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

 In the October 2009 Vocabula

by Frank E. Keyes, Jr.

Many students who receive a high grade in their freshman writing course do not write very well in other courses. Instructors in other courses that require writing make this claim, and writing instructors counter the claim with their own: "The students write well in our courses, so what's the matter with you?"

Employers in the nonacademic world also object to their college-graduate employees who do not write well. A recent Associated Press article, "Employers Urge Workers to Improve Writing," stated, "'Businesses are really crying out — they need to have people who write better,' said College President Gaston Caperton." More ... 

1. Not knowing the meanings of the words you use.


• In this case, I have concerns that the Army is literally trying to whitewash over the problems.

Literally means "actually; in fact; exactly."

• The bride is taking yoga classes with her fiancée, Sean, and it appears to be helping.

A fiancée is a woman engaged to be married.

• It was the week leading up to Palm Sunday, a very special time for Mexicans in this predominately Catholic country.

Predominantly is the adverb. More ... 

by Richard Lederer
Authors like cats because they are such quiet, lovable, wise creatures, and cats like authors for the same reasons. — Robertson Davies

Ailurophilia — the love of cats — appears to be a congenital condition of writers. Humorist Dan Greenberg quips, "Cats are dangerous companions for writers because cat watching is a near-perfect method of writing avoidance." Nonetheless, writers have had a great deal to say about their feline companions, and many a famous writer has become a cat collector: More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

Back to Top  Chaps
by Julian Burnside

What an odd little word this is. Actually, it is three different words with the same form.

The first word is a variant of chop: a chap is "an open fissure or crack in a surface, made by chopping or splitting." It is rarely used like this nowadays. A related meaning is "a crack in the skin, descending to the flesh: chiefly caused by exposure of hands, lips, etc., to frost or cold wind." In that sense, it is more common as the participial chapped lips or (less commonly) chapped hands. As a plural, chaps also signifies the jaws of a person or animal, and by extension the jaws of a vice. Chappy meant talkative in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some time in the mid-eighteenth century, chaps gave way to chops: "get your chops around this" sounds like slang but is a very old usage. Down in the chops is a nineteenth-century colloquialism meaning depressed; to lick one's chops is to gloat. More ... 

Specialty Dictionary
Back to Top  Glossary of Horse-Racing Terms
by Jacob Kanzen

Abandoned — A race meeting that has been canceled because a club did not receive sufficient nominations to be able to stage it, or because of bad weather that made racing on the track unsafe. All bets placed on abandoned races are fully refunded.

Accumulator — (Also "Parlay") A multiple bet. A single stake is used to generate two or more bets in succession. A kind of "let-it-ride" bet. Making simultaneous selections on two or more races with the intent of pressing the winnings of the first win on the bet of the following race selected, and so on. All the selections made must win for you to win the accumulator. The punter makes a series of selections each from a different race or event. Every time a selection wins, the stake plus winnings is put onto the next selection. If any selection loses, the whole bet is lost. Accumulators are also known as doubles, trebles, four-folds, five-folds, six-folds, ten-folds, etc. Ten-folds accumulator is a 10 selections bet of 10 events.

Across the Board — A bet on a horse to win, place, or show. Three wagers combined in one. If the horse wins, the player wins all three wagers; if second, two; and if third, one. See "Place."

Age — All thoroughbreds count January 1 as their birth date. More ... 

by Michael Berberich

I wonder if I'm becoming obsolete. Or if not exactly obsolete, maybe a bit like a Studebaker: a quaint memory, a thing no longer of the here and now though you could probably find one in a barn somewhere if needed — perhaps to be used as a movie prop to lend authenticity to the scene where the nattily dressed young man, knees a-knocking, peers from behind the living room curtain and waits for his beloved's father to finish washing the aforementioned Studebaker. All this so that as the father enters the house, and wipes his still sudsy hands across his flannel shirt, the nattily dressed young man, knees still a-knocking (picture a young Jerry Lewis) can step forth and ask the father for the daughter's hand in marriage.

Teaching is changing dramatically, as is learning. The world I grew up in, the world I honed my teaching skills in, is long gone. I have taught writing, lit, and humanities at community colleges over the last seventeen years. Most of my students have never heard the clackety-clack of a typewriter break the silence of the dark night. Most have never heard of a Studebaker or, for that matter, know that Jerry Lewis was once the epitome of goofiness and was beloved for something other than the MDA Labor Day Telethon. And a guy asking a woman's father for her hand in marriage — well, to be sure there are ways the world has improved. More ... 

Two Poems
Back to Top  My Sexist Thesaurus
by Jaimee Hills

Kolpophobia: Fear of Genitals

Rubens' Venus must have a body mass index
higher than 25. A pot-belly and fleshy legs.
Venus in cellulite. But how do I describe her lack of fig leaves?
A small swath of cloth hides the nothingness between her legs.
The thesaurus is aware of genitalia, pudenda, private parts,
but cannot name a part specifically, except for family jewels. More ... 

