Ten Years of Vocabula

The August 2009 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 will be devoted to "The Best of Vocabula"; it will also be longer than most issues. All essays will be selected from the first ten years.

If you are unfamiliar with The Vocabula Review, this will be a good introduction to it.

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The Vocabula Review - June 2009 - Table of Contents

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 In the June 2009 Vocabula

In the June 1999 issue of Realms of Fantasy, Eleanor Arnason published a fable entitled "The Grammarian's Five Daughters," in which (as summarized by Ben Zimmer in the OUPblog) a mother bestows grammatical gifts on five daughters seeking their fortune in the world. The eldest daughter gets a bag full of nouns, the next gets verbs, the next adjectives, and the next adverbs. The youngest daughter is stuck with the leftovers, those "dull little words" as the narrator calls them, overlooked by everyone else: the prepositions. But the prepositions ultimately bring order to a chaotic land, serving as the foundation for a strong and thriving nation.

Maybe dull, certainly little, prepositions are unassuming, mild-mannered fellows (at, by, for, in, of, on, to, with, and about sixty others) entrusted with the humble task of relating, as a kind of connective tissue, one part of a sentence to another. Diminutive as these unobtrusive go-betweens often are, many of us, through carelessness or just understandable uncertainty, often fail to use them idiomatically. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

Most people consider a talent to be a gift that has little to do with money. But in ancient times, a talent was a unit of weight in silver or gold that constituted a monetary unit, one that figures prominently in Jesus' parable of the talents:

For the kingdom of heaven is as a man traveling into a far country, who called his own servants and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability. (Matthew 25:14–15)

The most common meaning of talent — some special, often God-given ability or aptitude — is a figurative extension of the parable. More ... 

As any teacher knows, saying something once is tantamount to not saying it at all. People may recognize an idea the first time it is presented, but they almost never assimilate it and make it their own until it is repeated.

Nevertheless, in expository (nonfiction) writing, repetition seems to be a no-no. The purpose of expository writing is generally to inform or instruct, yet young writers are often enjoined to avoid repetition at all costs. More ... 

by John Mason Mings

"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven," averred Solomon. Notwithstanding my shaky theology, I knew that surely one of the "things" the Judge talked about came into its season in my youth. It was Gene Autry, the premier singing-cowboy of all time, and the Sons of the Pioneers.

I'm nearly 70, so I ought to know. Mr. Autry was the personification of virtue. While his acting repertoire was pretty limited, he sang a mighty fine tune, and later in life he demonstrated great business acumen. His sole act of pure evil, I am persuaded, was in his repetitive thrumming and singing of "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." Millions of Americans over 60 know the tune, but don't know the difference between a gerund ("tumbling" is a gerund, a verbal adjective) and a ground hog ("ground hog" is sausage, a link), not to shade my meaning. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back  Congratulations, Valetudinarian!
by David Carkeet

How many times in my life must I look up desultory? Why won't its meaning stick? Whenever I come upon it, I must guess anew at the sense, using seat-of-the-pants etymology. Desultory seems to contain "sultry." "Slut" chimes in, too. The suffix suggests "cursory." "Sultry," "slut," "cursory" — I know I'm in negative territory, whatever the exact meaning. With a sigh, I reach for the dictionary. Ah, yes: "jumping from one thing to another; disconnected." That's settled, I tell myself. But unless some helpful mnemonic emerges — say, a children's bestseller titled The Desultory Kangaroo — I know that this word and I are destined for another lexicographic showdown. More ... 

A Poem
Back  husband
by William Aarnes

We'd be studying in our room
and Mom would be in hers
at the card table marking papers
when she'd call out,
"I know I've told you two before
but I bet only a man
would pay up as if monthly
might mean sporadic." More ... 

by Clark Elder Morrow

I have measured out my days
not with coffee spoons
but with the Big Dipper. I was born
under a hundred-watt constellation —
a phony "Pirates of the Caribbean" star cluster,
a Vegas Venetian ceiling of fiber optic pinlights. More ... 

As I promised last month (Prescriptivism and Descriptivism: What Are They at Root?), here is the second part of my essay, this one devoted to analyzing the arguments offered in a book (David Crystal, The Fight for English, Oxford University Press, 2006) by a well-known descriptivist. If there is anyone interested in language and linguistics who doesn't know the well-known Crystal, here is an excerpt from his Wikipedia entry: "Crystal is the author, co-author, or editor of over 100 books on a wide variety of subjects, specializing among other things in editing reference works, including (as author) the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (1987) and the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (1995)" — and if this isn't enough, there is always Google. In short, he is one of the best known writers on matters linguistic, and a fervent descriptivist. I found his little book pleasant reading: he is almost always clear, good-tempered, and reasonable. I must admit, though, that one of the reasons I found reading him so pleasant is that he is wrong, and demonstrably wrong, on almost every issue that I listed in part 1 of this essay, and lends himself to my prescriptivist purposes so well that I occasionally wondered if I had imagined him and his book so as to have an opponent easy to knock down. But no; if Crystal is a straw man, he is not one of my creation. More ... 

Postcards from Babel
Back  When Is a Language Not a Language?
by Amalia Gnanadesikan

We were listening to an album featuring various Canadian folk singers when my daughter turned to me and asked, "What language is this song in?"

Startled, I replied, "English."

But then, listening to the first line of the refrain, I understood why she had asked: "Bonnie laddie, will ye nae gang…?" Only one of the six words in the first line (will) was English as she knew it. More ... 

The word nogoodnik does not derive from English "no good."

