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 culled from the first ten years.

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

You may read this August issue for $4.95. Click here to order it. We will email an announcement that the issue is online August 2. You will then have access to the Vocabula site for one month.

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The Vocabula Review - May 2009 - Table of Contents


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Prepositions: Those "Dull Little Words" by David Thatcher
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Silence, Language, & Society
A guide to style and meaning, grace and compassion

Silence, Language, & Society

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Poem, Revised
54 Poems, Revisions, Discussions

Poem, Revised

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 In the May 2009 Vocabula

by Arthur Plotnik

Narve? Wi-five? Glamping? You don't know what I'm talking about, do you? That's because no one can keep up with the terms — the coinages — invented daily to name everything in our lives. Everything.

We may feel that not every twitch in the universe needs a name, and a cute one at that. But can we afford to be less expressive than the next word user? Out of touch with the action? More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by Anna Jean Mallinson

What is it about adjectives that makes writers so wary of them? Strunk & White, in their esteemed The Elements of Style, inform the reader that "The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place." Gertrude Stein airily comments, "Of course the first thing that anybody takes out of anybody's writing are the adjectives." Mark Twain famously advised, "If you catch an adjective, kill it." More ... 

This month we celebrate the sesquicentennial of Arthur Conan Doyle, who was born May 22, 1859, in Edinburgh. Doyle created the most universally famous of all literary characters — Sherlock Holmes, the world's first consulting detective. The intrepid sleuth's deerstalker hat, Inverness cape, calabash pipe, and magnifying glass are recognized by readers everywhere, and the stories have been translated into more than sixty languages, from Arabic to Yiddish.

Like the heroes of so many popular stories and myths, Sherlock Holmes was born in poverty and nearly died at birth from neglect. Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle was a novice medical practitioner with a dearth of patients. To while away his time and to help pay a few bills, Doyle took pen in hand and created one of the first detectives to base his work squarely on scientific methods. More ... 

Book Excerpt
Back  The Man Who Made Lists
by Joshua Kendall
(828). PAIN, suffering, physical pain.
     Grief, sorrow, distress, affliction, woe, bitterness, heartache, a heavy
heart, a bleeding heart, a broken heart, heavy affliction, &c.
     Unhappiness, infelicity, misery, wretchedness, desolation.

It was Monday morning, November 2, 1818, and a dense yellow fog was hanging over London. One of England's most esteemed members of Parliament was acutely ill. Sir Samuel Romilly, known as "the honestest man in the House of Commons," was bedridden with a high fever. Even more alarming, he was rapidly losing his mind. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back  A Defense of Adjectives
by Christopher Orlet

It all started with Mark Twain.

I don't mean American Literature, despite what Hemingway said. I mean the scornful vilifying and belittling of the adjective. Writing to a promising young scribe, Twain had this advice:

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English — it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them — then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.

Thus did the adjective acquire the same low reputation "as any other vice," including whoring, gambling, and drinking to an excess. Elsewhere, under the alias Pudd'nhead Wilson, Twain is more Jacksonian (as in "Jesse" Jackson), but no less brutal: "As to the Adjective: When in doubt, strike it out." Note the verbs the author employs: "strike," "kill," "weaken." Goodness, why such hostility toward the poor adjective? More ... 

Fiction
Back  Busted
by Leland Thoburn

My reverie was shattered brutally by a pounding at the door. "Open Up. Adverb Police. We know you're in there."

Probably sent by some editor, I thought hopefully.

"Dream on. We're from Stephen King," the voice sneered.

I was in trouble now.

