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October 2008, Vol. 10, No. 10 There are now   8511   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

Coming in the November 2008 issue of The Vocabula Review:
"Presidential Authors" by Richard Lederer
The November issue is due online November 23.

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 October 2008 Vocabula

Because of a curious disease of the human mind, it pleases us to enshrine in history records of bloodshed and slaughter ... — Pliny

A few years ago, I had the happy fortune of wandering onto a particularly blissful bay in Tobago: palm trees, soda vendors, gentle sand and steady sun combined to create a scene that was almost a parody of Caribbean ease. But when I opened my Rough Guide to figure out where, exactly, I was, I soon learned that this was none other than the ominously named Bloody Bay. And how had such a placid setting earned such a jarring name? Well, it was a 1771 battle that did the trick: in that year, claimed the guidebook, the bay witnessed a fight between English soldiers and African slaves "that was fierce enough to turn the sea crimson with blood." Nearby, a few sunbathers sprawled, like thick clumps of tallow. Modest blue-green waves quietly licked the sand. And it was hard to resist wondering: crimson with blood? Really? This entire bay? Is such a thing even possible? More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by Richard Lederer

Woodrow Wilson, our twenty-eighth president, was a great admirer of Mark Twain. When his presidential train passed thorough Hannibal, Missouri, Wilson ordered a three-hour stopover of some of Twain's boyhood haunts. Approaching one of the townsmen, he asked, "I'm a stranger to these parts. Could you tell me where Tom Sawyer was supposed to live?"

"Never heard of him," said the man.

"Well, how about Huck Finn?"

"Never heard of him nuther."

The president tried once more. "How about Pudd'nhead Wilson?" he asked.

The man's face lit up. "I heard of him all right. In fact I even voted for the durn fool!"

Because the American presidency is the most powerful position in the most powerful nation on the planet, it's not surprising that a number of our chief executives have consorted with literary lights: More ... 

Last summer I received part of a document from an old school friend, now an archeologist digging somewhere near the town of Ararat, New Jersey. What he sent me was proof, he explained, that the Old Testament flood was supposed to have been caused by 50 days of rain, not 40. I can't vouch for the document's authenticity because he once sent me a piece of plywood he claimed came from the ark. I quote the document, however, to show that words have caused problems for far longer than most of us suspect. More ... 

Book Excerpt
Back  Language & Human Nature
by Mark Halpern

Some claim that the Eskimos have words for many more varieties and conditions of snow and ice than do the languages of the temperate zone; others say they have no more. The evidence usually offered consists of lexical counts, with each side in the debate claiming authority for its own list of such words gathered from native informants, or from dictionaries compiled earlier from such interviews. But besides all the difficulties regularly associated with the compilation of word lists for a language that until recently was purely a spoken language, and whose present-day written form is largely the work of non-natives, there is in this case a special problem: these lexical counts seldom if ever distinguish between words in common use and those never used by, or even known to, ordinary users of the language in question. This failure vitiates virtually all attempts made so far to settle the matter. More ... 

by Robert Hartwell Fiske

1. Being silent is the chance to think, to talk to oneself, and it is preferable to much of what we say aloud. We need to speak, as we need to write, with more deliberation and clarity. Our sanity and our society depend on it. Thought is borne of quiet, of internal talk. In today's money-grubbing, entertainment-ridden, fear-induced society, there is scant value in being still and thinking for oneself. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back  Hyphenology, or The Missing Link
by Darren Crovitz

All readers and writers are interested to some degree in the nuts and bolts of language. Sure, when we read, there are larger things we're looking for — a controlled focus, cohesive organization, an engaging style. But for each of us, there are certain issues of diction, syntax, grammar, punctuation, and usage that snag our attention, like thorns snatching and unraveling a sweater.

One of those pet peeves for me is hyphens. Or rather, the lack of them.

Why the hyphen? After all, it's such an innocuous-looking thing. A tiny half-line, barely visible on the page, joining words together like the cars of little toy trains. There are a thousand other more obvious issues I could have with writing. But for me, a missing hyphen is like a hole in the universe, a white void, a yawning nothingness, an empty space crying out in need. More ... 

Two Poems
Back  The End of the Lexicon
by Robert Jacoby

A word can just paralyze.

Chronic words, neat completers.

Experience distills meaning.
Experiences mother meanings.
My father is dust.
Fresh. More ... 

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Vocabula button free for the asking.

Bethumped with Words
Back  Lake Huron Is a Racist Insult
by Bill Casselman

Paddling toward the origin of the name of Lake Huron, we touch shore in Old French where une hure meant "a shock of hair." It also meant "the head of an animal," and then was applied to any human head that was animal-like.

