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September 2008, Vol. 10, No. 9 There are now   1395   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

Coming in the October 2008 issue of The Vocabula Review:
Blood Flows, Ink Flows: An Image of Hyperbolic Violence
The October issue is due online October 19.

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 September 2008 Vocabula

The 2008 Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest winners have been selected. Read the first-place and second-place winning entries, as well as nine others. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by Jim Sanderson

For a while, way back maybe in the earlier seventies, we creative writers had the hidden meanings book. We knew the truth. We knew how to invigorate students. We had the one true pedagogy: the workshop. I think that we stole it from the new critics. Then we creative writers learned that the author was dead, that we were just a construct of society, and for a while, the literary theorists had the conduit, the fast track, the high-speed Internet connection to the hidden meaning, the secret decoder ring. Now the composition theorists have "my precious." I had lost my grasp on the secret decoder ring; like Golum, I had fumbled the damn thing.

At my age, with my academic background receding into a hazy past, I am learning that what I knew is definitely unfashionable, certainly archaic, and probably irrelevant. Among the things that I learned were unfashionable, archaic, and irrelevant were the teaching of traditional grammar and maybe grammar itself. But given my unfashionable, archaic, and irrelevant knowledge, I can become a member of the Old Fart School, which is more of a school of attitude than knowledge. So as an Old Fart, I write to praise teaching grammar in the composition classroom and thereafter. More ... 

by Richard Lederer

Labor Day was first celebrated in New York City in 1882, when the Central Labor Union held its first parade to show the esprit de corps of its trade and labor organizations. The celebration went national in 1885 after a vote by the body that became the American Federation of Labor. Now observed in every American state, Labor Day is also associated with the unofficial end of the summer season.

In honor of Labor Day, I share with you my workplace history:

My first job was working in an orange juice factory, but I got couldn't concentrate and got canned. More ... 

by Julian Burnside

The hundredth anniversary of the first edition of The King's English was in 2006. It was written by Henry Watson Fowler and his brother Francis George Fowler, and it was immediately popular. The second edition was published just two years later, in 1908. A third edition, published in 1930, is still in print.

My affection for this book began fifty years ago, when my father decided that my English education needed to be supplemented. Coincidentally, it was the same year that My Fair Lady premiered: the first, and probably the only, celebration of philology in a Broadway musical.

The structure of The King's English is that of a fairly orthodox grammar. Even so, the chapter titled Airs & Graces includes such subheadings as: Elegant Variation, Archaism, Trite Phrases and Cheap Originality. Part II collects a wide range of examples selected by the Fowler brothers to illustrate some of their pet subjects. These are drawn together under such teasing headings as Antics, Wens and Hypertrophied Members, Omission of as, Other Liberties Taken With as, Journalese, and Commercialisms. More ... 

Although a confirmed, ordained, and consecrated logophile (my students call me a "word freak"), I do not ordinarily read dictionaries. Some years ago, however, I read the appendix of Indo-European (IE) Roots in the American Heritage Dictionary (1978: hereafter AHD) from *abel- to *yu- and found it so entertaining and so profitable that I then read it a second time. Amateurs of language who are not familiar with the AHD should obtain a copy quam primum (be sure it is the unabridged edition). I say this not because I sell the book or because I own stock in the company that publishes it, but because it is unique among dictionaries and contains information for the logophile that can be found nowhere else in English. There is first of all the article "Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans" by Calvert Watkins of Harvard and the appendix of roots prepared under his supervision. The article includes a discussion of "Phonology and Morphology," "Grammar and Syntax," "Semantics," and "Lexicon and Culture." The latter section contains many inferences regarding the environment, society, economic life, technology, and ideology of the speakers of IE made from the reconstructed vocabulary. These features taken together with Professor Watkins' "The Indo–European Origin of English" and Morton Bloomfield's "A Brief History of the English Language," both of which appear in the front of the dictionary, constitute an invaluable "mini-course" in IE linguistics. The appendix of roots includes "every IE root ancestral to at least one English word with descriptions of the details of its descent." There is simply nothing like it in English. One has to go to Julius Pokorny's lndogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, which Watkins' appendix refers to "but does not depend on," in order to find a more complete dictionary of IE, but Pokorny was published in 1959 and the AHD takes account of work done in the field since then. A study of these roots is surely the least time-consuming way to survey all the principal English words of IE origin. The unsuspected relationships and the ancient insights enshrined in the etymologies found there will make the average logophile euphoric for weeks if not months. More ... 

Book Excerpt
Back  Reading the OED
by Ammon Shea

My Oxford English Dictionary arrived at 9:27 one Monday morning, brought by a delivery man who was much cheerier than I would have expected anyone carrying 150 pounds of books up a flight of stairs to be. Five boxes, containing twenty books that promised to take up the next twelve months of my life.

