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Good Words Vocabula On Call Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
Robert Hartwell Fiske's Book Proposals      

This August issue of The Vocabula Review marks our tenth year of publication. That's 120 issues since September 1999. In recognition of this, the August issue is devoted to "The Best of Vocabula." By "best," I mean these twenty-five essays are among the ones that I enjoy most. The essay and columnists archives include hundreds of other essays, and in them I'm sure you'll find another twenty-five essays that you would have included in this tenth anniversary issue.

If you like what you see here, please allow us to continue publishing this journal for another ten years.

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Thank you for your continuing interest in, and support of, Vocabula.

Robert Hartwell Fiske
Editor and Publisher

 In the August 2009 Vocabula

by Verónica Albin
published in April 2008

Remember the book Coffee, Tea, or Me that was later turned into a movie? It is some forty years old, so I had to go to Amazon to refresh my memory for you. The novel, purportedly the "uninhibited memoirs of two airline stewardesses," was published by Bartholomew House in New York under the names Trudy Baker and Rachel Jones. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times when people still put fancy clothes on to fly, and flight attendants, at least those on Braniff, took fancy clothes off, piece by piece, in that infamous play-on words ritual known as the "air strip." Back then the attendants were all female, young, and purty as a pitcher, and Braniff was not alone in selling meat. PSA conjured an image of its stewardesses of purity, sobriety, and availability; Southwest Airlines flew with "Love Birds"; and National Airlines, infamously, carried the slogan that enraged feminists: "I'm Cheryl, fly me." In any event, the novel was evidently popular because, in English, it spawned three sequels: The Coffee, Tea or Me Girls Lay It on the Line, The CToM Girls Get Away from It All, and The CToM Girls ‘Round the World Diary. Since one ought not to mention deep works of literature such as these in a journal of the caliber of The Vocabula Review without having done thorough research, I discovered a book called Coffee, Tea or Me, Mei Shih ai ching published in Taiwan a few years later, but Trudy and Rachel aren't the authors. I did find, however, an observation about Trudy Baker by one George Thompson that said: "RLIN (Research Libraries Information Network) also shows Trudy Baker to be the author of a number of elementary school math texts, published in Canada, so perhaps she has reformed, not that I necessarily think that one needs to reform from being an uninhibited airline stewardess, nor that writing mathematics texts would be a symptom of reformation." Indeed, Mr. Thompson. Indeed. Reformed or not, this important book just recently got republished by Penguin, which tells us a lot about the fine taste of the American reader. More ... 

Back to Top  Like
by Maggie Balistreri
published in March 2001

The Undercutting Like


Translation: I'm not smart; I'm cool. I don't know where I picked up that knowledge.

• "I think he meant it like, metaphorically."

• "You can't do that; it's like, a federal offense."

• "That was by like, Beethoven."

• "I just used the like, law of contrapositive to figure out the answer."

• "Who? That guy? Oh, he's the ambassador to like, Nigeria."

• "That's, like, an umlaut or something."
More ... 

by Marylaine Block
published in February 2001

My generation may well have been the last one to be taught to diagram sentences in school. Some of you may not even know what diagramming a sentence is: a kind of exploratory surgery in which you open up a sentence to see how it works by finding out what grammatical function each word is serving. You identify the subject, the verb, and its object; then you put the adjectives with the nouns they are modifying, the prepositions with their objects. It was boring drudgery, and I never knew anybody who enjoyed doing it.

But those of us who learned diagramming do not go around writing headlines like these:

British Left Waffles on Falklands

Chester Morrill, 92, Was Fed Secretary

We expect sentences to follow normal English sentence structure: subject, verb, object. This means our initial reading of the first headline will be that British soldiers left their breakfast on the Falkland Islands — the writer also failed to take into account that left is a verb as well as noun, and waffles a noun as well as a verb. And since the Federal Reserve Board is not what first leaps to our minds when we see the word fed, we end up with the rather macabre vision of Chester Morrill as inadvertent cannibal. More ... 

by Ada Brunstein
published in November 2007

I have recently been thinking about the value of a word. While most of the country is paid for time (hourly wage, annual salary, time is money, and so on), as a freelance writer, I get paid by the word. In some ways this is liberating. I can while away the hours, if I want, unconcerned with how much it's costing me. But I can't waste words. Instead of worrying about how I spend each minute, I worry about how I spend my words.