An augmentative suffix is something one adds to the end of a word to make the root meaning bigger. A common augmentative in Romance languages is -on. For example, in Spanish, hombre means "man." Now add -on, to get hombron, which means "a big man, a stud, a real bruiser." Thus sixteenth-century French has huron, the augmentative of hure, "a big clump of hair." In older French, it could mean also "a wild boar, or a bumpkin, a gross lout who never cut his hair."

A North American legend says a French soldier saw a group of Indians with their hair shaved on the side and long on top in what we would today call "a mohawk," but in what that French soldier or explorer called huron because it was bristly like the hair on a wild boar's head. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  Momentous News
by Carey Harrison

Dear patient reader, since this monthly column is billed as — among other things — a report from the front lines of college English teaching, I feel I must announce a shocking new development, akin to a glimpse of an unusual bird in the trenches, or perhaps a new species of landmine. What occurred was as follows: a student took a note during one of my classes.

At first I thought she must be writing down a reminder to recharge her cellphone batteries, or buy crackers. But no, she actually seemed, by the play of her attention, to be noting down something I said. She — but wait! I mustn't go on giving her this anonymous pronoun; her name is Eliza, and let's leave it at that, other than to say that her last name isn't Doolittle. Even if Eliza was, as it appeared, following what I was saying, she could of course have been writing silly old fart, merely to give the appearance of taking notes. But here's the remarkable thing. No one in my classroom ever seeks to give the appearance of taking notes, since no one ever takes notes. In the dozen years since I've been teaching at my college, not one student, until Eliza, has ever taken a note. More ... 

The Common Reader
Back  Halloween Reading
by Kevin Mims

Ghost stories and other types of horror fiction abound in English-language literature, but there seem to be relatively few classic tales or poems that deal specifically with Halloween, our annual celebration of all things terrifying. Christmas, of course, has inspired countless songs, stories, and poems. And even Thanksgiving has its own traditional song. Although the words are sometimes altered to make it a Christmas carol, the song we know as "Over the River and Through the Woods" is officially titled "A Boy's Thanksgiving Day," and was written by Lydia Marie Child, in 1844. Alas, the most famous song associated with Halloween is the moronic 1962 novelty hit "Monster Mash," by Bobby "Boris" Pickett and the Cryptkickers. Moreover, Thanksgiving has inspired at least a couple of classic short stories, "Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen," by O. Henry, and "The Thanksgiving Visitor," by Truman Capote. The classic story most often read in schoolrooms on Halloween is probably Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." The story is spooky and prominently features a pumpkin, but it makes no actual mention of Halloween or any of its contemporary rituals. Robert Burns's 1786 poem "Halloween" is bawdy and amusing, but the Halloween customs described therein bear little resemblance to the ones practiced today. Judging by Burns's poem, a Scottish Halloween in the eighteenth century was all about divining one's romantic future. The characters in the poem spend all evening engaging in curious rituals purported to foretell whether one will marry a maid, a hag, a widow, the man of one's dreams, or no one at all. More ... 

Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases
Back  Icon
by David Isaacson

Calling Britney Spears a popular culture icon is the intellectual equivalent of calling the invention of Blu-Ray DVDs paradigmatic. Spears really isn't significant enough to deserve the religious and aesthetic status once implied by the word icon, and Blu-ray DVDs certainly do not represent an epochal change in technology remotely similar to the sense of paradigm in which Thomas Kuhn used the word to refer to a fundamental change, due to a scientific revolution, in the way people understood the world. What I said in my August column about paradigms applies also to most of the figurative uses of the word icon: through overuse and careless use, both words have lost much of their meaning. More ... 

Letter of the Law
Back  The World According to TARP
by Adam Freedman

An uncle of mine who lives near London was the only person I ever knew who referred to Mrs. Thatcher's local tax by its formal name: The Community Charge. Everyone else called it the "Poll Tax," a name that hearkened back to a detested fourteenth-century levy.

Likewise, it seems that the recent $700 billion rescue package from Congress will forever be known as the "Bailout," although its real name is The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008. The administration, naturally, would like to emphasize stability, but most commentators are having none of that.

The term bailout works equally well for both sides of the $700 billion controversy. It manages to express both the sense of duty-bound action on the part of the law's supporters and the indignation of its opponents ("it's Main Street bailing out Wall Street!"). More ... 

You might want to skip this module if you suffer from aibohphobia, the fear of palindromes, because this module contains ninety-two instances of two-directional, dyslexic prose. But if you dig into this gab bag, you'll find that all the palindromes, or pals, used here are reader friendly. None are the artificial, contrived type that seem to have been created by random word generators, such as, My gay rub won, Star. Rats now bury a gym, (re: I Love Me, Vol. I). Pals like that obey no rules of grammar and make no sense. The pals found here are sensible and reasonable. They're pals you can take anywhere. 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 ... 



Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Lake Huron Is a Racist Insult

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Momentous News

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — Halloween Reading

David Isaacson: Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases — Icon

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — The World According to TARP


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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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