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Good Words   Calendar Vocabula On Call Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher

 In the November 2009 Vocabula

by Richard Lederer

Recently I undertook an extensive study of American dialects, and a friend told me about a farmer named Eben Pluribus who spoke a most unusual kind of English. So I went to visit Farmer Pluribus, and here is a transcript of our interview: More ... 

by LAURIE NEIDERGAARDEN, Alternate Reality News Service Medical Writer

Apostrophosis. It's the literary disease that nobody wants to talk about.

It's starts simply enough. You want your billboard to say: "Nothing gets by Greta," but, instead, it says "Nothing get's by Greta." The box for your toothpaste should read, "Crest for kids," but it actually reads "Crest for kid's." It's embarrass'ing. More ... 

by Mark Halpern

On September 27, my old friend and Bronx High School of Science classmate Bill Safire died. The loss to me of an old friend will be of little concern to anyone else, and this essay is neither a eulogy nor an obituary. What I want to speak of here is the effect his death has on the language usage debate, and in bringing to an apparent end a daring experiment by the editors of The New York Times, that of allowing a regular voice to the school of thought called prescriptivism. I restrict myself to this topic because I knew only one side of the many-sided Safire, and perhaps there were others who knew even that side of him better than I did. But I can report on that side with some authority; our exchanges spanned some fifteen years and touched on many topics within the broad field of language usage. In particular, I want to consider the role his weekly language column played in presenting usage issues to the general public, and what its termination means for the future of that program. More ... 

Culture and Society
Back to Top  Er, What "Main Street" Is That?
by Arthur Plotnik

The problem with the never-ending debate "Wall Street vs. Main Street" lies, as in most arguments, with definition of terms. "Wall Street" is clear enough: big business, big investment capitalists. But "Main Street"? What is it?

Ironically, the word main derives from ancient terms meaning power, strength, or force. Does it now mean small-town values? Middle-class people? Impoverished people? The unemployed? Cashed-out mortgage holders? Or nothing — a sentimental play to constituents, as false as the old-time facades of Main Street, Disneyland? More ... 

Book Excerpt
Back to Top  So You Think You Can Spell?
by David Grambs and Ellen S. Levine

Who Was Webster?


Just as we rarely think of spelling without thinking of dictionaries, we rarely think of dictionaries without conjuring up the name Webster.

The man behind the name was Noah Webster (1758–1843). The acknowledged father of American lexicography, Webster was (we are apt to forget) a contemporary of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and James Fenimore Cooper.

Webster's life was anything but dry as a reference book. Tendentious and always self-promoting, this contentious patriot was continually a focal point of controversy regarding the American language and its spelling. And his career in many ways epitomizes the many fundamental — and perennially unresolved, it seems — questions and hackles raised when men and women zealously attempt to plan, guide, or protect their national language: More ... 

Book Review
Back to Top  Word for Word
Review by Robert Hartwell Fiske

Last week I received a copy of Word for Word by James E. Snyder, Jr., published by Perigee, a Penguin imprint. Book publishers occasionally send me their newly published language or reference books in the hope that I will write favorable reviews of them. Word for Word is another tool designed to make writing less laborious, studying less onerous, thinking less tedious. But it's a badly defective tool, and my review of it is unfavorable. More ... 

by Will Hamlin

Mark Twain is rumored to have said that he had no respect for a man who could spell a word in just one way. Many college students wish that their English professors shared this view. Yes, it's true that conventional spelling promotes effective communication — no one denies it — but at the same time there's always a loss when capitulation to conformity extends too far. A good example is vocabulary usage, particularly in academic settings. Am I the only person who's heard the words "benchmarking" and "networking" a few times too often? Somehow I doubt it. In my own field of study, English literature, I've lived to see the day when "text" does most of the work formerly shouldered by "story," "lyric," "play," "treatise," "novel," and a dozen other terms: a poor exchange by any standards. And while I know there are often good reasons for the dominance of certain speech habits and locutions, I regret any loss of linguistic diversity. More ... 

A Poem
Back to Top  Taphephobia
by Francis Blessington

Saint Teresa's
waxed eyes
woke at her first funeral.

So in the Leichenhäuser
of Victorian Munich
the unsure dead
waiting for days,

growing hair,
groaning gases,
crossing arms
when the lid opens. More ... 

Sir Richard Burton's version of the Nights
Contains a line which reads, "The grave is better
Than want." But did he follow to the letter
The Arabic? Perhaps. But Edward Lane writes
The line as follows in his own translation:
"The grave is better than the palace." More ... 