The cost of a word varies. Some magazines pay $1 per word; others are more, or less, generous. But regardless of the rate, I'm in no danger of making millions from this arrangement. Neither Cosmo nor the Times nor The New Yorker (should I ever be so lucky) would let a writer ramble on for an entire issue. They would tell me ahead of time when they want me to shut up, but they'd tell me nicely. "Give me 800 words," they'd say. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by Julian Burnside
published in August 2001

It is a curious thing about the English language, that although it has a vast vocabulary and rich idiomatic variations, it lacks words for some common and useful ideas. This is so even though we have words for ideas so obscure that they can hardly expect to be used more than once in a lifetime. For example:

abaciscus  A square compartment enclosing a part or the entire pattern or design of a mosaic pavement.
catapan  The officer who governed Calabria and Apulia under the Byzantine emperors.
denariate  A portion of land worth a penny a year.
holluschickie  Young males of the northern Pribilof, or Alaskan fur seal.
pitarah  A basket or box used in traveling by palankeen to carry the traveler's clothes.
spetch  A piece or strip of undressed leather, a trimming of hide, used in making glue or size.
wennish  Of the nature of a wen.
turdiform  Having the form or appearance of a thrush.

Philip Howard — sometime literary editor of The Times, and a splendid writer about words — calls these gaps "black holes." In deference to him, I adopt the same tag, although it is inappropriate. The intended meaning is a gap, or an absence where a presence might be expected. By contrast, a black hole is caused by the presence of an enormous mass concentrated to an extent inconceivable to all but physicists. The gravitational pull of this mass is so great that nothing — not even light — can escape from it, once the gravitational horizon has been crossed. We misuse black hole colloquially just as we misuse quantum leap colloquially — but only physicists are likely to be upset or confused. More ... 

published in September 2005

Norwegian painter and printmaker Edvard Munch in his famous The Scream (1893) may have depicted what psychiatrists would call "an indeterminate figure" in modern art's most wretched cry of obliterating angst. But ancient Greek physicians of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE — and more modern men, too — had the sexist notion that nervous afflictions were peculiar to women and were symptoms of various uterine maladies. Plato imagined that the uterus (Greek hustera or hystera) was a separate spirit and animal part of a woman that wanted only to become pregnant. If it did not, this imaginary uterus-spirit wandered in a fit of mopish pique through the female body causing trouble. When it arrived at the brain, this hystera (womb animal) went totally postal and, claimed Plato, induced feminine hysterics.

From Aretaeus the Cappadocian, a Hippocratic writer of the second-century CE

In the middle of the flanks of women lies the womb, a female viscus, closely resembling an animal; for it is moved of itself hither and thither in the flanks, also upwards in a direct line to below the cartilage of the thorax and also obliquely to the right or to the left, either to the liver or spleen; and it likewise is subject to falling downwards, and, in a word, it is altogether erratic. It delights, also, in fragrant smells, and advances towards them; and it has an aversion to fetid smells, and flees from them; and on the whole the womb is like an animal within an animal.


More ... 

by Valerie Collins
published in April 2005

The first time I came across the word snoreathon, I fell about laughing. It's such an amusing, evocative word. In fact it's quite brilliant how, in English, you can glue a bit of ancient Greek place name to an onomatopoeic middle English verb to describe a football match ("the Croatia–Switzerland snoreathon"), a speech, an election campaign, a book, a concert ... the Los Angeles Times (the context where I first saw the word) ... anything (subjectively) long and mind-deadening. How was your date? A total snoreathon!

You don't need to know how this information-and-value-judgment-packed word was made in order to understand it, but it's a fascinating exercise.

Because snoreathon clearly contains a fragment of another word — marathon — it tends to get lumped into the category of blends. As we saw in Abomistrosities, a blend is broadly defined as a word "in which part of one word is joined to part of another." More ... 

by Skip Eisiminger
published in September 2007
We should have a great many fewer disputes in the world if words were taken for what they are, the signs of our ideas, and not for things themselves. — John Locke

[We must] guard against attempts to micromanage casual conversation [that have] invited people to look for an insult in every word, gesture, [and] action. — President George H. W. Bush, University of Michigan commencement exercise, 1991

Do we really want a language in which we "darn the torpedoes" and ride "heck-bent for leather"? — Anon.

