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The point of learning new words is not to impress your friends or to seem more intelligent than they. The point is to see more, to understand more. An ever-increasing vocabulary uncovers connections, introduces spheres, and — in reminding us that there are words for all thoughts, all feelings, all behaviors, all things — upholds all humankind.


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 In the January 2008 Vocabula

by Richard Lederer

What do these words have in common: bash, clash, crash, dash, gash, gnash, hash, lash, mash, slash, smash, thrash, and trash?

"The words all rhyme," you answer.

Right. But can you spot what it is that the thirteen words share in their content?

Faces are bashed, gashed, slashed, and smashed. Cars crash. Hopes are dashed. Enemies clash. Teeth gnash. Beef is hashed. Potatoes are mashed. Rooms are trashed. And prisoners are lashed and thrashed. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

Back  So
by Julian Burnside

It can be difficult meeting so rigid a deadline. Speed compromises quality and constrains imagination, so pressure can mean the difference between an essay that is just so, and one that is just so-so. So, here we go.

English words may be divided into: 1. the long and unfamiliar, such as abirritation (a depressed condition of the tissues), chathernwise (in the manner of a sauce containing chipped entrails), and trichotillimania (compulsive pulling of hair); 2. the long but familiar, such as encyclopedia, hippopotamus, and accommodatingly; 3. the short but unfamiliar, such as hod (an open receptacle for carrying mortar), alt (a halt), and dod (to make the top or head of something blunt, rounded, or bare); 4. the short and familiar, such as such, as, and and; and 5. the short but tricky, such as let, mug, to, and so. More ... 

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

by Ralph Abercrombie

Put aside that ballpoint and consider the fountain pen, once ubiquitous and now consigned to the quaint domains of calligraphists and aficionados. What was lost with its quiet slide into obscurity? More ... 

by Richard Goodman

English can't do everything. It can do a lot of wonderful things, but there are some things it just cannot do. It cannot make certain sounds, it can't express certain things, and it's ultimately limited in its musical range, as any language is. The fact is that it shouldn't do everything.

A language is tied to the people who speak it, and vice-versa. So it's more than just a repository of words that are used as tools in communication. It's the story of a culture. A language is a country's heritage, its patrimony. It's the accumulated grace and creativity of a people. It represents efforts to express and to mark and to signify over many hundreds of years, but within the context of a people's way of living. The words and expressions the French, Syrians, and Malaysians have developed are different not only because they have different linguistic roots but because their peoples have lived different lives. More ... 

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

Along with the bit of lore that tells us not to begin our sentences with and is the one that says "Don't begin your sentences with because." Others closely related are "Don't begin your sentences with since" and "Don't begin your sentences with while." We'll deal with all three of them here. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back  Get Vivad!
by Valerie Collins

To kick off the New Year and this column, I decided to sort through my dusty stacks of shoe boxes labeled "English Language," "Odd Bits and Pieces," "Spanglish Texts" [I live in Spain, where both Spanish speakers and learners of English and longtime native English-speaking residents produce eccentric mixtures of the two languages], and similar, which contain innumerable scraps of paper covered with undated, unreferenced scribbles. I regularly write about movies, and one of the more legible gems is a list of synonyms for winning Oscars and other awards: earn, cull, net, land, snag, sweep, garner, harvest, scoop, bag, hoover up. I'm sure you can come up with many more: English has a massive word store and a staggering number of synonyms, both for historical reasons and thanks to its ongoing open-arms policy to foreign words (for example, glitch, guru, karaoke, zombie, robot). These are effortlessly naturalized and then seized on with glee to form new compounds (glitch-free, guru-hopping, and the like). More ... 

Fiction
Back  Ninth Inning
by William J. Martin

Sad memories remain; happy memories vanish. I dug up an old movie in the recesses of memory and decided to replay a few moments of my life from fifty-seven years ago.

The June afternoon was pleasantly warm for Chicago, not the blast furnace of July and August. A few small groups of stringy white clouds floated in the brilliant blue sky that hung over our known world. A perfect day for a baseball game. No adults were around unless you call a high school senior an adult. He was there because we chipped in two bucks to have him umpire. More ... 

by John Thomas Clark

Ground Control

Don't think it weird hearing it's a fun way
To start the day. It's not weird. That traffic
Back-up is good. Today's tabla rasa
Has more bright circles on the dayglow
Screen than usual. Like skimmed stone ripples
On a vast sky pond, they fan out, hover, 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

Votary of Vocabula
____________[Your Name Here]____________
prizes well-spoken, well-written language.