The Elder Statesman
Back to Top  Words That Need Rescuing
by Clark Elder Morrow

Parvitude. Now there's a word that needs rescuing. At one time (maybe two hundred years ago) the term meant the opposite of magnitude, because at one time magnitude was not a relative term — magnitude meant "largeness," not "the property of relative size or extent." The history of many words is from absolute to relative meaning, just as some words grow in stature from relative meaning ("tolerance" originally drew its sense from its context) to absolute ("tolerance" is now good regardless of its context). Magnitude once meant greatness, grandeur, immensity of size (that's how Milton used it). Webster's 1828 Dictionary has "largeness" as its second definition of magnitude. By 1913, it was fourth. Parvitude never lost its original meaning — it still means "smallness," but you never see it in print or hear it in conversation, not even among eggheads (or maybe I'm hanging with the wrong eggheads). But if there are occasions when it is appropriate to say, "I am overwhelmed by the painting's magnitude," then assuredly there are times when it would be both apt and delightful to drawl, "I am surprised, and ashamed, at the parvitude of your outlook." Parvo, by the bye, the dog's disease, is called parvovirus disease because the virus involved is one of the smallest in existence. More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back to Top  A Figment of Etymology
by Bill Casselman

The moist cleft of a ripe fig, dehiscent and juicy, has suggested a receptive vagina to speakers of dozens of unrelated languages for more than 4,000 years. The title photograph suggests how apposite a metaphor this is. From the ancient Phoenician pagh, "half-ripe fig, vulva," to Attic Greek playwright Aristophanes σῦκον, "fig" or "twat," to popular Latin fica, "fig" or "vulva," to modern Italian's fare la fica, the comparison has endured.

The word fig first came into English early in the thirteenth century, brought by the Norman conquerors as Old French figue, itself from Vulgar Latin fica, from Latin ficus. The classical Latin word is still the proper botanical genus name of fig trees. Consider the common fig tree of horticulture, Ficus benjamina. The Latin is akin to Greek sykon, "fig," Armenian t'uz, "fig," and Phoenician pagh, "half-ripe fig." More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back to Top  Cliquez Ici
by Carey Harrison

When teaching a college composition course, my objective is to inform the students of what I understand to be the state of play in written American English, as it is practiced in the better public prints. "Better public prints" is a woolly concept, Heaven knows, but where am I to find a more sharply focused one? English as it is revealed in this dictionary or that? In this author or that? In The New York Times? The first thing I explain to my students is that I have no exemplary organ on which to rest my case; I am arguing from a sense I derive from regular exposure — from exposure in all likelihood more regular than theirs — to what is currently regarded as "good" English, and from a lifetime's exposure to this vague and ever-changing item. This, indeed — the ever-changing element — is my second point. I will explain to them how their word alot will be seen in certain quarters. I can assert neither (a) that "alot" is not a word, since this would tether my entire proceeding to a set of either dictionary-based or consensus-based views to which I will not tie my colors; nor (b) that "alot" will never be a word, by which I might mean ... what? That it will never achieve dictionary status — but in whose dictionary? And isn't "alot" in a certain sense already a word by virtue of being "out there," and indeed out there in spades. The point I shall be trying to make is that "alot" can be variously regarded as a currently acceptable word, an acceptable word of the future, or an unacceptable word (but to whom?) of past, present, and future. It is up to them, when they are in full possession of the facts — since they have never heard that "alot" might be unacceptable in certain quarters, and this baffles them — to decide how they wish to proceed. More ... 

by Adam Freedman

A funny thing happened on the way to my local Death Panel. I came across a truly interesting objection to some of the current healthcare reform proposals. To wit: the federal government does not have the legal power to enact the most expansive proposals.

Whether you agree or disagree depends on how you define "commerce."

As we learned in Civics class, the Constitution creates a government of certain "enumerated powers." There is no clause in the Constitution that specifically mandates the alphabet soup of federal programs and agencies that exist today. Instead, the bulk of the (nonmilitary) bureaucracy has been legally justified under Congress's constitutional power to "regulate Commerce ... among the several States." More ... 

What is it about the passive voice that writing tutors, grammar gurus, and other voice squads have ganged up on it and chased it to the other side of the syntactic tracks? Even word processors stigmatize the unwelcome verb construction with a wavy green underline to coax us to rephrase the sentence. There's no denying that the passive voice is often used to create no-fault, CYA, buck-passing weasel-wording favored by politicians, generals, and CEOs to hide behind such non-apologies and lame rationalizations as "mistakes have been made," "bombs have been dropped," and "work forces have been re-organized." But it doesn't deserve the rap that it is fuzzy, ponderous, vague, and wimpy as some active voice activists have claimed. It's been used to create some pretty powerful prose. In Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, for instance, four of his ten sentences are in the passive voice, as are nine of the ten amendments in the Bill of Rights. The most memorable words in the Declaration of Independence are in the passive voice ("… all men are created equal, … are endowed with unalienable rights.") Nothing vague or wimpy there. 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 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

What College Writing Instructors Do Wrong — Frank E. Keyes, Jr.

Twelve of the Most Annoying Stylistic Mistakes That People Make — Robert Hartwell Fiske

Literary Cats — Richard Lederer

Chaps — Julian Burnside

Specialty Dictionary: Glossary of Horse-Racing Terms — Jacob Kanzen

Vocabula Revisited: Of Concordances, the Spider Guy, and Other Matters: A Rumination — Michael Berberich

Two Poems — Jaimee Hills

 Columnists


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Words That Need Rescuing

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — A Figment of Etymology

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Cliquez Ici

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — The Most Important Word in the Constitution

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