On September 8, 2005, Ms. Renee Holcombe called her staff of about fifty together and directed the drivers of "the big yellow boxes to [go to] the Palmetto Center to pick up the little yard apes." The Associate Vice President for Student Services at Greenville Technical College was speaking from the edge of her desk with a coffee cup in one hand and a clipboard in the other. Her audience was her personal staff, twenty-two of whom were African-American, and most of whom she had hired. The "big yellow boxes" were Greenville Tech's school buses, and the "little yard apes" were the mostly black children of Hurricane Katrina evacuees with a few "Bart Simpson types" as well. At the time, no one questioned Ms. Holcombe's choice of words because the bus drivers on the staff understood that they were to pick up all the children at the Palmetto Center in Greenville, S.C., where they were temporarily living, and deliver them to the school. It was here that despite hurricanes their education was to continue thanks to the services of people like Holcombe.

A few days later, however, Minister William Muhammed said the incident had "the stench of white supremacy" about it. And Mr. Paul Guy, president of the local NAACP chapter, told a reporter he was disturbed that not one of the twenty-two black staff members reported the remark to his organization. He speculated that the employees might have been "afraid to speak up." What Mr. Muhammed and Mr. Guy failed to consider is that the employees might not have been offended because they had never known their white boss to use racist language, or that the term was delivered in a joking but respectful way, or that it was unfamiliar to them, or that those who complained were whites in line for a promotion if Holcombe resigned. Wrote one of Holcombe's staff in a blog a couple of weeks later, "There were 22 black TEC employees present, myself included, who didn't think a thing about Ms. Holcombe's comments, we didn't take it as a racial slur because we knew where her heart is." More ... 

by Joseph Epstein
published in September 2004

It depends on what the meaning of reading is.

"Reading at Risk" is one of those hardy perennials, a government survey telling us that in some vital area — obesity, pollution, fuel depletion, quality of education, domestic relations — things are even worse than we thought. In the category of literacy, the old surveys seemed always to be some variant of "Why Johnny Can't Read." "Reading at Risk" — the most recent survey, carried out under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Arts as part of its larger Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, the whole conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau — doesn't for a moment suggest that Johnny Can't Read. The problem is that, now grown, Johnny (though a little less Jane) doesn't much care to read a lot in the way of imaginative writing — fiction, poems, plays — also known to the survey as literature. For the first time in our history, apparently, less than half the population bothers to read any literature (so defined) at all.

Such surveys are as meat and drink — perhaps pot and coke might be more precise — to editorialists, who can usually be counted upon to discover their findings anywhere from worrying to alarming to frightening. They haul out their best solemn tone; words such as "distressing" and "grave concern" and "dire" are brought into play; look for "threat to democratic society" to pop up with some frequency; nor will "crisis" be in short supply; "serious action," one need scarcely add, is called for. Nothing remains, really, but to ring up the livery service and order the handbasket in which we, along with the culture, shall all presently ride off to hell. More ... 

by Robert Hartwell Fiske
published in August 2003

The slang-filled 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 it ought to be used. Some dictionaries, and certainly this new Merriam-Webster, actually promote illiteracy.

Several years ago, the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary ("America's Favorite Dictionary") caused a stir by deciding to include four-letter words in their product. Since the marketing strategy of including swear words has now been adopted by all dictionary makers, Merriam-Webster, apparently not knowing how else to distinguish its dictionary from competing ones that erode its marketing share, has decided to include a spate of slang words in its eleventh edition. There's nothing wrong with trying to distinguish their product, of course, but when it means tampering with the English language — by including idiotic slang and apparently omitting more useful words — it's reprehensible. More ... 

by Adam Freedman
published in October 2007

In June of this year, a Chicago jury ordered a man to pay $4,800 for stealing the heart of another man's wife.

Literary types might call this a dangerous liaison; country music buffs might refer to the pain of a cheatin' heart; but to use the precise legal formulation, this was a lawsuit for alienation of affections.

Alienation of affections is an old-fashioned term, but then virtually all legal terms concerning sexual conduct have an archaic ring to them. Laws forbidding seduction, fornication, and solicitation of chastity can still be found in various American states.

In this context, alienation does not refer to the existential estrangement that they talk about in college philosophy courses. In legal language, "to alienate" means to transfer one's property, a usage that dates to the fifteenth century. Over time, lawyers extended the meaning of alienation to include the transfer of, or taking of, anything, even intangible property. That's why the Founding Fathers described our fundamental rights as being "unalienable" — they can't be taken away. More ... 

by Amalia Gnanadesikan
published in June 2004

The traffic report I listen to in the mornings always mentions the conditions on the "Skoogle" Expressway, or so it sounds to the uninitiated. Other people — those with more time than traffic reporters have to enunciate — will tell you that in Philadelphia the Delaware River is met by the "Schoolkill" and will spell it Schuylkill.

