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November 2008, Vol. 10, No. 11 There are now   1113   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

Coming in the December 2008 issue of The Vocabula Review:
"The Enormity of It All" by David R. Williams
The December issue is due online December 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.

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 November 2008 Vocabula

by Richard Lederer

Perhaps the most iconic tale of presidential virtue is that of young George Washington admitting to his father that he chopped down a cherry tree in the family garden: "I cannot tell a lie, father, you know I cannot tell a lie! I did cut it with my little hatchet." This episode, which lives on in almost every grammar school across our fair land, is in fact almost certainly fiction. The story was made up out of whole cloth by Parson Mason Locke Weems in his biography The Life, Death, and Memorable Actions of George Washington, published immediately after the president's death. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by Marion DS Dreyfus

Names have an enduring and profound impact on our lives, and on the lives of those we meet. A chance misspelling, for instance, led to Oprah, which was supposed to be, as I recall, Orpah, the biblical name of a lesser wife of one of the Patriarchs.

Avocationally, I analyze names, since they reveal a rich trove of culture, religion, primogeniture, parentage, privilege, and wealth.

A new acquaintance, Cynthia, named her sons Kelin and Devon, thereby attaching herself, though long removed from Ireland, to her heritage. Her husband is not Irish. And should you see an American Manfred, such as a physician I know of uncommon brilliance, you know his parents were newcomers or born overseas, had hoch Deutsch germination, were proud people, were not readily assimilable to their surroundings, and were assigning him at birth to a difficult childhood but a stellar adulthood. And so it was. More ... 

by Ken Bresler

When Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, was asked about translating the phrase Catch-22 into Finnish, the question was treated as absurd:

I am translating your novel Catch-22 into Finnish. Would you please explain me one thing: What means Catch-22? I didn't find it in any vocabulary. Even the assistant air attaché of the U.S.A. here in Helsinki could not explain exactly.

Newsweek, which reported the request in 1962, continued: "Joe Heller, who knows there is a catch to everything, comments dryly: 'I think in Finland the book will lose a lot in translation.'"

The response of both Heller and Newsweek was as if "Catch-22" is not only untranslatable, it is obviously untranslatable, along the lines of "If you have to ask, you won't get it." The Newsweek interviewer didn't turn around and ask Heller, "So, what does 'Catch-22' mean?" More ... 

by John Z. Guzlowski

My friend the writer Christina Sanantonio and I have been having a conversation about language and loss. It's a conversation that started right after the suicide of the novelist David Foster Wallace. I posted two blogs about his death and the deaths of writers in general and what they mean to us, and Christina wrote me a long letter about how we use or don't use language to talk about loss. She said that, after her brother died unexpectedly, she felt that the language available to her was inadequate to express what she felt about his death. Here's a part of what she wrote:

I felt such a great expanse of void between the sense of reality that my grief had laid bare and the experiences of others who had not known despair that I felt I was living in a parallel universe — alone. The weight and loneliness of my small burden was enough to keep me tottering, and often looking longingly into inky voids. I found myself thrust into a universe where few could speak my language, the complex and limited language of loss.
More ... 

by Mark Halpern

No, the reason for reducing the human population of the world is not that we cannot feed all the teeming billions already on hand, and the further billions that will appear unless we take action to forestall them. It seems likely that human ingenuity is up to the job of increasing the supply of food and other necessities to match such a growth of the population for quite some decades or even centuries to come. But what human ingenuity is already unable to do is to provide space — both physical and psychological space — for all the billions now on Earth, let alone those to come. Everywhere on Earth peoples are being forced into sharing their space with others they feel to be so different from themselves that prolonged, close contact amounts to a form of torture for them. The peoples who can't abide each other may seem to outsiders so alike as to be indistinguishable, and their superficial similarity often leads observers into optimistic predictions of reconciliation between the two. But that superficial similarity is a reason for optimism only in the eyes of the outsider; to the parties involved, it only exacerbates their differences — that people so like themselves outwardly should differ so sharply from them in religion, language, or culture seems to them not merely ordinary hostility, but treason. To be forced to live cheek-by-jowl with those they regard as alien creatures, or even traitors, has had the natural effect on many of increasing their fear and distrust of the Other — and if the Others resemble us, they are that much more dangerous, because so much harder to spot. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back  DisenYOUGUYSing American English
by Joan Taber

The way we address one another reveals our cultural and personal attitudes, our self-awareness, our sensitivity to others, even our social standing in relation to that of our interlocutors; for, as sociolinguists remind us, words never exist in isolation. It is also true that language, like all living creatures, is in a constant state of evolution, and most linguistic changes are initiated in the lower echelons of society and flow to the more resistant, less populated upper classes. Along with relaxations in rules of social etiquette that have occurred during the last fifty years, there has been a similar relaxation in what constitutes polite language behavior, especially in regard to forms of address. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, senators, teachers, graduate students, mothers, fathers, grandparents are now addressed as "you guys"; and though this leaves a portion of the population with the curious sensation of having been insulted, the designation seems firmly entrenched in American English. More ... 

Back  Home-Movie
by Bruce Bromley

While you remove your jacket in my off-campus studio, I note your conservatory professorship in the Romantic composers; a converted barn in Ipswich; an Iranian wife, with ballrooms for eyes, whose pupils bob from trying to get out, away from husband and twin daughters and the Ipswich barn that she cannot convert to Tehran: to the heat, the marketplace, the Caspian Sea. It's hot, you say, looking at my radiators, forgetting the December outside I don't let in.

