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

 In the September 2009 Vocabula

The 2009 Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest winners have been selected. Read the first-place and second-place winning entries, as well as four others. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

Prescriptivism versus descriptivism is one of the great intellectual conundrums of my life. No kidding and no exaggeration. I am a prescriptivist by training and temperament, but within the last few years I have come to realize that prescriptivism is intellectually indefensible. There is no principled basis for maintaining that all of the changes that occurred in English before I was born are OK, but from now on, all changes are bad and must be resisted.

In the days when grammar was taught in school (back during the Second Punic War), I was very good at it, and I was praised for being very good at it. So of course I think it's valuable and important. I spent many years as a copy editor at the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, both of which maintain (or used to maintain) high standards of written English. More ... 

by Richard Lederer

When you speak and write, there is no law that says you have to use big words. Short words are as good as long ones, and short, old words — like sun and grass and home — are best of all. A lot of small words, more than you might think, can meet your needs with a strength, grace, and charm that large words do not have.

Big words can make the way dark for those who read what you write and hear what you say. Small words cast their clear light on big things — night and day, love and hate, war and peace, and life and death. Big words at times seem strange to the eye and the ear and the mind and the heart. Small words are the ones we seem to have known from the time we were born, like the hearth fire that warms the home. More ... 

by Tim Lyons
… any language … has at its bottom certain metaphysics, which ascribe, consciously or unconsciously, some sort of structure to the world. — Alfred Korzybski

As so often happens when I feel melancholy, as I did after going through the incident I will describe, I found myself thinking of the story about the king and the water that makes people crazy. According to the story, a certain king, having received word from a local sage that a great rain would bring water that would make all people crazy, decided to gather as much of the existing water as he could before the rains came. He collected that water in private, covered cisterns, reasoning that, as king, he should remain sane even if everyone else went crazy. When the rains came as predicted, the people began to act in unaccountable ways. The king went down among them and tried to tell them what had happened, but they took him for a lunatic and threatened him with blows. So he retreated to his cisterns, there to sit for some days, drinking the bittersweet waters of sanity. This went on for some time, until finally, deciding that truth was not its own reward, the king decided to go down among the people and drink the new water, abandoning his palace and his cisterns — and, as it turned out, his reason, for he soon began acting just as madly as his subjects, forgetting about his cisterned water, his sense of dignity, and the sage. The people, when in their newfound lunacy they regarded him at all, took him for a madman who had been miraculously cured. More ... 

Culture and Society
Back to Top  Conspiracies Without a Human Face
by Mark Halpern

There is always at least one major conspiracy accusation being leveled at the United States government at any time, often more than one. The principal accusation at the moment is that the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, was the work of the government itself rather than of Arab terrorists. The remarkable thing about this accusation is that it is leveled not just by the usual experts — late-night radio show callers-in and semi-literate bloggers — but also by people with some claim to know what they're talking about, and to have some skill at distinguishing truth from falsehood. I was particularly startled to learn that James H. Fetzer, Distinguished McKnight University Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, was a leader of a group contending that the 9/11 events were set in motion by the federal government for nefarious purposes, such as justifying the Iraq war and the imposing of constraints on the civil liberties of American citizens.

It was not Fetzer's imposing academic title or his extensive list of writings on scientific method and related subjects that seemed at odds with his beliefs in a vast government-led conspiracy — I think very few people still regard as paradoxical the conjunction of academic distinction and radically unconventional, even bizarre, ideas — but my encounter with one of his writings back in 1988. In September of that year, he published in Communications of the ACM an article titled "Program Verification: The Very Idea," in which he attacked the idea that computer programs could be verified, or proven correct, by some mathematical procedure. Since projects attempting to do just that were considered promising in those days, and being widely pursued and well funded, his arguments were not well received by many readers of Communications, and the next few issues contained very strongly worded rebuttals of his thesis, sometimes descending to personal attacks not only on Fetzer, but on the editors of Communications for publishing his article, with demands for retractions, apologies, and so on. More ... 