The Vocabula Review

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A society is generally as lax as its language.

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The Elder Statesman
Back  Snake-Oiling the Critics
by Clark Elder Morrow

I have discovered one of several secrets to creating popular modern art, and, being the generous man I am, I am going to share that secret with you. When I say "popular modern art," I mean art that is popular among modern art collectors, curators, publications, and gallery owners. I have discovered, in other words, an avenue to producing the kind of art that the art world most likes to see and buy and display. Here is the secret. More ... 

The Critical Reader
Back  The Trojan Laptop
by Mark Halpern

Three years ago Professor Nicholas Negroponte attracted much attention by announcing that his Media Laboratory at MIT would soon be releasing the specifications of a laptop computer whose cost would be about $100, and that could be distributed free in large numbers to the poor of underdeveloped countries (that is, the real poor, not the poor of advanced industrialized countries like the United States, who are in the eyes of the Third World almost unimaginably rich; we're talking here of peoples in South America, Asia, and Africa who are barely subsisting). Giving the poor these machines, it was assumed almost without saying, would go far to liberate them from their poverty and backwardness, and do much to bring them into the modern world. This assumption is false and dangerous. More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back  Champagne: Origin of the Name
by Bill Casselman

Ah, champagne — cork popped, amber elixir effused in glassy flute, soon sipped to be savored by lingual papillae. The spumous jig of fizz upon the tasting tongue, the golden-bubbled froth that, cresting sub uvula upon the pendent margin of the palate, seems to warn, "Tonsils, stand aside, that down this rosy gullet spumescent foam may flow, the straw-hued ferment of a thousand suns."

The ever effervescent champers, nose-tickling and tastebud-delighting bubbly, takes its name from a province of eastern France, not too far from Paris.

She of the little black dress, elfin gamin, rococo Coco Chanel herself said champagne delighted her only in two life modes — when she was in love and when she wasn't.

The quaint anachronism of rigorous grammatical gender, so burdensome in French, decrees that the wine is masculine, le champagne, and the vine-nurturing yet poor loam of the province itself is feminine, la Champagne. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  Breaking the Codes
by Carey Harrison

Dear readers, a happy New Year to you all.

Further to last month's musings on how to approach teaching Shakespeare's Sonnets, that fathomless treasury, His Eminence the Cardinal has added a potent coda: all sonnets, he pointed out, have fifteen lines. It's up to us to supply the fifteenth.

Back to more mundane classroom matters. My composition class is over, bar the shouting. I mean the shouting of student relief and disappointment, variously, at the prospect, and then the sight, of their grades, and the consequent emails. Some of these are imploring messages. Professor, I must have an A. Professor, you can do anything, you can give me an A. It is perhaps true; perhaps I can do anything; I laboriously explain, with return transmission of final assignments carefully corrected in red, why I will not. Troubled and troubling emails continue nonetheless: Professor, you can do anything.... More ... 

Because my writing has been largely unremunerated, I've frequently been forced to put aside my pen and go to work at some low-paying job at the menial end of the employment spectrum. This usually happens whenever the local real-estate market takes a downturn and my wife's income as an escrow officer begins to shrink, making it impossible for us to survive on her paycheck alone. Generally, I dislike these forays into the daily grind. I long for the day when I will be able to earn a living with my pen that will allow me to rise above day-laborer status. Alas, as I approach fifty, that day seems less and less likely to arrive. I know plenty of people far wiser and more articulate than I am who have been condemned to toil away at soulless drudgery for most of their lives in order to avoid homelessness and starvation. One of the most prolific writers I know works as a security guard at a restaurant near my home and makes only slightly above the minimum wage. Every few years, he scrapes together enough money to visit some literary shrine such as Emily Dickinson's home in Amherst or Edith Wharton's mansion in Lenox, Massachusetts. I have another friend, Darrell, who has written hundreds of stories and poems, nearly a dozen novels, countless pop songs, and even an opera, for Christ's sake, and has earned almost nothing from these creative endeavors. His wife supports the two of them by working as a librarian at a university in their southern Oregon hometown. When necessary, Darrell goes to work for a local landscaping company and earns extra money by pulling weeds, clearing brush, and digging trenches for underground sprinkler systems. Like a lot of manual laborers, he is paid under the table, which allows him to take home more money than he would if he were a salaried employee with paycheck withholdings. Darrell recently had a novel accepted for publication at a small university press. His advance was $1,080. More ... 

Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases
Back  My Bad
by David Isaacson

It's possible I am reading too much into it, but I find the phrase my bad not simply a dippy teenage synonym for "my mistake," but a symptom of sad moral relativism in adults. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this term is a colloquial Americanism:

U.S. colloq. (orig. Sport).
[< MY a. + BAD n.]
Esp. among high-school students, used as an exclamation acknowledging responsibility for an error: '(It is) my fault!' 'My mistake!'
1986 C. WIELGUS & A. WOLFF Back-in-your-face Guide to Pick-up Basketball 226 My bad, an expression of contrition uttered after making a bad pass or missing an opponent. 1986 UNC-CH Campus Slang (Univ. North Carolina, Chapel Hill) Mar., My bad, expression to admit one has made a mistake: A: 'You did the wrong homework set for today.' B: 'Oh, my bad.' 1993 Orlando Sentinel (Nexis) 3 Dec. C.3 The Litterial Green Collection... Oops, my bad... A release from the marketing hotbed of America. 1994 A. HECKERLING Clueless (Green rev. pages) 104 Cher swerves..to avoid killing a person on a bicycle. Cher: Whoops, my bad. 1997 Parenting Sept. 213 Sorry I lost your CD. It's my bad. 2000 P. BEATTY Tuff iv. 47 'This is the June issue of Black Enterprise.' 'No, not the June issue, my bad.'
More ... 

Letter of the Law
Back  Meet John Doe
by Adam Freedman

Lawyers don't get out much, so it's just as well that we have plenty of imaginary friends. Well, actually, "friends" might be putting it a little too strongly, but lawyers do spend an awful lot of time representing and suing people whose very existence is questionable. I refer, of course, to the eternally litigious John Doe, Jane Doe, and Richard Roe.

A term that now stands for the anonymous everyman, John Doe began life in medieval English court documents. One particular oddity of this usage is that John Doe and similar appellations were never actually common names — unlike, say, John Smith. When John Doe and Richard Roe first appeared in fourteenth-century lawsuits, Doe and Roe were not included in lists of inheritable surnames in England. Nor does England have many Does or Roes today. A quick glance at the Manhattan phone book reveals only eleven Does in New York City. More ... 

by Verónica Albin

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise, if you are a writer, proper names are the Bligh Reef awaiting your Exxon Valdez, the Haifa Harbor of your Patria, the Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger of your Lusitania. I embarked on their study in what I thought was going to be fair seas, but the moon was its lunatic self, and I pitched, rolled, and yawed the whole way. If you are willing to say an Oy Vey María and take a Dramamine, you are most welcome to hop on the poop deck of this caravel and come see for yourself. Misery loves company. More ... 

In his book, The Miracle of Language, Richard Lederer points out that the boundary between humans and animals is the language line. If language is a uniquely human communication tool, then it must have some built-in human preferences. Last month's module uncovered a gender bias by asking several loaded questions such as whether you'd ever met a sugar mommy, matronized your favorite store, had a mommy long-leg crawl on you, fished with crawmoms, heard a good father-in-law joke, or shot an arrow at a cow's eye. 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 editor@vocabula.com. More ... 

 Features

Sound and Sense — Richard Lederer

So — Julian Burnside

Sound Off: In Praise of the Fountain Pen — Ralph Abercrombie

Book Excerpt: Some Things English Can't Do — And Shouldn't — Richard Goodman

Begin Your Sentences with because (since, while) — Donna Gorrell

TVR Revisited: Get Vivad! — Valerie Collins

Fiction: Ninth Inning — William J. Martin

Two Poems — John Thomas Clark

 Columnists


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Snake-Oiling the Critics

Mark Halpern: The Critical Reader — The Trojan Laptop

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Champagne: Origin of the Name

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Breaking the Codes

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — Captain Shiner, Sheryl Cacciatore, the Phantom Shopper, and the Thief of Dreams

David Isaacson: Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases — My Bad

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — Meet John Doe

Verónica Albin: Wor(l)ds — Names, Nemeses, Nameses

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