Your wife brought you an egg salad sandwich, the single time I saw her. We were at choir practice. You pumped the keys of Harvard's Busch-Reisinger organ — and did not thank her. She tightened her mouth; she left. More ... 

Back  Eviction Notices
by John Kilgore

Among the many sad jokes that age plays, I have recently been noticing this one: the English language seems to me ever more brilliant, majestic, artful, and wise; but the users of the language grow always more clumsy, unschooled, and mistaken. "Abuse of the language," that bête noire whose very existence I once breezily denied, has come to seem a fact gross and incontrovertible, unmistakably there in half of what I hear and a quarter of what I read — or in one hundred percent of what I read, when I am grading student papers. I feel outnumbered, outflanked, depressed. The country cousins, who gradually moved into the family castle over the past few decades, have now taken to playing paintball in the ancient and ornate rooms. More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back  Rare Verbal Gems
by Bill Casselman

It Pays to Increase Your Word Power is the title of a long-running Reader's Digest column. But I prefer to crazy-glue a terse codicil to the tail of that title: "It pays to increase your word power with words you will seldom use."

Concerning the pragmatic selection of vocabulary, my public-school teachers hymned in unison the stern injunction to "always use the shorter, clearer word." Piffle, poppycock, and twaddle! My father, my best teacher of English by far, always countered that drab command with his own: "No. Always use the obscure, long-winded word." Not only will you learn a new word but you will flummox ordained pedagogical authority — to the young learner, life's most delightful revolt. All this will you accomplish in one word-picking gesture that will befuddle the fuddy-duddies of verbal orthodoxy and befoul their too tidy nest of complacent word selection. More ... 

by Carey Harrison

November, and my undergraduates' glazed expressions are as good as a calendar. They're limping through to Thanksgiving. So am I, and perhaps my eyes too are glazed. I find myself uneasy about teaching, for the first time in a while. In my experience, this is the way with teaching: a dozen good classes, one after the other — or at any rate classes that pass off without distress — and complacency sets in. You decide you're a jolly good teacher and that teaching is a pleasant, relatively effortless game. It takes only one disgruntled student to knock you off your perch, much as a single bad review might unsettle an actor. But this isn't what's happened to me. My students have continued to be kind. My malaise is of a more general nature. As follows: these students of mine, are they actually students? And if so, in what sense? This is what has come to haunt me. And what am I, if their intrinsic studenthood is in doubt? More ... 

The Common Reader
Back  The Celine Dialogs
by Kevin Mims

Three years ago, I enrolled in Beginning French classes at the local Alliance Française. At my first class, I sat next to a lovely young woman named Celine. We were both shy and didn't say much that night. But every Wednesday evening after that, we took seats next to each other. Shy people tend to prefer the proximity of other shy people. Frequently the teacher would instruct the students to break into groups of two and compose a dialog together on an assigned theme (two old friends meeting after a long absence, for instance). We were given ten minutes to compose these dialogs and then we had to recite them to the rest of the class. Celine and I didn't trust our memories, so we wrote our dialogs down in my notebook. More ... 

Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases
Back  Closure
by David Isaacson

In Memoriam: Helen Christine Adler Sheridan, Oct. 3, 1937 – Nov. 3, 2008

New words ought to describe new things or new ways of looking at old things. At the very least, new words ought to be a refreshing change from the worn-out words they may resemble. By these standards, there's no need for closure. We hear this word used sometimes as an unnecessary synonym for the closing of things like roads, but more often closure is a psychobabblish term for the process of reconciling oneself to a difficult, sometimes an agonizing, loss, such as death, divorce, or some other psychologically traumatic event. If one has "reached closure" by accepting this loss, one can then "move on" to a healthier psychological state. It is this sense of the word that The Oxford English Dictionary recognizes in a provisional definition added to the online edition in 2007: More ... 

Letter of the Law
Back  Footnotes*
by Adam Freedman

*The untimely death of writer David Foster Wallace on September 12 of this year was a terrible loss for American letters, but it was also a loss for the law. Wallace, you see, was famous for his frequent use of that quintessentially legal device, the footnote. In his stories, essays, and 1,000-plus-page novel, Infinite Jest, Wallace endowed that humble form of annotation with a literary respectability that it could not have attained at the hands of lawyers.

Any lawyer will tell you that heavy footnoting is essential for admission into the legal fraternity. Granted, historians and social scientists also rely on footnotes, but they are mere dabblers compared with the law professors who regularly stuff 400–500 footnotes into a single law review article. In 1987, the New York Law School Law Review published a single article on securities law containing 4,824 footnotes. This feat has yet to be equaled, but I am told that teams of researchers at various universities are working around the clock to break the 5,000-footnote barrier. More ... 

Vocabula button free for the asking. Click here.
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A major method of miscommunication is the misplaced modifier. These misconstructed and misconstrued sentences are everywhere, and they're often funny. A news article appeared in the local newspaper about a guy who had fallen off a cruise ship and "was found by some road workers lying on the beach." Unfortunately, the reader momentarily forgets about the poor guy and wonders why these workers were loafing on the beach. Although the misplaced modifier effect is often humorous, it sometimes detracts from a not so humorous issue. 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 ... 



John Kilgore: Shibboleths — Eviction Notices

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Rare Verbal Gems

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Hieroglyphics, or What Sophocles Knew

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — The Celine Dialogs

David Isaacson: Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases — Closure

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — Footnotes*


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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. In The Dictionary of Concise Writing, Fiske shows how to identify and correct wordiness.

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