The original pronunciation of this Dutch name is virtually impossible for anyone who is not Dutch. The ch represents a sound like that in German ach or Scots loch, a "velar fricative" in linguistic terminology. The uy, which today would be spelled ui, represents a peculiar diphthong that is the bane of anyone trying to learn Dutch. You needn't try it at home; it is best left to the Dutch and the professional phoneticians.

The kill has a story of its own, but with no implications of corpses or bloodshed. In fact, to say "Schuylkill River" is redundant. The Dutch founded New Amsterdam (now New York City) in 1624 and controlled the New Netherlands colony that grew up around it until 1664. They settled large portions of the Middle Atlantic region, naming the rivers as they did so. At the southern end of their territory was, suitably enough, the Zuid Rivier (South River), now the Delaware. At the northern end was the Noord Rivier (North River), now the Hudson. Even further north, toward Yankee Land, was the Verse Rivier (Fresh River), today's Connecticut River. Smaller rivers and large creeks were called kils by the colonists, preserving for us the seventeenth-century meaning of the word (in modern Dutch, this meaning of kil is rare outside poetry and place names). Thus the mighty Hudson was joined by the Makwaas Kil (Mohawk River) and the Delaware by the Schuyl Kil. More ... 

published in September 2000

Writing a book on computer programming a few years ago, I had occasion to mention the fact, as I then supposed it, that Eskimos had special terms for a great many varieties of snow. I was reluctant to trot out this old, well-worn story — next, I said to myself, you'll be quoting Santayana on repeating the past — but it was the perfect support for the point I was trying to make at the moment, so, taking heart from Fowler on clichés, I used it. My discomfort at using so overworked an illustration became real chagrin, though, when I learned that it was not only hackneyed but false.

In a collection of short pieces with the provocative title The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax,1 I found an essay of the same title that exploded the notion that Eskimos have especially extensive snow vocabularies. Pullum, professor of linguistics and dean of graduate studies and research at the University of California, Santa Cruz, described how the error had originated and how it had passed from book to book until it became one of the things that every schoolboy knows. So far so good; the embarrassment I felt on finding myself among the many dupes who had been taken in by this piece of misinformation, and propagated it, was easily overbalanced by the satisfaction of being finally enlightened, and by the interest of the story Pullum had to tell. In the ordinary course, I would be grateful to Pullum for correcting my error, but the manner in which he does it makes it hard to feel gratitude.

First, he seems to feel that the error is a shameful one, illustrative of human credulity in the face of the absurd and irrational, and of "falling standards in academia." But why we should have known better than to believe that Eskimos have an especially rich and nuanced vocabulary for describing their natural environment, he does not explain. Nor does he explicitly suggest that readers should check against original sources every assertion made by every writer, no matter how plausible the assertion or how credible the writer; yet such a course would be the only way to preclude such errors. More ... 

published in April 2005

I am an English professor. These days I'm not sure if this is a boast, a confession, or a plea for sympathy. I teach English composition to American undergraduates; I say "American" because, although I have taught in the Ivy League, in the University of California "system," and that of the University of Texas, at Austin, and am a tenured professor at the City University of New York, I seem to be feeling my British origins more keenly with every year's fresh buffeting of our common language.

My concern with "our common language," that's to say, my sense of its forked path, goes back to childhood: my father was the late Sir Rex Harrison. Those of you who are reading this and attended a live performance of My Fair Lady — which will probably make you at least as old as I am, since I stood backstage at the age of eleven, watching the show — may recall the line that got the biggest laugh of the evening. It was not a line of George Bernard Shaw's, despite the presence in Alan Jay Lerner's book of many gems lifted straight from Pygmalion. The line that brought the house down was Lerner's own shrewdly vulgar coinage, a sardonic Henry Higgins aside apropos the English language: "In America they haven't spoken it in years." Even as an eleven-year-old, I found the audience's roar of delight a little excessive; odd, too, that it should be the biggest laugh of the night — was the laughter masochistic, or simply a rebuke to fatuous British smugness and snobbery? Deferential or defiant? Or something of both? More ... 

by Kerr Houston
published in November 2003

In 1989, annoyed by an all-too-familiar phrasing in an article on the decline of the traditional American family, Fortune writer Daniel Seligman typed in a computer search on "Ozzie and Harriet." In a matter of seconds, he had a list of eighty stories — all written within the last six months, and nearly all analyses of the nuclear family — which had employed the term. Seligman had trapped his cliché.

