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March 2008, Vol. 10, No. 3 There are now   1633   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

fiske (v.) 1. to rail against dull-witted lexicographers and More ...

Coming in the April 2008 issue of The Vocabula Review:
"But What if it Really Is Fantabulous?" by Julianne Will
The April issue is due online April 20.
Meet John, our newest Vocabula Community member.

Good Words Vocabula Press Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher

 In the March 2008 Vocabula

by Edwin Battistella

When I was growing up in the 1960s, the television news — Huntley, Brinkley and Cronkite — was filled with stories about American soldiers fighting gorillas in the jungles of Southeast Asia. I was perplexed by this, and I was a little bit frightened at the prospect of a communist animal kingdom. Finally, with the help of the print media, I was able to figure out that the word was really guerrillas, and later I learned that the etymology was from guerre, the French word for war.

Learning a language involves reinventing it based on the familiarities of the world, and usage errors often arise from this reinvention. My guerrilla mistake was a silent one, since I learned the correct word before I had an opportunity to write a term paper mentioning gorilla warfare. This isn't always the case — I once heard a job-seeker complain about marketing departments being the escape goat when things go bad. It struck me as a wonderful invention. What does a scapegoat do besides allow someone to escape from blame by placing it on another? More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

Mark Twain is rumored to have said that he had no respect for a man who could spell a word in just one way. Many college students wish that their English professors shared this view. Yes, it's true that conventional spelling promotes effective communication — no one denies it — but at the same time there's always a loss when capitulation to conformity extends too far. A good example is vocabulary usage, particularly in academic settings. Am I the only person who's heard the words "benchmarking" and "networking" a few times too often? Somehow I doubt it. In my own field of study, English literature, I've lived to see the day when "text" does most of the work formerly shouldered by "story," "lyric," "play," "treatise," "novel," and a dozen other terms: a poor exchange by any standards. And while I know there are often good reasons for the dominance of certain speech habits and locutions, I regret any loss of linguistic diversity.

New words, of course, are entering English all the time — and every other language, too. I love this fact. Five years ago, I'd never uttered the words "blog," "wiki," "emoticon," or "pixelated"; ten years ago, I didn't know that "spam" could be a verb or that "chill" could mean "relax"; and when I graduated from college, the now indispensable "phallocrat" was entirely unavailable. So I have no complaint with novelty, in itself. What I lament, rather, is the neglect of thousands of perfectly good words — especially when such neglect is combined with the pathological overuse of a few. And this, along with inattention to the reverberations of words — their sounds, their connotations, their groundings in metaphor — is what disheartens me about the routine language habits of academe. More ... 

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.

by Richard Lederer

In a letter to a twelve-year-old boy, Mark Twain wrote, "I notice you use plain, simple language, short words, and brief sentences. That is the way to write English — it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in."

Alas, with most of us, as we grow older, fluff and flowers and verbosity do creep in. Writing today often has too much fat, too little muscle — bulk without strength. Much of what we read these days ranges from slightly flabby to grossly obese. As children, we wrote sentences like "See Dick run." As adults, we are more likely to write, "It is imperative that we assiduously observe Richard as he traverses the terrain at an accelerated rate of speed." We gain girth and lose mirth — and so does our prose. More ... 

by Donna Gorrell

"I see you're sweeping the sidewalk again." This was my neighbor three doors down, walking his miniature dachshunds past my house last October.

"Another bucketful of acorns," I replied.

"Must be that Germanic cleanliness," he commented, as the dogs drew him on toward the park area we commonly call the canine latrine. "I don't remember when I last swept my sidewalk."

Germanic cleanliness? Me? Well, maybe. But I don't want him telling me so. The fact is, I kind of like the phrase. It tells me something about myself: I wouldn't consider not sweeping up all the leaves and acorns and grass clippings and just plain dirt that collect all over the walk in front of my house, much less on the concrete path between that walk and my front door. Germanic cleanliness indeed! More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back  Words, Words, Words
by Susan Elkin

Vocabulary is the essence of language. Language is words and words are language. Words are what distinguish us from other species. Without them we can't get beyond growling, grunting, purring, and mating calls.

