow normal English sentence structure: subject, verb, object. This means our initial reading of the first headline will be that British soldiers left their breakfast on the Falkland Islands — the writer also failed to take into account that left is a verb as well as noun, and waffles a noun as well as a verb. And since the Federal Reserve Board is not what first leaps to our minds when we see the word fed, we end up with the rather macabre vision of Chester Morrill as inadvertent cannibal. More ... 

Back  Testing
by Bruce Bromley

When Dr. Siegel says, "You've tested negative," you imagine that the hook hidden in his mouth pierces through each word. His bottom lip sticks against his teeth on "negative," as though he could hardly bear to let it go. But Dr. Siegel is like that with words. You remember — when you came before — the particular kind of quiet with which he met your nodding at his Harvard and Columbia degrees, the swimming pool trembling through the slatted blinds. You recall the way he withdrew the needle from your arm: slowly, as if he would not let it go. Now, you see Dr. Siegel offer you his hand, hear him praise your "luck," while Mrs. Siegel waves from the pool still visible through the window. When she appears in the office, you greet her as a longtime friend of the family, and she takes your hand. You remember the time before, when you tried to shake Dr. Siegel's hand; he removed it quickly: he could only let it go.

As you walk through the waiting-room on your way to the car, you are trying to notice the U of the receptionist's smile, the copies of Ladies Home Journal in which recipes for casseroles and cookies must sit, waiting to be used. You are not going to recall the last time you saw Derek in the hospital, when you attempted to feed him some translucent broth from a little spoon. You did not recognize his mouth. Underneath the sheets, his legs were swallowed by the bed. You wiped the broth that ran down his chin. You felt the bone there. More ... 

by Mark Zimmermann

Victor Frankenstein

In a test of secret invention, I revere
infinities, increase of fact, reason.
Ancient certainties face a transient frontier;
reserve no encore! In science's version
of creation, a fakir or far off seer
invents arcana, stories, incarnates
fear of skies, fire, seas, ice. A savior
arrives: renaissance visions of science
free a creator to fear no constraint
in arc or force of invention. I foresee
rock for a stone-carver ever constant
in narration of necro-artistries.
As Victor's freak, I ... I savor no kiss.
Cast off, afire, I sink in seas of ice
. 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 ...

Become a Card-Carrying Votary of Vocabula

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prizes well-spoken, well-written language.

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A society is generally as lax as its language.

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The Critical Reader
Back  The Root of Political Correctness
by Mark Halpern

Political Correctness (PC), a social phenomenon that came into prominence sometime in the 1960s, is a cluster of attitudes and habits that spring from liberalism in extremis. I think its root can be uncovered and its origins fairly well pinpointed, and I propose to do that here.

The PC (I'll use the abbreviation both for the thing and for the individuals and groups that exhibit it; the context will make each usage clear) is one who acts as if he believes, and may indeed believe, that the world is divided into Persecutors and Victims, and that the membership of the two groups is a settled matter: as between the rich and the poor, the rich are P's and the poor are V's; likewise as between men and women, whites and "people of color," the mature and the young, the people of the industrialized countries and those of the third world, manufacturers and consumers, and so on. These matters are so settled, in fact, that a kind of revolution in morality and epistemology has taken place to reflect that settlement; for the PC, everything that seems to work in favor of the V's is good, everything that works against them is bad — and such older criteria as truthfulness, conformity to facts, and internal coherence are secondary at best. And much of American policy, domestic and foreign, is determined or at least heavily influenced by the PC — which means, driven by the near-hysteria that has gripped them since the middle of the twentieth century, which is when the phenomenon started. More ... 

Back  Yuma Blues
by John Kilgore

With great excitement, I just rented the newly released DVD of 3:10 to Yuma, one of 2007's most celebrated movies — only to pop the disk out of the player, a few hours later, badly disappointed. Notwithstanding bravura lead performances by Russell Crowe and Christian Bayle, beautiful and poetic landscapes, some crackerjack dialogue, and a well-paced, memorable plot, the film finally amounts to the most Godawful baloney you ever tried to choke down.

