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Good Words Vocabula On Call 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

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Vocabula Bound 1 and Vocabula Bound 2

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 In the July 2009 Vocabula

by Janet Byron Anderson

Humans are fascinated by hybrid beasts — chimeras, as they're often called. World mythology is full of them. The most well known is probably the mermaid, sensuous woman above, muscular fish below. According to myth, she lures sailors to their death with lovely songs. A sailor, forgetting what he's supposed to do, would find himself walking dreamily off deck, and drown. The semicolon has a comparable psychological effect.

This mermaid of the punctuation world — period above, comma below — is viewed with suspicion by many people, including well-known writers. George Orwell deliberately avoided semicolons in his novel Coming Up for Air (London: V. Gollancz, 1939). As he explained to his editor (Roger Senhouse) at the time, "I had decided … that the semicolon is an unnecessary stop and that I would write my next book without one" (quoted in George Orwell: The Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, in Vol. 4: In Front of Your Nose, Jaffrey, NH: David R. Godine, 2000). Kurt Vonnegut had this advice for writers: "First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college" (A Man Without a Country, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005). More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by Richard Lederer

In bygone days, wandering peddlers were a familiar part of the American scene. A typical member of the class carried a few household items in a pack, while better established peddlers pushed or drove wagons.

An essential part of the peddlers' business was the buying and selling of old gold. If the traveling salesman had the slightest doubt about the value of an item, he would file a shallow groove in that item and touch it with nitric acid. Color reactions from the acid would reveal the approximate gold content, and inferior metals would be decomposed by the treatment.

This procedure was known as the acid test; by extension, any exacting method designed to reveal hidden flaws has come to be known by this term. More ... 

It is well known that Eugene Ionesco's "absurd" play, The Bald Soprano: An Anti-Play (1950) is in a sense a drama about language and that the playwright, a French speaker, acknowledged that the play was partly inspired by the language lessons found in an elementary book on English as a second language. Critics have legitimately interpreted the absurd, nonsensical conversations in the play as containing messages about social pretenses, difficulties in "human communication, empty lives and relationships, and even meaninglessness in human life."1 Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that language is itself a subject in its own right in the play. More ... 

by Donna Gorrell

I punctuate on the principle that less is better than more: I use commas and apostrophes when I need them and not when I don't.

not He was a friend of Hansen's. (A friend of Hansen's what?)

instead He was a friend of Hansen. Or He was one of Hansen's friends.

not He visited the Hansen's yesterday. (What's a Hansen?)

instead He visited the Hansens yesterday. (All of them.)

not It is too little, and too late.

instead It is too little and too late. Or It is too little — and too late. (My choice.)

not Saint Cloud, MN 56301 (only one Saint Cloud?)

instead Saint Cloud MN 56301 (clearly not FL, not WI)

I realize that in some of these practices I'm going against conventional usage, but I'm only applying the rules that someone else made up: apostrophes for possession, commas to set off only nonessential modifiers, and so on.

Then of course there's the unnecessary colon, as in this little piece: More ... 

My first realization that many adults remain in a state of perpetual adolescence came in the summer of 2007, when several of my acquaintances, all members of a home education support group, engaged in a bout of bickering, slander, and name-calling reminiscent of an elementary school playground. Their bitter denunciations, ignited by a telephone quarrel between two women on the organization's board, and fueled by a third woman to whom fighting comes as naturally as breathing, exploded into a firestorm of emails, public tears, gossip, and resignations, all of which eventually left the group a smoldering ruin.