Recently, I've started to feel a bit like Seligman whenever I see the word explore used in a piece of academic writing. It's a fine term, in a general sense, with a happy pedigree (Milton once used it, and so did Dryden), but in a formal academic context, it somehow often manages to come across as both grandiose and noncommittal, implying a vague sense of novelty without promising conclusive results. It evokes both energy and the exotic — but only evokes them, usually giving way to a relatively conservative methodology or format. It's the loud red paisley necktie at the board meeting, the single joke in the formal policy speech. Above all, though, it's overused. According to ProQuest's digital database, the term was used 14,131 times in dissertation abstracts completed between 1996 and 2000. In 2000 alone, more than 3,100 theses explored one issue or another. Or to put it another way, the term explore appeared more frequently than the words discuss, claim, prove, assert, and conclude put together. By comparison, poor Ozzie and Harriet were sadly underexposed. More ... 

by David Isaacson
published in June 2006

Linguists tell us that Eskimos have dozens of words for the different states of snow. Alcoholics, their victims, and others with more than a passing interest in the state of drunkenness have hundreds of words describing what happens when people have too much to drink. The Guinness Book of Records claims "that the condition of being inebriated has more synonyms than any other condition or object." Guinness cites Paul Dickson as the compiler of this list of 2,660 English words and phrases for being soused (Dickson's Word Treasury, New York, Wiley, 1992). Eskimos need all those words to distinguish among slush, mush, hail, sleet, icy snow, and other forms of cold precipitation. But why do alcoholics need hundreds of words to describe being drunk? Surely there are not hundreds of variations in behavior among having a snort or two, getting a bit tipsy, becoming pie-eyed, and ending up shit-faced? I think the reason there is such a varied lexicon for drunkenness has much more to do with the complicated psychological feeling of being high rather than the comparatively simple physical state of intoxication. Dickson compiled the list of these synonyms; I'm going to try to make sense out of them.

Synonyms for drunkenness tell us a lot about how words can be used both to reveal and conceal true feelings. Some of these synonyms are richly ambivalent, poetically resonant metaphors. Because consuming alcohol changes the way drinkers perceive the world, it should not surprise us that words describing this altered state of consciousness reflect the confusion in the alcoholic's mind about these changes. Social drinkers use many of the same words and expressions about drinking that alcoholics do but often without appreciating the full ironic meanings conveyed by the words the drunk uses to describe his drinking. More ... 

published in August 2008

Back in the day, the early 70s, when some say passion for the written word was at its pinnacle, a young woman named Evangelina Nouveau came to us at Walters State Community College in Morristown, Tennessee. Walters State, nestled deep in the bosom of the Smoky Mountains, was in its own infancy in 1973, and when the exotic Ms. Nouveau moved here from New Orleans (or "N'Awlins," as she said it), there were whispers (yes, whispers). But all rumors of "Coon Ass" and "Voodoo" aside, none of us could question her everlasting enthusiasm, and we knew the Humanities was known the "touchy-feely-overachieve-y" division anyway. She worked hard (so hard), and the very, very local phrase "bless her heart" followed Evangelina in her onerous load of teaching and academic duties.

Evangelina was young and ambitious, and ever on the lookout for ways to enrich her classes, bless her heart. One fateful year she took a trip to Italy, to research Italian literature (The Decameron at a Community College!), and she met and married a man named after salvation itself. She returned in the fall to us reborn: Evangelina san Salvatori. More ... 

by Frank E. Keyes, Jr.
published in June 2007

It is popular these days, and has been for years, for critics of our culture to complain that college graduates write poorly. Some critics have even become topics of conversation at cocktail parties because they complained so well. They also appear in journals and sometimes wear tweeds.

Critics in college departments other than English say that English professors are the cause of poorly lettered graduates. English professors parry by stating that students do write well enough for them, and they accuse their colleagues in physics, psychology, and sociology of failing to demand that the students maintain the same standards.

English professors normally, of course, also point to high school English teachers as having failed to teach students properly, and these teachers, in turn, mention society, television, lack of parental control, DDT, too early toilet training, too late toilet training, and affairs of state.

