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Silence, Language, & Society
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Three Books by
Robert Hartwell Fiske
Editor and Publisher of
The Vocabula Review
The Dictionary of Disagreeable English
In the April 2009 Vocabula
by Francis Blessington
More than four hundred years ago, writers of the Renaissance, or Early Modern Period, refashioned our language into standard English. We can read Elizabethan texts without translation or gloss well, almost without gloss unlike Old or Middle-English works. Beowulf requires pre-study in the language and a dictionary, and Chaucer's works are often perhaps too often read in translation but need at least textual notes if not a glossary. We can understand Shakespeare even in performance, but The Second Shepherd's Play would have to be adapted or translated for modern audiences because the changes that have occurred in English from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century are fewer and less basic than the changes that occurred from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century. More ...
by Richard Lederer
Why do the French need only one egg to make an omelet? Because in France, one egg is un oeuf.
Have you stayed at the new luxury hotel in town? It's a site for soirees. More ...
by Julian Burnside
The winter edition of the Australian Bar News did not contain a column about words. For the first time in fourteen years, I missed the deadline. More in despair than anger, I looked up deadline in the OED2. In its meaning relevant here, "a time by which material has to be ready for inclusion in a particular issue of a publication," it is first recorded in 1920. The Chicago Herald & Examiner of January 2 that year notes a play called "Deadline at Eleven" that was about to be produced. Not surprisingly, it was a play about a newspaper. Although this meaning of deadline is fairly recent, it is now the commonest use of the word. That is probably a good thing, because an earlier American use of the word was much more literal and threatening: during the American civil war, a deadline was a line drawn around the bounds of a military prison. Any prisoner who crossed the deadline was liable to be shot. In 1868, B. J. Lossing's History of the Civil War noted that: "Seventeen feet from the inner stockade was the 'dead-line,' over which no man could pass and live." More ...
Book ExcerptMovie Speak
by Tony Bill
baby (spot) A 500- to 1,000-watt Fresnel light.
baby plate This piece of equipment, known in New York City as a pigeon, has almost as many names as it has uses. Originally designed for mounting baby fixtures to the top of set walls, it is also used as the world's lowest stand by nailing it to a floor or on an apple box. More ...
Vocabula RevisitedThe Perfect Word Is the One That Will Do
by Ira Nayman
Writers are encouraged to strive for the perfect word, or in French, le mot juste. (Everything sounds better in French.) This is the word that perfectly captures the physical or psychological essence of the subject of the sentence. Like most ideals, we rarely ever actually achieve it (if writers truly searched for the perfect word in every sentence, few pieces of writing would ever be finished), but it does give writers a goal.
Humor writers, especially those who write topical humor, however, have a choice of several words or phrases to complete a joke successfully. Thus, rather than the perfect word, they can settle for the word that fits. More ...
Two PoemsAt Forty
by Jana Moore
I would like to speak
by Michael Jay Katz
Socrates: Hello, Socrates with no moon tonight I hardly recognized you.
SOCRATES: That's a silly thing to say but I suppose old men can be allowed a bit of foolish talk.
Socrates: I'm only talking because it's so quiet. There's not a soul stirring here in the marketplace.
SOCRATES: Why are you out so late?
Socrates: When you get old, you have trouble sleeping. After dinner I can hardly keep my eyes open; then I wake in the dead of night and can't fall back to sleep.
SOCRATES: So you walk through the empty streets?
Socrates: Yes, I walk and talk to myself. More ...
ShibbolethsOn Being a Jerk
by John Kilgore
jerk (jürk), n. 1. a quick, sharp pull, thrust, twist, throw, or the like: a sudden movement. . . . 4. Slang. a contemptibly naïve, fatuous, foolish, or inconsequential person.
For a while, now, I have been musing on this odd collocation of meanings. Why should jerk, of all words, be one of the most popular and versatile of American insults? What makes it the riposte of choice for so many mild-to-medium injuries, the descriptor of choice for a certain brand of clueless inconsideration? Why do we wield it, as sword and shield, with such satisfaction? More ...