The Elder Statesman
Back to Top  Memory Between the Covers
by Clark Elder Morrow

Why is it, I wonder, that autobiographical novels seem to be the most powerful and memorable of all novels? At least that is my own reaction to them. A memoir that's thinly disguised, as with Günther Grass's Tin Drum, or a more elaborately masked bildungsroman like David Copperfield — these are the fictional works that grab me most closely about the spirit, and leave the most lingering frisson. One reason for this effect, of course, is that autobiographical novels are built on a foundation of lived-through truth — and not just the truth as it happened to the writer, but truth transformed by a long process of digestion and assimilation. Having lived through the story he's telling, and then having lived long after the story he's telling, the novelist is in a position to tell you exactly what the point of his recollections is. Such artistic focus is arresting. More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back to Top  Etymology of a Loaded Word: Celibate
by Bill Casselman

Before we wade into the Vaseline-slippery topic of celibacy and its verbal origin, here are three snappers from late-night television jokers:

"I read this in the paper this morning: New York City has a priest shortage. So you see, there is some good news in the world. To give you an idea how bad it is, earlier today in Brooklyn an altar boy had to grope himself." — David Letterman

"The Cardinals will be staying at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the new hotel at the Vatican, where the phrase turn-down service means the bell boy isn't interested." — Jon Stewart

"After all these scandals in the church, many Roman Catholics are calling for an end to celibacy. An end to celibacy? How about starting celibacy? Let's at least try it, to see if it works." — Jay Leno More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back to Top  A Student Writes
by Carey Harrison
New technology has been influence people's lifestyles and human behavior. People respect and admire technology because it is to benefit them. Simultaneously, it quietly kills people skills. People have to do the right thing with it, but not misuse it.

So writes one of my former students, in a paper he submitted to me, to "look over." He concludes:

Digital cameras are becoming so powerful and popular in the motion pictures world for these years. As myself, being a director of photographer, I shot number of projects in film and digital. I see both have big latitude in production. It is trust that new technology can make our process more easy, but also can make us lazy and less think.

I think he makes a very good point — if I understand him correctly, and I think I do. I’m not sure he would have been any clearer, at least to me, if the sentences were grammatically correct. And I am increasingly forced to wonder whether I should go on impressing on my students that "good," "consistent," "uniform," and generally acceptable grammar does matter. More ... 

Letter of the Law
Back to Top  Mid the Canon's Roar
by Adam Freedman

Statutes are a dreary branch of literature. Long, stilted, and pompous, our state and federal laws are difficult to understand and interpret. That is good news for lawyers, many of whom make a comfortable living arguing for this or that construction of the tax code, or bankruptcy code, or similar enactments. But how do judges decide which interpretation is right? Magic 8 Ball?

Actually, judges rely on the "canons of construction," that is, the established rules for interpreting statutes. Canon is an Old English word referring to a rule, particularly one laid down by a church — hence canon law is the name for the body of ecclesiastical law. More ... 

Language Module No. 25 focused on the inexplicable confusion that exists in using the passive voice. This module is about another phenomenon that is difficult to explain: using the apostrophe.

Since you're reading this, you're probably adept at sticking apostrophes in where they belong. Surprisingly, quite a few people are inept at doing just that. If you can believe the signage that's hanging around these days — in store windows, road signs, newspaper ads, marquees, and even in more formal, edited prose, there seems to be an epidemic of apostrophes being used to form the plural. It is so prevalent in grocery store ads that the affliction has been given a name: the greengrocer's apostrophe. (For the afflicted, it's the greengrocers apostrophe's.) 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 ... 

Among the best written, if least read, books are those that we will be featuring in "On the Bookshelf." No book club selections, no best-selling authors are likely to be spoken of here. Best-selling authors, of course, are often responsible for the worst written books. 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

More than incorrect grammar or an infelicitous style, the deliberate misuse of words — euphemism, circumlocution, lying — is an assault on language and society. More ... 

 Features

Foxen in the Henhice — Richard Lederer

Strange Dis'eas'es' of the Literary Mind — Ira Nayman

Bill Safire's Usage Legacy — Mark Halpern

Culture and Society: Er, What "Main Street" Is That? — Arthur Plotnik

Book Excerpt: So You Think You Can Spell? — David L. Grambs and Ellen S. Levine

Book Review: Word for Word — Robert Hartwell Fiske

Vocabula Revisited: Academic Diction: An Avoidable Poverty — Will Hamlin

A Poem — Francis Blessington

A Poem — Kevin Mims

 Columnists


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Memory Between the Covers

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Etymology of a Loaded Word: Celibate

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — A Student Writes

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — Mid the Canon's Roar

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Outbursts, Insights, Explanations, and Oddities

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101 Elegant Paragraphs

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101 Wordy Phrases

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101 Foolish Phrases

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54 Poems, Revisions, Discussions

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