I rarely buy books that are brand new, and so felt almost nervous as I took them out and began removing them in their pristine condition from the plastic wraps. They had a decidedly new-book smell, a scent which is far more intoxicating to me than that of a new car. After all, you cannot read a car. Of course, I think old books smell just as good as new ones. I arranged them, in order, on the floor along one wall in my living room. They are all dust-jacketed in a dark blue; with a regal and chitinous gloss, resembling the covering of some beautiful and wordy beetle. More ... 

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

Vocabula Revisited
Back  Penman
by Joseph Epstein

An article in the recent issue of The Women's Quarterly bemoans the absence of the teaching of handwriting in schools, pointing out that this is especially a hardship on young boys. Handwriting apparently comes less easily for boys than it does for girls. "Boys are graphologically challenged," the article reports; and a professor of special education at the University of Maryland named Steve Graham adds that boys being poorer at penmanship than girls "is one of the better established facts in the literature."

The boys in my class at the Daniel Boone School in Chicago were certainly much worse than the girls. I don't remember any girls having bad handwriting. For a girl in fifth or sixth grade to have poor handwriting was, somehow, a judgment upon her. A girl with wretched handwriting, during the ancien regime under which I grew up, was practically a slut; it was not done, unthinkable, impermissible. Being slobs and brutes, boys were permitted to be wildly errant penmen. The highest most could hope to attain was a merely passable handwriting. Elegant penmanship might even have put in doubt one's masculinity. More ... 

A Poem
Back  Hide and Seek
by George Witte

Enough of hollow protocol.
Persuaded by intelligence
surmised from noise the system's culled
through parallel surveillances,

we know it's so that we don't know.
Does God reveal himself or hide?
Satellites peer into shadows.
Decision, or the mushroom cloud? More ... 

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The Elder Statesman
Back  Nobility
by Clark Elder Morrow

The word noble is derived, ultimately, from the Latin word nobus, which means simply "to know." It comes to us from the more elaborate nobilis, but the root of the word is the root of the idea (as with most words). I begin to suspect in my senility that the distinctly unglamorous goddess Wisdom is a habitué of that section of the library where books of etymology can be found. To know the world one must know words, and to know words one should know where words have come from. The root, or radix, of a word is the root of the idea, and it is in the land of prototypical root ideas that the profoundest understanding of reality is to be found. One cannot understand rootedness without knowing what a root is, and one will never grasp the many variations on the word root without grasping that radix lies at the heart of the word radical and radial and radish. Wisdom is to be wooed in the garden of word-history, where all conveyable knowledge gets its start, just as the knowledge of good and evil got underway in another, and more celebrated, garden. More ... 

As we all know, there is a tremendous amount of useful and interesting information available on the Internet, most of it available free of charge. And as we also know (I hope), there is a tremendous amount of stupidity, malice, ignorance, and insanity cluttering up and disfiguring the Internet. In an essay on editing that I published in The Vocabula Review for June 2004, I offered readers a few tips on how to traverse the dangerous terrain of the Internet, getting good information and other useful results without falling into any of the traps it conceals, or falling prey to any of the monsters that roam it. I reproduce those tips in the Appendix to this essay for convenience, but the main point of this note is to expand on the first of them, because I've come to see that it is far more important than I realized when I first mentioned it. That tip is:

If the text at a site is badly written, ignore the site; it is unlikely that the information it offers will be good, and even if there is some good information there, bad presentation will rob it of much of its value.
More ... 

by Bill Casselman

In my web slogs through the Internet, I have waded, rubber boots pulled high, through pig barns of ignorance, through white-trash stables befouled with racism, rafter-high with southern-fried, gag-making hatred of African Americans. Now, in respect to political speechifying, I am no giggling virgin, cheeks blushing behind my fan. I have read the hornswoggling blather of flannel-mouthed Canadian and American goldbrick artists all of my life. But even a fecal mariner such as myself, fresh from ever flocculent seas of dreck, even I have been astounded at the belligerence of the ignorance contained in Internet articles purporting to tell what Barack Obama's given name means. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  Quiz, and After
by Carey Harrison

I enclose a quick review of the answers to my undergraduate quiz — see Letting Bygones Be Bygones in the July Vocabula Review — about which readers have kindly enquired.

There has been an encouraging increase in the number of newspapers my undergraduates claim to read daily. Mostly these are tabloids, but the New York Times came up a handful of times, which is hopeful news for undergraduate literacy. Awareness of topical news, however, seemed to be just as poor as ever, which makes one wonder if the students do actually read the newspapers they claim to be reading, or, if they do read them, one wonders which sections they read. The word rendition meant nothing to any member of the class; every single member of the class thought "waterboarding" was a sport. Three or four students now understood (or perhaps had always understood) that in the main the 9/11 skyjackers were Saudis, rather than Afghanis or Iraqis. This is a marked improvement. More ... 