Postcards from BabelA Charm of Powerful Trouble
by Amalia Gnanadesikan
Traditionally, speakers of the Australian aboriginal languages Dyirbal and Yidiny had to watch their words with unusual caution. There were the normal, everyday words that one could use with normal, everyday people, and then there were the special words that a man would have to use in the presence of his mother-in-law or a woman would have to use in the presence of her father-in-law. Not a single noun, verb, or adjective of the normal language could be used in front of these taboo relatives or indeed in front of anyone from the section of the tribe to which these relatives belonged. There were thus two words for everything. This is a long way to go to lend linguistic support to incest taboos. More ...
Bethumped with WordsPonzi: Caught in the Wizard's Womb of Fraud
by Bill Casselman
Charles Ponzi, after whom the fraudulent scheme that dupes investors was named, was an Italian immigrant who arrived in Boston in 1903 at the age of 21. Ponzi once did prison time in Canada for forging checks. In today's trip down emery lane (ouchies!), we look at the origin of the Italian surname Ponzi and then offer stern words of reproof to the covetous chumps who got taken to the cleaners by the oily slicker, Bernard Madoff.
The Ponzi fraud has been in the news lately because this high-class New York City grifter named Bernard Madoff has allegedly pulled off the most obscenely profitable Ponzi swindle in history his possible theft? $65,000,000,000! no mean feat in the midst of greed's most rampant pillage of our planet. If Bernie Boy is convicted, he faces 150 years in the slammer. More ...
Harrison's CornerBeyond Laziness
by Carey Harrison
We need a new word. "Lazy" implies energies not used, disregarded, in abeyance. No one could call a stone lazy. What my dear hapless undergraduates exhibit is a kind of lobotomized passivity that defies easy description. Where the muscle might be lurking, the muscle that could be activated to engage the mind, manufacture memory, and enter the domain of learning, there is no sign of life: no muscle, no sinew, apparently no nervous system. Even amoebas, I reflect, have some acquisitive instincts. Don't amoebas have appetite? My students sit as if drugged, prepared only to report some "personal" like or dislike. And to think that not forty years ago a vocal group of conservative American educationists cited as inappropriate the request, by a teacher, for a student's "personal" view; it was called an intrusion, a violation of privacy! Now admittedly this was in Virginia, in old Virginny where you defended your soul and your Christian conscience with your life. But my goodness, those were the days! The bad old days, I dare say, but what teacher wouldn't feel a little sinful thrill of nostalgia, today, at the thought of never having to perpetually solicit student opinions. No more personhood, to whose validation schools are now entirely dedicated. By heavens, one could actually teach, instead. If, that is, the students are listening. If they're attending, they're probably only waiting for a moment in which to interject, upon request, a chunk of "personal experience," a little piece of their privacy. More ...
Letter of the LawExcuses, Excuses
by Adam Freedman
If you still haven't filed your 2008 tax returns, take heart. You may be suffering from Late-Filing Syndrome.
That's right it's a disease. Late-filing syndrome became a sensation last October when it was cited by the lawyer for Charles O'Byrne, a top aide to New York Governor David Patterson. There was no dispute that O'Byrne had failed to file tax returns for five years despite being highly educated and having ample income. More ...
Vocabula button free for the asking.
Since my family tree is rooted in Canada, I take some pride in the fact that approximately 40 percent of the English vocabulary has French roots. Even if you've never studied French you probably know at least 15,000 French words. Many French phrases convey ideas and situations that would otherwise require several words to adequately describe. My word processor dictionary stores a twenty-word definition for the phrase deja-vu, seventeen for laissez-faire, seventeen for coup de grace, and twenty-two for nouveau riche. In light of our current affaire d'etat, perhaps nouveau pauvre (poor) should be added to the dictionary. 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 ...
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 ...
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