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January 2009, Vol. 11, No. 1 There are now   6479   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

Coming in the February 2009 issue of The Vocabula Review:
"Urds" by Eric Torgersen
The February issue is due online February 22.

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 January 2009 Vocabula

by Missy-Marie Montgomery

My freshmen are trying to figure out language, trying to learn the language of the academy, and it confuses them. I can well remember the feeling of being overwhelmed (indeed, I still sometimes feel this way) by the level of discourse I needed to understand and study my own particular field — how this new language signified a history of information I needed to "get." My mind worked as it did when I studied in Spain for a summer in college, constantly trying to translate the words coming at me, mentally rehearsing my answers in Spanish, pilfering verb formations from the questions asked of me, and waiting for the day when I'd finally dream in Spanish.

My students want a universal language. They tell me they don't want to have to switch from one kind of discourse to another. At least, that's what they say at first. They claim to want standardized discourse as we want HMOs — we want it to be easy, inexpensive, and we want it to cover everything. But given our diverse needs and population, I remind them, it can't be so simple. In fact, we would not even really want this oversimplification. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by Joseph Epstein

Possibly you are not aware of this, but I happen to be "the wittiest writer alive." I wasn't aware of it, either, but that is what the late William F. Buckley, Jr., seems to have called me, in a review of a book of mine titled Snobbery: The American Version. I don't recall much about the review, except that he seemed to like the book — my memory for insults is much keener than that for praise — and that I wished while reading it that his own review had been more amusing. I am not, as you can see, the most grateful writer alive.

Mr. Buckley called me "the wittiest writer alive" in the pages of The New Criterion. I didn't mind that this was conveyed to the noble readers of this excellent but relatively small-circulation magazine, but hoped it would go no further. But now, alas, it has. My brief Wikipedia entry, I recently discovered, concludes: "The late William F. Buckley, Jr. . . . called Epstein the wittiest writer alive." More ... 

To put, or not to put, commas in a series of adjectives before the noun they qualify? That is a question to which answers have been too long and complicated, or too short and insufficient, or otherwise not clear. Practice suffers. An answer, however, can be simple, sufficient, and clear, yet thorough, and its rules easy to apply, with the help of two specially useful words: combining and adding.

First, though, as a basis for what's to come, here is the well-known rule for the simplest case of an adjective right before a noun: More ... 

On January 25, 1759 — 250 years ago — the most famous poet in Scotland entered the earthly stage. When he was untimely ripped from this mortal coil in 1796, Robert Burns was but 37 years of age.

The life of Robert Burns might have furnished the plot for a romantic novel. He was born in a clay cottage of two rooms in Alloway, near the southwestern coast of Scotland. His father was an unsuccessful farmer, and young Robert was assigned heavy work in the fields when he was only 11. The strain resulted in a progressive heart disease that was to prove fatal at a young age. More ... 

This just in: on Sunday, January 18, the Arizona Cardinals shocked the world by defeating the favored Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship game, thereby earning the right to play in Super Bowl XLIII. The world's surprise had, in fact, been anticipated by "Mad Jack" Corson, the designer of a banner exhorting the Cardinals to "shock the world." Within a day of the game's end, a headline on Revenge of the Birds (an "Unofficial Arizona Cardinals Blog") confirmed that the squad had done exactly that: "Arizona Cardinals Shock the World and the Eagles 32–25." More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back  Hamlet in the Closet
by John Kilgore

English teachers do strange things, and lately, pestered by some kind of academic bug, I have gathered all the videos of Hamlet I can find and sat down to compare their versions of the famous "closet scene" at III, iv. It has been a depressing exercise. You remember the scene: Hamlet confronts his mother, more or less inadvertently slays Polonius, resumes confronting his mother, is briefly interrupted by his father's ghost, confronts his mother a little bit more, and finally leaves, dragging the corpse of Polonius with him. It seems that modern directors have reached a consensus about how this scene ought to be played: in bed, mainly, and with so much touching, clutching, and kissing that a naïve observer might think the dramatic issue was Hamlet's attempt to get to second base with a slightly older girlfriend. More ... 

Back  Shrine
by Louis Gallo

The boy and his parents sat on the steps of their front porch watching fireflies rise from the grass like tiny holes in darkness. It had been a hot humid day, but the night coming on was sweet, full of mimosa and mountain gusts tinged with ice. An approaching storm made the family feel vivacious and alert. No three people could have been more content. Flashes of heat lightning ignited the entire sky and pugnacious gusts raked the sturdy young elm growing beside the front window as the boy sat playing with an old battered puppet and pointing to the fireflies. He was sleepy, but his parents wanted him with them for a little while longer to savor the evening.

Suddenly, voices from across the street broke the family's bubble of lazy enchantment. They could make out two people walking past the house, each holding something that glowed green, sticks or batons. When they waved the father thought he recognized one of them. More ... 

Postcards from Babel
Back  Gained in Translation
by Amalia Gnanadesikan

As I child I loved the Asterix series of comic books about an intrepid village of ancient Gauls who successfully resist conquest by Julius Caesar. Thanks to their druid's magic potion, the villagers are invincible, and the Roman soldiers stationed nearby soon learn to rue any contact with these indomitable Gauls. My favorite book in the series was the one in which Asterix and his sidekick, Obelix, go to Britain to help their cousins there resist Caesar's invasion.