I frantically stuffed my manuscript, thesaurus, and as many dictionaries as I could fit under the sofa. I turned nervously towards the door. Someone was beating on it with a nightstick. More ... 

by Mark Halpern

Although I have been writing for years about the controversy between those who think the language should be guided — the "prescriptivists" — and those who just want to study it — the "descriptivists" — I have never seen a forthright, systematic presentation of the platform of either party. Some prescriptivist principles can be inferred or pieced together from a sympathetic, intelligent reading of the writings of such men as Jacques Barzun, H. W. Fowler, Robert Graves, Michael Dummett, and Bryan Garner, but that doesn't satisfy the need for an explicit, orderly presentation of the principles that underlie their position. It's in the hope of filling that need, at least on the prescriptivist side, that this essay is written — I will leave it to a staunch descriptivist to do the same for his side. This essay will appear in two parts, of which this is the first. More ... 

by Bill Casselman

No, I did not make up the creature name. There does indeed exist a night-black cephalopod, velvet-hooded, caliginous, steeped in sea guile, a winnowy mollusk named Vampyroteuthis infernalis, a small relative of our regular squid, named by Chun in 1903 as "Vampire Squid from Hell."

This waggly baggie escapes not by firing obscuring ink into his enemy's water space, as more splendid squids do. Instead, Vampiroteuthis makes his getaway by ejecting from his many arm tips an adhesive cloud of bioluminescent mucus sprinkled with floating orbs of blue light. So bedazzled and befuddled is his potential devourer by this concealing light show in the water that flithering Vampiroteuthis is able to scoot away into the pelagic briny to a little nook of safety. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back  Rip Van Winkle Writes
by Carey Harrison

When did "largesse" turn into "largess"? I missed it. And no one voted against it on my behalf, as I dozed on the benches of time. Largess! What an odd word. Surely the opposite of largess has been applied to poor old largesse. Economy's the word. Buddy, can you spare an e? Look out … there goes another e, down the drain. Next year, will "largess" be cut back to "larges"? Somebody bail out this poor word, please.

Then again, if you can't revel in linguistic eccentricity, today, you're lost. This morning I received a slice of emailed spam, advertising a painkiller with the following query, and I quote: More ... 

The Common Reader
Back  Elinore Reark's Grand Tour
by Kevin Mims

Some of the most interesting writings I've encountered are in pages that have never been published. Last year, at a flea market in Sacramento, I purchased a diary kept by one George Hiromoto for the year 1944, during which time he was a prisoner at the Gila River Japanese Internment Camp in Arizona. The month after finding George's diary, I returned to the Second Sunday Antique Faire and Flea Market and found another collection of fascinating unpublished writings. This one comprised 248 pages of letters written by Elinore Reark to her husband, Lewis, during the summer of 1930. The letters are an account of a grand tour of Europe that Elinore undertook with her sister and mother and about twenty other presumably upper middle-class women like themselves. The tour was arranged by Wark European Tours of Pasadena, California, and presided over by Miss Ruth M. Randall, a long-suffering spinster who plays an amusing supporting role in Elinore's account of the journey. With the advent of cell phones, email, instant-messaging, Twitter, and other forms of electronic communication, it is unlikely that married couples will ever again communicate with each other across long distances with the kind of long, detailed letters that Elinore sent to Lewis during her trip. This is a shame, because it is impossible to imagine a text message or cell phone conversation carrying the same emotional weight and eloquence as Elinore's letters. It is also unlikely that, eighty years from now, anyone will discover a trove of old text messages at a flea market and derive from it the kind of pleasure that Elinore's letters have brought me. More ... 

Letter of the Law
Back  Frenemy Combatants
by Adam Freedman

President Obama has declared that the detainees at Guantánamo Bay will no longer be referred to as "enemy combatants."

That may have been a smart diplomatic move, but it has international lawyers tying themselves up in knots trying to find an alternative term for the detainees. More ... 

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

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  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 ... 

 Features

The Naming Frenzy — Arthur Plotnik

In Praise of Adjectives — Anna Jean Mallinson

Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes — Richard Lederer

Book Excerpt: The Man Who Made Lists — Joshua Kendall

Vocabula Revisited: A Defense of Adjectives — Christopher Orlet

Fiction: Busted — Leland Thoburn

 Columnists


Mark Halpern: The Critical Reader — Prescriptivism and Descriptivism: What Are They at Root?

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Vampire Squids from Hell: Odd Names in Zoology

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Rip Van Winkle Writes

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — Elinore Reark's Grand Tour

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — Frenemy Combatants

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