The fault lies entirely in the action sequences, the gun battles that always lie at the heart of the Western. In this particular specimen, they are too frequent, too long, too loud, too gory, too populous, too casual, too acrobatic, too predictable, too destructive and lethal by an order of magnitude, and completely unconvincing. None of the choices made by any of the participants makes any tactical sense, or bespeaks even the most slender desire to go on living. To the extent the contestants have any comprehensible motive, it appears to be to do what they are doing — making a movie — and everyone seems in a rush to perform his bit — dying in an explosion of catsup, say, or drilling three enemies in a heartbeat, or sitting still amid the chaos with a sardonic and evil grin — so he can hurry on to the next fight. No one ever drops down behind a rock to reload or fire from behind cover, because that would waste time that could be spent showing bodies twitching as the lead socks into them. Who lives and dies in any given skirmish is entirely and visibly at the whim of the director, and at the adventure's end, Russell guns down everyone in sight, including the four devoted cronies who have been struggling to rescue him, just because, what the hell, there seems to be some unspent ordnance left, and some of the bit players have not yet had the chance to try their death rattles. More ... 

by Bill Casselman

Early in October of 2007, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced government plans for new arctic studies of Canada's Far North. These were projects designed to defend and to reassert Canadian arctic sovereignty in the face of threats from Russia and bullying innuendoes from the United States about an open, international Northwest Passage, by which Uncle Sam meant an American-controlled Northwest Passage for U.S. freighters through the melting Canadian arctic ice. One of the announced programs proposed to study changes to the Canadian cryosphere — the snow, glaciers, ice caps, and lake, river, and sea ice found in the region.

One report spoke of the atmosphere, the lithosphere, the hydrosphere, and the cryosphere.

Cryosphere = cryo- from κρúος, Greek "frost, icy cold" + sphere from σφαîρα, Greek "ball."

Σφαîρα was borrowed from Koine Greek into an early Late Latin form like sphera or sphæra and thence into Old French esphere/espere and appeared in English by the thirteenth century. At first, in English the word sphere referred to the globe of space enclosing the earth and the "ball" of the planet as well. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  "SV" Disease — Is There a Cure?
by Carey Harrison

Those of you who in the kindness of your hearts have been following my columns will have noticed a certain feverish tendency to mention the graduate class on Shakespeare's sonnets that I have been about to begin teaching. I began to fret (heavens, how would I climb this wondrous glass mountain?) toward the end of last year. In more and more of a tizzy, I published a draft of my opening address in the December 2007 Vocabula Review. Finally the moment arrived, and I read aloud to the newly seated class what I'd written — something I can never remember doing before, since I've known for more years than I care to mention that the better classes I contrive are the ones I haven't over-prepared, much less scripted. I read out the address; the class was — as you have been — patient with me; I then had to reveal the bad news, which was that in a world of literature where no one memorizes texts any more I would require of them that they learn one sonnet every week.

One sonnet. Not a huge task, but daunting if you've not compulsorily memorized anything since the national anthem, other than facts for classwork. You could, I suggested, choose the same sonnet, over and over. That would be perfectly good. In fact, if a student re-memorized and wrote out, at the beginning of the class (no one has to stand and recite, unless they wish to), the very same sonnet for fourteen consecutive weeks, he or she might have acquired a lasting possession. Such a student might actually remember the sonnet longer than did the student who learned a new one every week and swiftly forgot them all. It's the gift, I told them, that keeps on giving: you're standing in line at the DMV, bored out of your mind, when suddenly you think: my sonnet! I shall recite (quietly, of course, for safety's sake) my sonnet! More ... 

by Kevin Mims

Last August, on my forty-ninth birthday, I woke up, staggered into the kitchen, and reached into a cupboard for a drinking glass. As I withdrew my hand from the cupboard, I bumped my arm and lost control of the glass. It fell into the sink and shattered into a dozen or more pieces. I am not by nature superstitious, but as I stared into the sink at all those jagged shards, I thought to myself, "That can't be a good sign." Everyone knows that breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck. There is no equivalent proverb about the breaking of a mere drinking glass, but unless one is launching a new yacht with a bottle of champagne, one should not begin an important milestone, such as one's fiftieth year of life, with a shattering of glass. It is sure to forebode bad luck. And sure enough, after fixing myself a smoothie, I wandered into my office, switched on the computer, and found bad news waiting for me. An essay I had published in The New York Times in May had generated a lot interest from Hollywood producers. But on my birthday I received an email from the Times' ancillary-rights department informing me that the Hollywood interest had ultimately come to naught. None of the initial offers had resulted in a movie deal, and no new offers were currently on the table. A few hours later, I received another email, from a magazine editor, informing me that an essay of mine, slated for publication in September, had been put on hold indefinitely. Toward the end of the day, I received an email informing me that the owner of Marion Street Press, an Illinois-based publisher of reference books, was putting the company up for sale and that all current publishing projects were therefore on hold. Nine months earlier, I had signed a contract to produce a quotation dictionary for Marion Street. Now, after collecting more than half of the quotations necessary for the dictionary, I learned that my book was in limbo. My personal juju seemed to be going bad. More ... 

Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases
Back  Elitist
by David Isaacson

Elitists, by definition, are members of an elite, people who belong to a chosen, or select group. The word elite is defined in the following way by the Oxford English Dictionary: "[F. élite (in OFr. eslite, elite; see prec.) selection, choice; in mod. use concr. that which is chosen: med.L. lecta choice, f. L. lig re: see ELECT v.] The choice part or flower (of society, or of any body or class of persons). Also attrib. and Comb.; élite stand, tree." In this neutral, original sense of this word, the quality or attitude of elitism is defined by the OED as "Advocacy of or reliance on the leadership and dominance of an élite (in a society, or in any body or class of persons)." The OED offers the following quotations to further help us to understand various shades of meaning of elite and elitism as they have developed over time:

1950 D. RIESMAN in Psychiatry XIII. 303/1 He [sc. Freud] shared with..Nietzsche and Carlyle elements of an elitist position. 1951 Individualism Reconsidered (1954) 30 In Elton Mayo and in other recent writers, one can find a similar elitism and..concern with the formation of group consensus through strong leadership. 1957 C. HUNT Guide to Communist Jargon xlix. 161 His [sc. Lenin's] conception of the ‘narrow' party consisting of an élite, whose more highly developed class consciousness enables it to see further than those among whom it works..But this élitism is anti-democratic. 1960 New Left Rev. Nov.–Dec. 30/1 The élitist manipulation..of the Communist Party. 1961 Ibid. Jan.–Feb. 59/2 Thompson doesn't know what to do us as quotation mongers? class us with elitists? 1968 New Scientist 30 May 446/2 The theme of his speech was ‘Elitism and Excellence', the excellence being that of the mathematically gifted, and the elitism being the varying degrees of regard paid to this talent.
More ... 

Letter of the Law
Back  Food, Felonies, and Fun
by Adam Freedman

One of the trendiest items you can order in a restaurant these days is "faux gras" — the new, cruelty-free version of foie gras. Granted, this new addition to the language is considerably more artful than most alternative-food labels — give me faux gras over tofurkey any day — but it is worth noting that legal necessity was the mother of this invention.

Before long, serving foie gras may well be illegal in most big cities. The writing was on the wall in 2006 when the Chicago City Council banned the sale of the fattened duck (or goose) liver throughout the city. California has a similar prohibition, although it does not take effect until 2012. Bans are also being considered in Philadelphia, San Diego, New York City, and the states of New Jersey and Oregon. One celebrity chef told the Wall Street Journal that she turned to faux gras for fear of having "an arrest record with a foie gras felony." More ... 

We are completely surrounded on all sides by pleonasms — superfluous words, redundant expressions. They're everywhere. You can see them with your own eyes on TV and in print. And you can hear them with your own ears on the radio, in conversations, at briefings — especially at briefings. There, at the initial start, you'll see charts — usually rectangular in shape and assembled together — about advance planning, other alternatives, forward progress, and future plans. The ultimate result might be a consensus of opinion as to the final completion of the pre-planned effort and an agreement to not revert back to past history but to proceed ahead and advance forward toward a point of destination. Without over-exaggerating, the honest truth is that this very unique paragraph may have set a new record for the number of redundant expressions assembled together in one and the same paragraph. Each and every one of those pleo-nasties is saying the same identical thing as another word in close proximity or in the immediate vicinity. My natural instinct is to continue on like a mechanical robot, but the sum total of this message is to reiterate over again the true fact that an important essential as well as a necessary requirement of effective communication is word economy. That's been my actual experience, anyway. 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 ... 


Winning, Losing, and Playing the Game — Skip Eisiminger

The Subsong of Birds — Ellen Graf

The Rehabilitation of Oftentimes — Kerr Houston

Confessions of a Verbivore — Richard Lederer

TVR Revisited: Grammar Matters — Marylaine Block

Fiction: Testing — Bruce Bromley

Eight Poems — Mark Zimmermann


Mark Halpern: The Critical Reader — The Root of Political Correctness

John Kilgore: Shibboleths — Yuma Blues

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — The Cryosphere Is Not the World of Soap Operas

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — "SV" Disease — Is There a Cure?

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — Kokopelli: A Tale of the Writing Life

David Isaacson: Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases — Elitist

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — Food, Felonies, and Fun


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