As regular readers of this modest screed will know, nothing gives me a deeper splanchnic delight than to catch the Oxford English Dictionary in blatant error or in sloppy inattention to widely available linguistic knowledge. And today I have found a real doozie, a mistaken etymology so far from word-truth that it would have caused Dr. Johnson himself to kick over his gout stool.

Here is the OED's take on the word nogoodnik:

colloq. (orig. U.S.).< NO-GOOD adj. + -NIK suffix.] A good-for-nothing; a villain, a petty criminal.

No, nogoodnik did not originate in the United States. Nogoodnik is a pure, 100% Russian word, borrowed into Yiddish in some long-ago Russian shtetl and taken to New York City late in the nineteenth century. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  Keisha Clothes Dirty
by Carey Harrison

One of my nicest, most alert students, let's call her Grace, brings me a paper that knows nothing of the possessive case. Grace is evidently Caribbean, to judge by her accent. Was she by any chance raised in the islands, I ask in the most tentative, polite fashion. This question has got me into trouble before, and ten or twelve years ago I was reported to the department Chair for racism, by a student whose cultural roots I wanted to confirm. Some demon keeps me thoughtlessly asking the same question as though I were (as I heedlessly am in my head) just another person rather than a teacher, whose every remark may be scanned for prejudice. I should add that in my classroom the tyranny of political correctness has eased a great deal over the last fifteen years; either that or I have learned to navigate its choppy waters. (Yet maybe not; the evidence of the question I asked about my student's origins seems to indicate otherwise.) On that occasion years ago when I was reported to the department administration, I was lucky to have a Chair who dismissed it with kindly amusement; I think he knew I had served for years as an undercover agent for Nelson Mandela's African National Council, in (and out of) South Africa, and was an unlikely candidate for racism. That same year another African-American student started keeping a book on me — a notebook in which she wrote down suspicious statements or phrases I uttered in class — after I foolishly asked whether her corn rows (they were a beautiful and unusual style of corn row hairdo I'd never seen before) had a name. Once again my out-of-school persona had usurped my teacher's identity and proper caution, and I was asking out of pure curiosity, as well as out of my novelist's lifelong fascination with details, the more exotic and esoteric the better. This student, the one with the beautiful corn rows and the racist-remarks notebook, also went to my department Chair to complain of me. The jewel in the crown of her complaints was that I had persistently used the term black comedy when teaching the works of Samuel Beckett, a white man. More ... 

The Common Reader
Back  Still Begging the Question
by Kevin Mims

Several years ago, I wrote an essay for Vocabula about the phrase "begs the question" in which I argued that it is almost universally employed as an interchangeable substitute for "raises the question." It was my contention that language purists should give up trying to preserve the original meaning of this phrase and simply accept the fact that time and custom have altered its meaning irrevocably. I pointed out that even among the experts there seems to be no clear definition of the original intent or meaning of the phrase. According to Christine Ammer, author of the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, one begs the question merely by taking an unproven assumption for granted. As an example she cites the sentence, "Shopping now for a dress to wear to the ceremony is really begging the question — she hasn't been invited yet." Other experts claim that to beg the question is to simply offer as proof of an assertion a restatement of that assertion, as in, "Parallel lines can never meet because they are parallel" and "All people believe in justice, therefore a belief in justice is universal." Clearly, Ammer's example doesn't do this. Which raises the question, does "begging the question" mean "taking something for granted that may or may not be true," as Ammer thinks, or does it mean "trying to prove an assertion by merely restating it," as some others contend? More ... 

Letter of the Law
Back  Fleeting Expletives
by Adam Freedman

Recently, the Supreme Court upheld the power of the Federal Communications Commission to regulate the use of dirty words, including one in particular that rhymes with luck.

How important was this decision? Back when the case was argued before the court, then Solicitor General Gregory Garre warned the Justices that without the power to censor dirty words, the day would come when Big Bird might utter "the F-word" on Sesame Street. Personally, I've always predicted that Oscar the Grouch would be the first Sesame Street denizen to drop the F-bomb — but Big Bird works better rhetorically. More ... 

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Summer Edition

In June, 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

Many years ago, a colleague and I wrote a paper, published in Analytical Chemistry, describing a computer algorithm that identifies and manipulates digitized spectral peaks. We titled it EDREM, for Editing Digitized Repetitive Experimental Magnetic resonance data. It was an inside joke, but one request for a reprint from France recognized the EDREM reverse acronym (mynorca?) as an expletive that he often used when things went wrong in his lab. More ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back  Letters to the Editor

The Vocabula Review welcomes letters to the editor. Please include your name, email address, and professional affiliation. Send your letters to editor@vocabula.com. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity. More ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back  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  TVR Poll

Robert Hartwell Fiske, editor and publisher of Vocabula, is "a prig and a bully." More ... 


Prepositions: Those "Dull Little Words" — David Thatcher

How You Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is — Richard Lederer

How Verbal Variety Kills Comprehension — Philip Yaffe

Tumbeling Tumbleweeds — John Mason Mings

Vocabula Revisited: Congratulations, Valetudinarian — David Carkeet

A Poem — William Aarnes

A Poem — Clark Elder Morrow


Mark Halpern: The Critical Reader — Prescriptivism and Descriptivism, Part 2: A Descriptivist in Action

Amalia Gnanadesikan: Postcards from Babel — When Is a Language Not a Language?

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Nudnik, Nogoodnik, and Nu: the Russian Origins of Three Yiddish Words

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Keisha Clothes Dirty

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — Still Begging the Question

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — Fleeting Expletives


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