by Ellen Graf

While still in China, my husband confessed that it took him many hours over three or four days to write a one-page letter to me in English. I finally told him to write in Chinese and I would find someone to help me read it. I could not decipher the five pages of Chinese characters that arrived, except for "I," "you," "see same moon," "together." I took the letter to my friend who translated from the tissuey pages of rice paper. I still remember one part:

In my imagination I see your slim figure buffeted by icy gusts of wind, and I want to cross the street and stand next to you. I long to shield you from the cold. But I am across the world, not across the street. We must both be patient. I will come, and I will be with you forever. In the meantime, remember to put on your heavy coat. The greatest wealth is health. We are not so young, after all. Please trust me. Marriage is a sacred thing.

Here in America, my husband never used such words; it was as if precious things could be endangered by being named. His deep appreciation was expressed spontaneously under cover of darkness, preferably interrupting my sleep. It was sufficient. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  How Linguistics Killed Grammar
by Peter Corey

In her book, Verbal Hygiene, linguist Deborah Cameron refers to those who advocate prescriptivism in grammar as verbal hygienists. She is, of course, preaching to the choir, since her book (written during a public outcry in the United Kingdom over the issue of literacy) is a strategy manual for linguists, taking seriously the Roman adage "It is right to make your enemy your teacher." It might be fair, therefore, to refer to Cameron and other linguists as verbal nihilists, but I prefer to defend prescriptivism, which is a tradition I find liberal, honorable, and more sensible than linguistics. As a result, I will refer to linguistics by its name, and to prescriptivism — because its philosophical premises are key — as humanistic grammar.

My claim in this essay is that linguistics has effectively killed humanistic grammar, especially as a subject in the public schools, though also as a topic worthy of serious discussion in public discourse. Linguists perceive themselves (and are generally perceived by others) as "scientists," whether or not they deserve that label. Humanist grammarians are perceived as "language mavens," to borrow a phrase from linguist Steven Pinker. Yet, if linguists really are scientists, they spend an awful lot of time writing essays, books, and reviews that are hostile to the positions of humanist grammar on various issues. Many books on linguistics, from those meant for general readers to those meant for serious students, contain disclaimers, often hostile, in which the authors dissociate themselves from any taint of humanistic grammar. In addition to the hostility, these disclaimers often completely misrepresent humanistic grammar in the following ways: More ... 

A Poem
Back to Top  4AM Cab Ride
by Ernest Hilbert

You watch the cold bristles and scrawled ghost sheen
Of a full moon on a black bay beside
Refineries corroded by weather.
You want to believe there are old, unseen
Things out there that have long since learned to hide
From us and survive with all we prefer
To ignore or forget in those moments before More ... 

by Nettie Farris

A mother knows the minds
of her own children,
even the distant corners
(where they like to hide

things), for at night,
after she has folded the clothing
and stored it neatly
in drawers, she comes in More ... 

The Elder Statesman
Back to Top  Woman as Heavenly Tour Guide
by Clark Elder Morrow

It's a well-known fact that women are frequently portrayed in literature as agents or vessels of redemption. From Dante's Beatrice in the Paradiso to Sarah Miles in Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, female characters often bear a message of sanctification and spiritual healing to the more mundane men in their lives. In Tolstoy's Resurrection, for example, sweet and innocent Maslova goes from being a chamber-maid to a prostitute to a murder suspect to (finally) a kind of glowing spiritual mentor in the eyes of the prince who had toyed with her. But then again the Russians have an odd vulnerability to the Mary Magdalene figure — the restored and repentant slattern. Dostoyevsky, for instance, strikes me as the sort of man who would have seconded De Quincey's adoration of the young street-prostitute Ann, who both befriended and (significantly enough) enlightened the English boy-writer. For some gentlemen, apparently, it is a thrill in its own right to imagine a woman who adds caritas to her carnality. More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back to Top  Galilee: Origin of a Hebrew Place Name
by Bill Casselman

Galilee is a large region in northern Israel, mountainous and reasonably fertile. Galilee was the setting for the ministry of Jesus Christ. The Sea of Galilee, the countryside, and the towns — Cana, Capernaum, Tiberias, Nazareth — are mentioned frequently in the Gospels. Jesus himself was called the Galilean, and his disciples were chosen from local fishermen.