So why aren't we — in education, the media, and at home — moving heaven and earth to develop word power in children and adults? The more words you know, the more skilled you will be as a communicator. You can also think more incisively and work things out more effectively if you have a good vocabulary. More ... 

Back  A Poem
by Matthew Byrne

You Will Be Mine

Permit me to open doors
for you, turn my coat
into a bridge for you, duel
over you, school you, enroll
you in the life I belong to. More ... 

Back  A Poem
by Tamora Whitney

Bourbon Street

"I bet you I know where you got your shoes"
Old bearded man wipes his brow against the heat
his hand outstretched. The New Orleans blues

pour from the night clubs. The sign flashes — booze
the smoky smell of beer, the jazz, the beat
"I bet you I know where you got your shoes" More ... 

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Vocabula button free for the asking.

The Elder Statesman
by Clark Elder Morrow

I discovered William F. Buckley, Jr., in high school, and the effect was an instant transformation of my prose style. From the gawky, hesitating, and self-consciously semi-poetic whispers of youth, my writing grew — almost overnight — into the confidently verbose and overwritten. I discovered Vocabulary with a capital V. I had always harbored a deep love of words qua words, and had been transfixed by the mysterious flow of syntax in all its forms. But now I was free to indulge all these predilections with a swagger and a grin. Now, under the influence of The Jeweler's Eye and The Governor Listeth, I was liberated to be the droll little soi-disant cosmopolitan I imagined myself to be. In my magazine subscriptions, I moved speedily and seamlessly from Mad and Famous Monsters of Filmland to National Review, and each month's joy was to turn quickly to the "Notes & Asides" feature, where the Master dealt with his letter-writers, and then to the last page, where Buckley's column stood alone. More ... 

The Last Word
Back  Mother Tongue
by Christopher Orlet

Anyone who has lived abroad knows how soon you can become homesick to hear your own language spoken. I am not referring to the anxiety of being unable to communicate in the local dialect; even those fluent in the local language still long to hear the familiar syllables of his or her mother tongue. There is a reason it is called "mother tongue": it's the language you learned at your mother's knee, or, in today's world, at the knee of some underpaid care provider at your local Kindercare. Some mistake "mother tongue" to mean one's mother's native language. My son's mother is Polish, so though it is correct to say his mother tongue is English, it would be wrong to say his mother's mother tongue is English. (As far as I can remember his mother's tongue was pink.) Like your mother (or your underpaid care provider), your mother tongue will always retain a special place in your heart. More ... 

Back  Shooting Stars
by John Kilgore

The news came in the door at 5:00, borne by the first students arriving to my English 1092 class, Honors Literature and Composition. A shooting at NIU, had I heard about it?

I hadn't, but NIU is up in De Kalb, only a four-hour drive from here. Some of my freshmen would have friends there, would have visited the campus, would have applied the year before and been accepted or rejected. The young faces settling into desks in front of me did not seem unduly disturbed, but who really knew? Did I detect more glances than usual at the door and the second-floor windows? We never lock the door, and the windows open so slightly that only a contortionist could wriggle through and dive out, down into the prickly shrubbery below. Better to take your chances holding very, very still, while the moron with the rifle chooses someone else. More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back  The Latin Word for Rope: Funis
by Bill Casselman

Funis is the Latin word for rope or cord, and several interesting English and Romance Language words descend from it, including some medical terms.

The formal anatomical name for the umbilical cord is funis umbilicalis. Funic presentation in obstetrics sees the umbilical cord appear before the body of the fetus. Funic souffle (souffle French, "a breath") is sometimes heard during fetal stethoscopy as a soft, muffled whooshing sound, the sound of blood flowing through the umbilical vessels in time with the fetal heart beat. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  Enter the Universal Buttock
by Carey Harrison

One of my students, a delightful young white fellow (and you will see why I commit the solecism of identifying his skin color) has a tendency, as yet unchecked, to impersonate black folks, not always accurately. I'm not sure whether it's up to me to warn him about these impersonations. I might be the wrong person, for reasons both of age and nationality, to specify what might be permissible and what might not. I am willing to accept advice on this subject. The lad in question recently ended an email to me, his professor, with the words, "Hope ass is well." My reply read, in part, "I will assume that your well-wishing words, 'Hope ass is well' are a misprint/typo for 'Hope all is well,' despite the rather noticeable fact that 's' and 'l' are at opposite ends of the console. PS The ass is fine, thank you, and sends regards." More ... 