by Kevin Mims

The popular NBC sitcom The Office chronicles the working lives of the people employed at the Scranton, Pennsylvania, branch of a fictional paper company known as Dunder Mifflin, Inc. The show gets a lot of things right about the contemporary American workplace. In particular, it does a good job of demonstrating how people who are confined to an insular setting such as an office for forty hours a week often end up creating a unique lexicon of work-inspired words and phrases. In an episode from the show's third season entitled "Traveling Salesmen/The Return," office suck-up Andy Bernard (actor Ed Helms) tells his boss Michael Scott (Steve Carell), "I'm sorry, I really schruted it" after blowing a sales call with a valued client. When Michael asks the meaning of the term schruted it, Andy tells him, "It's just this thing people say around your office all the time. When you screw something up in a really irreversible way, you 'schruted it.'" Andy, a newcomer to the Scranton branch, is being disingenuous. He has made the phrase up on the spot in an effort to use his own failure as an opportunity to denigrate his office nemesis, Dwight Schrute, Dunder Mifflin's top salesman in Scranton. Michael, however, is a bit dense. To make sure he gets the point, Andy adds, "I don't know where it comes from, though. Do you think it comes from Dwight Schrute?" To which Michael responds, "Who knows how words are formed?" More ... 

Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases
Back  Unctuous "We" Reconsidered
by David Isaacson

In my December 2007 column, Who "Is" We, I criticized the custom, which seems especially popular among healthcare providers, of a particularly sanctimonious use of the first-person plural. I argued then that it was more than a little disingenuous, for example, for a nurse to say to a patient, upon waking him up to give him his sleeping pill, in that inimitable, innocent, and disgustingly oleaginous way that "health professionals" sincerely believe is comforting: "and how are we doing today?" In circumstances like this, the nurse is not addressing two or more people. This use of the first-person plural is more than ingratiating. It is fulsome: it insults adult patients and assumes an air of mawkish familiarity when a more dignified form of compassion is more appropriate. The nurse clearly doesn't mean he has a personal relationship with the patient when he refers to him as "we" instead of the more appropriate pronoun "you." The apparent reason for this annoying locution is that the nurse is seeking to make the patient feel better, or at least less uncomfortable. But the intention conflicts with the outcome. If you have some healthy self-respect, you feel insulted by this patronizing, overly familiar "we." More ... 

Letter of the Law
Back  Faith Lift
by Adam Freedman

With both presidential candidates eagerly courting the "religious vote," it's worth remembering those famous words of the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

These words are crystal clear — except that the Constitution nowhere defines the term religion or establishment of religion. As a result, judges are routinely called upon to decide whether "religion" is a sufficiently broad term to encompass such activities as pot smoking, polygamy, and witchcraft.

Even scholars disagree over the origin of the R-word: some say that it derives from the Latin relegere (to read over) while others insist that it comes from the Latin religare (to bind). Relying on the latter etymology, the California Supreme Court once held that "religion" imports nothing more specific than a duty to obey "restraining principles of conduct." Unfortunately, that definition scarcely narrows things, as the Court itself wearily concluded "[i]n such sense, we suppose there is no atheist who will admit that he is without religion." More ... 

When I introduced the Bull S--- Quotient (the number of syllables in a Bull BM-laden phrase divided by the number of syllables in the small word equivalent of that phrase) in Language Module No. 3, the highest pile of composted words reached a BSQ of 9. That's nine times as many syllables as are needed to say the same thing with a single syllable. It didn't take long to find one that's piled higher. Recently, on a dog day in August, I was working out at the gym and all the fans were going at high speed. At least I thought they were fans. A closer look at the description on the blade guard of one of the units revealed that it wasn't a fan after all; it was a High Velocity Air Circulator. That's a letter ratio of 24 to 3 and a new BSQ leader of 10! That fan, which only blew hot air, prompted me to offer this module as an antidote to the BS Syndrome. 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 ... 


The 2008 Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest Winners

Grammar Rules — Jim Sanderson

Nothing Works for Me — Richard Lederer

The King's English — Julian Burnside

The Contribution of Sanskrit to the Lexicon of English — Jeremiah Reedy

Book Excerpt: Reading the OED — Ammon Shea

Vocabula Revisited: Penman — Joseph Epstein

A Poem — George Witte


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Nobility

Mark Halpern: The Critical Reader — Through Darkest Internet with Miss Thistlebottom as Guide and Protector

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Barack Obama: The True Meaning of His Given Name

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Quiz, and After

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — Schruting, Flonkerton, & Pretendinitis

David Isaacson: Vogue Words and Buzz Phrases — Unctuous "We" Reconsidered

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — Faith Lift


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Click the image to order101 Elegant Paragraphs by Robert Hartwell Fiske

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The point of this collection is to show that the language can be written with grace and polish — qualities that much contemporary writing is bereft of and could benefit from. Read these examples of elegant English, and from each you might glean some turn of phrase, some device of rhetoric, some clarity of expression, some novelty of thought that, in more contemporary writing, you seldom will have noticed.

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