The conventional etymology of Galilee suggests that it is derived from the Hebrew and Aramaic galil, "ring, circle," hence "region" or "surrounding district" or "province." The Arabic name is الجليل, al-Jaleel. But it may, in fact, hark back to a much older West Semitic place name known to the ancient Egyptians as Galulu, which may have meant "northern part of Canaan." For an interesting alternative origin of Galilee, see this.

Another derivation of Galilee offers a source in the triliteral Semitic root, G-L-L, "to roll" so that a Hebrew noun like galil (Galilee) derived from such a verb might mean "rolling land" or "hill country" or "undulant terrain." More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back to Top  The Incident of the Goat
by Carey Harrison

Once more unto the breach! I hear in my head as we began the college year again, and my English composition classes gather — Once more, dear friends! Or close the wall up with our English dead... Ah yes, I see it now, that's why this particular battle cry comes to mind: it should be (as my subconscious mind was telling me) Or close the wall up with our dead English.

Not quite dead, of course. (And here's Tennyson now drumming in my brain, Dead, long dead, long dead! ... And the wheels go over my head ....) No, no, Arthur, of course the mother lingo isn't dead; how can it be dead when it's fast becoming the universal tongue of mother Earth? But it's winded, it's wounded, and up I stand in class again to explain about subject–verb agreement, and explain to college students how to identify a noun and a verb, and all the rest ... for which they are sweetly grateful. They really are. The trouble is, five weeks after our class ends, sooner, perhaps — by Christmas, indeed — they've forgotten it all, as their nice letters attest. These are letters requesting a reference from me for an Honors Academy, or for graduate school, or for internships in commerce. More ... 

Letter of the Law
Back to Top  Wee the People
by Adam Freedman

When lawmakers leave Washington in August, most people heave a sigh of relief. But for the press corps, the congressional recess triggers a frenzied search for a news item, any item, to fill the void. Thus begins the late summer "silly season" or, as it seems destined to be known in the Age of Obama, "wee wee time."

At a gathering of Democratic activists on August 20, the president lamented that when late August rolls around, the Washington media get "all wee-weed up." The spelling is from the White House transcript. Granted, Mr. Obama is not the first politician to rue the excesses of the Fourth Estate, but he appears to be the first to do so using baby talk.

Mr. Obama's odd phrasing sent the Googling classes all a-Twitter. Within a day, thousands of posts, blogs, and tweets appeared online, purporting to explain the neologism, including the assertion that wee-wee is a Nigerian term for cannabis (which at least explains the weed in wee-weed). The online Urban Dictionary has seven entries for "wee-weed up," but alas, all were added after August 20. More ... 

A recent Language Module (no. 22) was about shortening words into initializations and acronyms. This module's about lengthening words by combining two of them into a word blend called a portmanteau. Most dictionaries define portmanteau as a word formed by merging the sounds and meanings of two different words. However, some lexicons have added at least one more hinge to the portmanteau and define it as a blend of two or more words. In that case, you could find yourself eating turducken (turkey +duck + chicken) at a questival (chef quest + festival) on your staycation (stay-at-home + vacation). 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

Let's stop adulating sports figures, rock stars, and other celebrities. A person who can declaim, who can speak clearly or beautifully, is truly someone to prize. More ... 

 Features

 Columnists


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Woman as Heavenly Tour Guide

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Galilee: Origin of a Hebrew Place Name

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — The Incident of the Goat

Adam Freedman: Letter of the Law — Wee the People

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Outbursts, Insights, Explanations, and Oddities

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54 Poems, Revisions, Discussions

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