The Common Reader
Back  How to KISSASS
by Kevin Mims

KISS, an acronym for Keep It Simple, Stupid, is a useful mantra in numerous fields of endeavor, including engineering, product development, political debate, advertising, and strategic planning. It is also a useful principal for writers. Regular readers of this column already know that I have difficulty adhering to the KISS principle. My essays tend to go on and on without ever bothering to make a point, simple or otherwise. But lately, a few developments in my career as a freelance writer have inspired me to adopt a philosophy somewhat similar to the one embodied in KISS. The acronym for my new writing philosophy is KISSASS. No, I am not planning to emulate Leave It To Beaver's Eddie Haskell and become more of an obsequious suck-up to my superiors than I already am. KISSASS is short for Keep It Sad, Short, And Simple, Stupid. More ... 

Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases
Back  Sharing
by David Isaacson

My hackles usually rise when I hear the phrase "thank you for sharing." It's polite to thank someone for sharing something with you, but, unless you are talking to children, it is usually unnecessary to call attention to the act of sharing. When adults use this phrase with other grown-ups, it is almost always ironic. My wife has a wonderful way of de-bloviating me with this phrase. But her tone is one of affectionate sarcasm and mock unctuousness. What irks me about this vogue phrase is its bland and vacuous use to mean nothing more than "thanks for speaking" or the hypocritically ironic use of this phrase to mean "you just said something I don't agree with, but let's pretend, instead, that I am too polite to argue with you." The person who says "thank you for sharing" may actually mean "when I use this phrase, I do so not only to avoid any unpleasantness between us, but so I can look like I am taking the high road, even though I disagree with what you have said." More ... 

Letter of the Law
Back  Poetic Justice
by Adam Freedman

Last September, U.S. District Court Judge James Muirhead caused a sensation in legal circles by issuing an order modeled on Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham.

Judge Muirhead was inspired to poetic heights by the antics of Charles Jay Wolff, a prisoner who is representing himself (or "acting pro se") in a lawsuit against the New Hampshire Department of Corrections. As part of the lawsuit — which seeks an upgrade to the prison menu — Wolff filed a hard-boiled egg as an exhibit to one of his many motions. The judge commanded that the egg be destroyed in a six-stanza order declaring:

I do not like eggs in the file.
I do not like them in any style.
I will not take them fried or boiled.
I will not take them poached or boiled.
More ... 

An interesting word form you don't see often is the zeugma, a figure of speech involving the joining of two or more parts of a sentence with a single common verb or noun. It is often classified synonymously with syllepsis, a specific form of zeugma. In fact, if you look up syllepsis in Wikipedia, the definition of zeugma pops up. For me, I like the sound of zeugma; and, because it involves two meanings zigging and zagging in different directions, it's a mnemonically catchier term than syllepsis. Zeugmas can be a source of light-hearted word play. Here are some homemade examples: 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 ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back  Letters from the Editor

Here the editor of The Vocabula Review reprints letters that he has sent to others. More ... 


The Folk Art of Error — Edwin Battistella

Academic Diction: An Avoidable Poverty — Will Hamlin

Cut the Verbal Fat — Richard Lederer

On Traits and Truth — Donna Gorrell

Vocabula Revisited: Words, Words, Words — Susan Elkin

A Poem — Matthew Byrne

A Poem — Tamora Whitney


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — WFB RIP

Christopher Orlet: The Last Word — Mother Tongue

John Kilgore: Shibboleths — Shooting Stars

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — The Latin Word for Rope: Funis

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Enter the Universal Buttock

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — How to KISSASS

David Isaacson: Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases — Sharing

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — Poetic Justice


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