While these men and women laid waste an organization founded, ironically enough, to enhance the religious education of their children, an impression formed within me regarding adulthood and the current status of the grownup. Like a new pair of glasses, the quarrels of these parents caused me to perceive certain phenomena that until then had lain hidden from my eyes, so that during the course of that long summer I became acutely aware of the massive number of adolescents masquerading as adults in our society. President Bush, the field of candidates running for president, strangers in the street, most of my personal friends, and perhaps even I myself: nearly everyone I knew or knew of appeared permanently mired in some strange swampland of youth. There were, it suddenly seemed to me, few real grownups left in the world. More ... 

by Stephen Dodson and Dr. Robert Vanderplank

The United States was not, by and large, settled by the polite upper crust; it was settled by people who worked hard, drank a lot (three and a half gallons of alcohol per year per person) and used a lot of bad language. But they weren't content with a few words endlessly repeated — they gloried in the inventive magniloquence of their exuberant bad-mouthing. As H. L. Mencken said in The American Language (1921),"The American, from the beginning, has been the most ardent of recorded rhetoricians. His politics bristles with pungent epithets; his whole history has been bedizened with tall talk; his fundamental institutions rest as much upon brilliant phrases as upon logical ideas." The master, in this as in so much else, was Mark Twain; we can no longer hear him turn the air blue, but we can take the word of Albert Bigelow Paine's Mark Twain, A Biography (1917): 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 to Top  Abomistrosities
by Valerie Collins

For months I have managed to ignore the hook carefully placed on the Merriam-Webster Online home page:

"Pleather" — The New Word in Fashion The latest version of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate® Dictionary, Eleventh Edition has hit the runway in style! Ogle a sampling of our 2004 Collection of new words and senses (including "pleather") here!

Today, propelled by some mysterious linguistic force, I decided to investigate.

The entry is: "Pleather (noun) 1982 : a plastic fabric made to look like leather." I surfed a bit — even though the ever-so-friendly-and-concerned engines insisted that surely I meant leather. Pleather, I discovered, is faux leather, imitation leather, artificial leather. "Synthetic PU leather made to look like leather." And what is PU? Polyurethane film. Pamela Anderson calls it "the wild kingdom of synthetic leather." "It's breathable, pliable, and inexpensive. It's easy to clean. It's a cruelty-free [what?] coated fabric, as versatile as tofu." "It can be soft, hard, vividly colored, or ultra-conservative and made into everything from luxury car seats that don't stick to your rump like leather to shoes, sandals, purses, handbags, basketballs, footballs, sporting gear." Pleather is a fashion statement, allowing you to be high-end trendy while not alienating the animal rights activists. Again like tofu (as we shall see), pleather saves animals' lives. More ... 

A Poem
Back to Top  Two Birds
by Pia Taavila

Across our northern skies, two birds
charge and wheel, the smaller sleek
in hot pursuit. Perhaps the larger

skulked to raid the newborn nest.
Perhaps a tuft of food its beaked
desire lured. Whatever the cause More ... 

by Sarabjeet Garcha

I have felt the fabric your dreams are made up of,
felt its sleeping silkiness
with ghost fingers,
known its histories
of silences.

I have become
a savant
of ignorances you ignited
in me
as I walked with you
hand in hand
through woods we even dreaded
to dream about. More ... 

by Clark Elder Morrow

The world is like a page of excellent prose. Let me explain how I came to that conclusion.

Recently I heard a physicist say that the universe resembles an idea more than it does a machine, at least on the level of quantum mechanics. That's the kind of assertion a person thinks about, so I thought about it for a while, and then I had lunch. "The world resembles an idea." From that statement it's a short hop to this recollection from my childhood reading: "In the beginning was the Word." And then (if I remember correctly) the Word spoke, and everything came into existence. A word spoke a world into being. That's what I thought about during lunch that day. How can a word speak? How can speaking create anything except sound? I pondered these questions as I pondered the menu. More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back to Top  Soap and Its Word Origin
by Bill Casselman

This modest inquiry foamed up when someone asked me what the Latin word for soap was. There was none. Soap was unknown to ancient Rome. The Romans bathed in water: hot water in a caldarium; lukewarm in a tepidarium and cold in a frigidarium.