What made Asterix in Britain particularly delicious were the anachronistic jokes about British culture and language use. The Britons in Asterix are obsessive gardeners and rugby players, and they stop whatever they are doing (including defending their homeland against Caesar's legions) every afternoon for a cup of hot water with a spot of milk ... until Asterix presents them, as a substitute for magic potion, with some dried leaves called "tea." More ... 

by Bill Casselman

νᾶνος (nanos) Greek "dwarf"

By using ultra-fine polymer fibers, researchers have been able to regrow damaged or missing organs and limbs on small animals.

A nanoscaffold forms a substructure for healing muscle, bone, and nerve tissue, and comprises a grid or scaffold or reticulum (net) of fibers hundreds of times thinner than a human hair. Fluid containing the tiny fibers is injected between the severed nerve endings to build a nanoscaffold. The net-like grid of such fibers can be seeded with human growth cells and perhaps even with architectural chemical instructions on how and where to grow. With the help of this initial support grid, the nerves grow back together more quickly and more efficiently and more densely. The very title of the one of the earliest journal articles to use the term (2002) summarizes the tale: Nano-Fibrous Scaffolding Architecture Enhances Protein Adsorption and Cell Attachment, Kyung Mi Woo, Victor J. Chen, and Peter X. Ma, University of Michigan. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  Justine and After
by Carey Harrison

Further to my account of teaching Durrell's Justine and my undergraduates' vexation when confronted with Durrell's vocabulary, especially his adjectives: predictably, we never finished the book, but got far enough into it for the students to make an informed choice as to whether they wanted to continue reading it, in their own time. Since then a kind correspondent alerted me to Michael Wood's piece about Durrell in the January 1 edition of The London Review of Books. Wood's article is billed as a review of Clea, the last volume of the Alexandria Quartet, of which Justine is the opening volume. Clea, it must be said, is a perfectly dreadful book, even by the standard of the final book of a quartet. (I make an exception, though many would not, of The Last Post, the final volume of Ford Madox Ford's "Tietjens" quartet.) Why are the final volumes of novel-quartets so disappointing? It isn't just exhaustion of their material, or their author's appetite. Romans fleuve are less subject to drastic decline. More ... 

The Common Reader
Back  Thinking in Sonnets
by Kevin Mims
The sonnet, I see now, is not a form at all but a state of mind. — William Carlos Williams in a letter to James Laughlin, January 23, 1938

I tend to think in sonnets. I believe there is something magical in that venerable poetic form. Writing sonnets helps me crystallize my thoughts about a vast array of subjects, from books I've read to my granddaughter's high-school prom.

In general, the sonnet consists of fourteen lines written in iambic pentameter, the first eight of which (the octet or octave) often constitute a statement of some kind, while the last six (the sestet) form a rebuttal or response. Or, as Eavan Boland explains it in The Making of a Sonnet: More ... 

Letter of the Law
Back  Don't Be Cruel
by Adam Freedman

Cruel and Unusual: three little words, but, oh, how they resonate in law and politics.

The new CIA director, Leon Panetta, has promised to depart from the Bush administration's interrogation tactics, which he labeled cruel and unusual. In December, a federal court in California ruled that life sentences for repeat felons can amount to cruel and unusual punishment; while earlier in the year, the Supreme Court ruled that death by lethal injection is not cruel and unusual, even though the injections might cause intense pain. More ... 

Vocabula button free for the asking. Click here.
Vocabula button free for the asking.

Four years ago, an ABC News article reported that we have far more words in our vocabulary that express negative than positive emotions. To learn how prevalent this aspect of communication really is, a Penn State English professor and his graduate student conducted a survey among members of two disparate age groups: 20-year-olds and 60-year-olds. Both sets of participants were asked to write as many words as they could that express emotion. Surprisingly, half of all the words listed, by both groups, were negative. Only 30 percent were positive and 20 percent were neutral. The researchers cited an even more revealing study where, in thirty-seven different languages, seven words were found that have very similar meanings. They are: joy, fear, anger, sadness, disgust, shame, and guilt. Notice that only one word is positive. 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 ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back  The Vocabula Quiz

Each ten-question quiz briefly discusses a specific topic, such as history, science, literature, or philosophy. Of course, you are quizzed not on content but on grammar or usage, vocabulary or spelling, punctuation or style. More ... 


Talking to Students About Academic Discourse — Missy-Marie Montgomery

The Wittiest Writer Alive — Joseph Epstein

Commas and Adjectives Anew and Easy — Maurice Posada

A Robert Burns Quatrimillenial Celebration — Richard Lederer

All the World's a Stage: Shocking Upsets — Kerr Houston

Vocabula Revisited: Hamlet in the Closet — John Kilgore

Fiction: Shrine — Louis Gallo


Amalia Gnanadesikan: Postcards from Babel — Gained in Translation

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Nano-scaffold and a New Etymology of its Greek Root nanos

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner Justine and After

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — Thinking in Sonnets

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — Don't Be Cruel


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