Eventually, this spiral search leads us to the inventor of language and, therefore, to the first language teacher. Were we to question this person, especially if we did so with a hint of reproach, a suggestion of tenure, and perhaps the promise of a chocolate éclair, he would shrug his shoulders, know of no way out of it, and claim he invented language only because he saw no way to obfuscate without it. More ... 

by John Kilgore
published in October 2004

Welcome to college, everyone, and now while I still have your attention, let me explain the purpose of the course. Our goal is this: to turn you into writers. All of you. It says so right here in the departmental syllabus: "master the principles of reasoned argument and clear expression in Standard English," etcetera. Master, it says, and this applies to every last one of you, from the National Merit scholar who has enrolled here rather than some ritzy private college for reasons no one can guess, to the future welder who discovered just last night, after two bowls and half a sixpack, that he was going to college at all. Writers, every one, by the end of the semester.

If this goal seems excessive, unreasonable, unrealistic, let me just say that I share your concern, your misgivings, some of your distaste, more of your boredom than you might guess, and a little of your resentment. Nevertheless, here we are, and we all must live. You need your financial aid checks, and I my salary. Let us begin. More ... 

by Richard Lederer
published in February 2008

I am a wordstruck, word bethumped, word besotted, wordaholic, unrepentant verbivore.

Carnivores eat flesh and meat; piscivores eat fish; herbivores consume plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. I am such a creature. My whole life I have feasted on words — ogled their appetizing shapes, colors, and textures; swished them around in my mouth; lingered over their many tastes; let their juices run down my chin. During my adventures as a fly-by-the-roof-of-the-mouth, user-friendly wizard of idiom, I have met thousands of other wordaholics, logolepts, lexicomaniacs, and verbivores, folks who also eat their words.

What is there about words that makes a language person love them so? The answers are probably as varied as the number of verbivores themselves. There are as many reasons to love words as there are people who love them. How do we love thee, language? Let us count the ways. More ... 

by Anna Jean Mallinson
published in February 2005

When I was young, I scorned small talk. I thought it represented the shallowness and pettiness of people at large: why didn't they talk about important things? But now I take it as a sign of tact, the courtesy with which we mutually accommodate our shared knowledge of the strangeness and transience of life. Kafka, the genius of small talk, understood this and out of it he made a style that compassionately addresses, by not seeming to address, the human condition of being born "strangers and afraid in a world we never made."

Small talk clusters eagerly around life's greatest occasions — funerals, births, weddings — which shows that small talk, seemingly about nothing, is really a way of helping ourselves and others feel at home in the face of the momentous, the out-of-scale. Oblique, piece-meal, and diffident, it benignly establishes a relationship that is mutual without the strain of intimacy. One hears people who boast of "having no small talk," as if this were a sign of their superiority. However do they manage trips by airplane, let alone weddings, funerals, and staff parties? More ... 

by Kevin Mims
published in May 2006

Among my favorite publications are the mail-order catalogs put out by companies that sell lingerie and other sexy apparel for women. Victoria's Secret and Frederick's of Hollywood publish the two best-known examples of the genre, but less well-known companies, such as Venus and Boston Proper, also distribute catalogs in which sexy swimsuits, sleepwear, "intimate apparel," and other types of clothing are modeled by stunningly beautiful young women. I buy my wife something from each of these catalogs once a year or so, just to make sure I don't get dropped from any of the mailing lists.

I had been a fan of these catalogs for years before it suddenly dawned on me that there was actual writing in their pages. It appears in relatively small print, generally off to the side of the page so as not to distract from the real stars of the publication — the clothes and the women who model them. Since I like words almost as much as I like sexy young women in Brazilian-cut bikinis, this discovery has added enormously to my enjoyment of the catalogs. I won't go so far as to say that it has doubled the pleasure I derive from my open-mouthed browsing sessions, but nowadays a good 3 or 4 percent of my total catalog-perusing time is given over to an examination of the text. Alongside the lovely anatomical phenomena to be found in their pages, lingerie catalogs also provide numerous fascinating linguistic phenomena. More ... 

by Clark Elder Morrow
published in November 2002

I was fortunate enough last week to be in attendance at the Second International Conference of Rhetorical Superheroes, held this year at the Jersey City Holiday Inn, New Jersey. I missed the Keynote Speaker at the plenary session (Mimesis Man, whose costume includes a large Mirror of Nature on his chest), but I did catch the last day's roundtable discussion during lunch (rosemary chicken, I recall, with vegetarian lasagna the obligatory alternative).