The word root in caldarium or its rarer, longer form calidarium, namely, Latin calidus, "hot," has a host of reflexes in later languages derived from Latin. Think of French chaud, "hot, warm"; Italian caldo, "hot"; and Spanish cálido, "hot." An interesting, partially hidden reflex shows up in the large boiling kettle or cauldron of witch stories and cannibal movies. Cauldron is from calderone, an Italian augmentative of a putative form like *caldario, "kettle," so that cauldron's basic meaning is "big kettle." The French word for kettle, chaudière, is from the same root. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back to Top  Bad to Worse
by Carey Harrison

Before we dive into the pudding, one piece of good news. That misbegotten word warran-TEE, bastard offspring of guarantee and warranty, seems to be on the retreat, and a generation of salespeople who actually know the difference between a guarantee and a warranty, and know that neither of them is a warran-TEE, is stealthily advancing. Heavens be praised.

Now some dispatches freshly arrived from the college classroom front. My news is the usual absurdist fare: the shredding experience of once more teaching Hamlet to the inner-city undergraduate. What's his beef? they enquire of Hamlet's griefs. So his mother got married again. So what? Stepfather tells him, you're my heir, you get the kingdom when I die. My class is unimpressed; if their own stepdad said that, they'd be happy campers. Stepdad murdered Hamlet's father? Kill the bastard. What's he waiting for? Plenty of commentators concur, I point out. But the alternative view, the narratologist's view that Hamlet actually seizes his one good opportunity and kills Polonius believing him to be the king, and that delay as such — whether or not glossed as hesitation — is after all indispensable to the revenge narrative: it's a view that's tough to sell to a classroom bred on Terminator movies. And this thing Hamlet has for his mother? The guy is sick. (Freud butters no parsnips in my classroom.) What's more, he's nuts. Never mind that Hamlet warns us that he's going to put on an antic disposition that apparently fools Polonius, Gertrude, and Ophelia, to name but three, into thinking he's mad. My class believes it, too, no matter how often Hamlet breaks off and calmly shows us the machinery of his "mad" act. More ... 

Letter of the Law
Back to Top  1776 and All That
by Adam Freedman

This month, we celebrated another 4th of July: a glorious orgy of patriotic glee that seems so far removed from semantic cares. And yet, it's worth reflecting — if only between mouthfuls of beer and hotdog — that this holiday exists to commemorate a document: The Declaration of Independence.

What sort of document is the Declaration? Is it, as legend suggests, the uniquely American creation of a group of revolutionary firebrands bent on "creat[ing] the world anew," as Thomas Paine said?

Actually, no. Not to rain on anyone's fireworks, but when you get right down to it, the Declaration is — of all things — a legal document, based on legal precedents. And British precedents at that. It was an instrument of international law: a petition addressed to the community of nations seeking recognition of the United States as a sovereign nation, capable of entering into commercial and diplomatic relations. More ... 

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Summer Edition

In July, July, and August, The Vocabula Review will be published as summer editions; that is, we will publish Features essays and Columnists' essays but few, if any, of the Departments (Disagreeable English, Clues to Concise Writing, etc.).

More Good Summer Reading


Language Module 21 discussed an interesting but little known French phrase, esprit de l'escalier. This module tackles another fascinating word: mondegreen, which is also relatively obscure; in fact, it isn't even an entry in the OED… yet. Mondegreens are similar to malapropisms in the sense that the latter is an act of misspeaking while the former is the result of mishearing. More ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back to Top  Gotcha GrammarTM

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 ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back to Top  Vocabula Poll

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

 Features

The Enigmatic Semicolon — Janet Byron Anderson

The English Language Means Business — Richard Lederer

Linguistic Issues in The Bald Soprano: An Anti-Play — Pamela Sewell Saur

Just a Matter of Keystrokes — Donna Gorrell

Culture and Society: I Don’t Wanna Grow Up: Adolescent Adulthood and How to Overcome It — Jeff Minick

Book Excerpt: Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit — Stephen Dodson and Dr. Robert Vanderplank

Vocabula Revisited: Abomistrosities — Valerie Collins

A Poem — Pia Taavila

A Poem — Sarabjeet Garcha

 Columnists


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Words Are Important, But Is Even God Himself a Word?

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Soap and Its Word Origin

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Bad to Worse

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — 1776 and All That

 Departments

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