After a great rustling and swirling of multicolored capes, and glinting of visors, the superhuman speakers settled into their chairs on the dais. The moderator — Mad Maxim — thought it might be a good idea to start things off on a light note, so he invited Paron O'Masia to speak up. This leotarded godsend to Madison Avenue suggested that writers — especially travel writers — look for good summer topics among the great beaches of the world; "they were," he deadpanned, "always a shore thing with readers." The groaning that followed, and the food that flew at him, explained at once the camouflage pattern of the punster's costume. Naturally, Captain Hyperbole said it was the most spectacularly funny quibble in the history of humor, but just as naturally Litotes demurred, drawling his opinion that the jest was "not quite epoch-making in its splendor." More ... 

by Mark Morton
published in December 2003

Sex is less about bodies than bodies in motion. It's not the static organs that make sex, but rather the things that are done with them (or to them). To put it another way, sex is more about verbs than nouns.

For most people, the main sex verb is fuck. In fact, in 1999, an entire book was published — The F-Word — which was devoted to that single term. However, there are plenty of actions that happen before copulation, and thus plenty of words before fuck, including those that refer to the autoerotic activities that commonly coincide with the discovery of one's sexuality. Masturbation is perhaps the most familiar of these words, but it's not the oldest: that honor goes to frig, which dates back to the late sixteenth century. In origin, frig probably derives from the earlier verb frike, which derives from the Old English frician, meaning to move briskly. Nowadays, frig is still used as a verb denoting masturbation, but it's probably more familiar as a mild equivalent for the catch-all adjective fucking, as in "That frigging guy hung up on me!" More ... 

by David R. Williams
published in February 2001

What we have, and have always had, in American English is a classic battle between conservatives on one side who are afraid that the structures that provide our security are in danger of collapse and radicals on the other who seem willing to embrace any new fad that promises utopia. The conservatives want to retain the rules of grammar and diction and punctuation as handed down to them by their grandfathers. If it was good enough for Jesus, then it's good enough for them. Any change appears to them like the Hun at the gate about to pillage the city. These language snobs can be found in the letters-to-the-editor pages of all our major newspapers bewailing the fate of the republic if people don't follow every jot and tittle of the classic rules.

The position of the radicals, on the other hand, can be illustrated by the argument of a book which came out in the seventies, before anyone had every heard of ebonics, called The Way it Spozed to Be. The argument there, as in the more recent Yo Mama's Dysfunktional! was that the rules of language reflect the reality of human speech and that we ought not try to standardize the speech patterns of minority communities but instead allow minority languages an equal legitimacy with so-called Standard English. Such language slobs would have us simply go with the flow carried along on the flood of popular culture wherever that may lead, into whatever Balkanized anarchy. More ... 

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Here are quotations from well-known, and less well-known, people, all of whom have used words ungrammatically or unstylistically. These are unnotable quotes, a collection of solecisms. More ... 

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Dictionaries should be much more prescriptive, far less descriptive, than they now are. More ... 

 Features

Duty, Honor, Country — Verónica Albin

Like — Maggie Balistreri

Grammar Matters — Marylaine Block

Word Economics — Ada Brunstein

Black Holes — Julian Burnside

Hysteria: The Just Death of a Medical Word — Bill Casselman

Cutting and Splicing — Valerie Collins

The Consequences of a Word — Skip Eisiminger

Is Reading Really at Risk? — Joseph Epstein

The Decline of the Dictionary — Robert Hartwell Fiske

Don't Want Clever Conversation — Adam Freedman

All the Rivers Around Here Are Dutch — Amalia Gnanadesikan

Why Linguists Are Not to Be Trusted on Language Usage — Mark Halpern

News from the Trenches: An English Professor Speaks — Carey Harrison

The Age of Exploration — Kerr Houston

Drunk Words — David Isaacson

Bless Your Heart, Evangelina: An Academic Ghost Story — Sherri Mahoney Jacobs

Course Outlines and the English Language — Frank E. Keyes, Jr.

Comp 101 — John Kilgore

Confessions of a Verbivore — Richard Lederer

Small Talk — Anna Jean Mallinson

Victoria's Secret Language — Kevin Mims

Crash of the Titans — Clark Elder Morrow

Organ Solo: Masturbation Words — Mark Morton

Snobs and Slobs — David R. Williams

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