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December 2010, Vol. 12, No. 11 There are now   5197   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

Coming in the January 2011 issue of The Vocabula Review:
"The Assassination of Henry Fowler by the Coward Robert Burchfield"
by David Russinoff

The January issue is due online January 16.

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 In the December 2010 Vocabula

by Edwin Battistella

I had a scary moment in class recently.

I was illustrating the use of participles as adjectives and had contrasted the phrase The sleeping dog and the sentence The dog was sleeping on the whiteboard to illustrate adjectival versus verbal use of participles. In an earlier class, we had discussed the copula, and I suddenly wondered if anyone would ask why sleeping wasn't a predicate adjective in The dog was sleeping. After all, when we say The dog was frightening or The dog was tired, the words frightening and tired are adjectives, so why not sleeping?

I suppose I could have tried to talk about some mysterious verbal force of sleeping, hoping to draw on the distinction that predicate adjectives like tired and frightening typically refer to states while progressive aspect verbs like sleeping refer to actions. But when you are asleep, the distinction between a state and an action seems rather fuzzy, so semantics is less than helpful as a starting point. I didn't see a discussion of whether sleeping was a property or an action as solving anything. What other options did I have? More ... 

by Katharine Merow

Alice's fondness for pink I could tolerate. I could forgive her serial neglect of dorm room security. But the shrimp scampi? Our roommate relationship suffered for it.

Of course lots of people eat shrimp scampi — as Alice did on occasion — so mere ingestion was not the issue. What irked me were the words that would escape from her mouth afterward. For when saliva had scarcely washed the last coral-kissed segment down my roomie's omnivorous gullet, Alice would declare herself a vegetarian. And seated across the table from her, I would seethe. To me, Alice's assertion not only advanced the undoing of the English language, but symbolized the insidious spread of ambition-quashing complacency.

Transgressions such as Alice committed turn out to be common. When, early in 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data estimating the number of vegetarian children nationwide, the task of relaying this statistic to readers had newspapers dusting off their dictionaries. The printed definitions, though, favored crowd-pleasing inclusiveness over precision. "Vegetarian diets exclude meat," The Arizona Republic explained, "but the name is sometimes used loosely. Some self-described vegetarians eat fish and poultry." The Times Daily, out of Florence, Alabama, went further, dropping the modifier: "Generally, vegetarian diets exclude meat, but there are some vegetarians who consume fish or poultry on occasion." Not "wannabe vegetarians" or "work-week vegetarians," but "vegetarians." More ... 

by Richard Lederer

Not long ago, a couple that I know tooled down to a local car emporium to look over the latest products. Attracted to the low sticker price on the basic model, they told the salesman that they were considering buying an unadorned automobile and had no inclination to purchase any of the long list of options affixed to the side window of the vehicle they were inspecting.

"You'll have to pay $168 for the rear window wiper," the salesman explained.

"But we don't want the rear wiper," my friends protested.

And the salesman said: "We want to keep the sticker price low, but every car comes with the rear window wiper. So you have to buy it. It's a mandatory option."

Mandatory option is a telling example of the kind of pushme–pullyou doublespeak that pervades the language of business and politics these days. It is also a striking instance of an oxymoron. More ... 

by Lee Dembart

The word both often gives me trouble. That's odd, you might think, because both is a simple, straightforward word, meaning two things in conjunction. But the placement of both frequently leads me astray.

Consider this sentence from Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner (a political history of water in the western United States): "The Examiner's exposé had Harrison Gray Otis venting steam from both nostrils and ears …."

The word both is meant to apply to "nostrils and ears," but as I read it, my first thought is that both modifies nostrils — the word it's right next to — and I picture steam spewing from both of his nostrils. This reading is underscored by the fact that people have two nostrils, so both nostrils would be a normal combination. When I get to the word ears, I have to go back and reinterpret the sentence. More ... 

Language Classic
Back to Top  The Grammar of English Grammars
by Goold Brown

"Hæc de Grammatica quam brevissime potui: non ut omnia dicerem sectatus, (quod infinitum erat,) sed ut maxima necessaria." — QUINTILIAN. De Inst. Orat., Lib. i, Cap. x.

1. Language, in the proper sense of the term, is peculiar to man; so that, without a miraculous assumption of human powers, none but human beings can make words the vehicle of thought. An imitation of some of the articulate sounds employed in speech, may be exhibited by parrots, and sometimes by domesticated ravens, and we know that almost all brute animals have their peculiar natural voices, by which they indicate their feelings, whether pleasing or painful. But language is an attribute of reason, and differs essentially not only from all brute voices, but even from all the chattering, jabbering, and babbling of our own species, in which there is not an intelligible meaning, with division of thought, and distinction of words. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  The Look-At-Me Generation
by Christopher Orlet

I was born on the cusp of two generations: the Baby Boomers and the Generation Xers. I seem to relate more to the Gen Xers, being somewhat of a slacker and despising most everything '70s, except one or two Dylan albums and a few classic films.* Generation Xers may be slackers, but at least we are not stuck-up about it, not like the Millennial Generation, raised on an overdose of self-esteem and self-promoting technology (MySpace, Facebook) combined to create a perfect storm of narcissism.

Not long ago I came across a study led by San Diego State University psychologists that found that about two-thirds of college students have "above average scores in self-adulation." That's up thirty percent since I was in college in 1982. These Millennials make Narcissus look like a self-hating Greek.

But while Millennials are more confident, assertive, and head over heels in love with themselves, they have fewer reasons to be. The study's authors note that Generation Y is shallower than its parents' generation and less well educated. It is emotionally challenged. And it is more miserable. More ... 

The Elder Statesman
Back to Top  Oscillating Words and Wandering Wombs
by Clark Elder Morrow

Is the following sentence true or false? Virtue is to virtuosity as poet is to poetaster.

That sentence is an example of what we call the specious and the meretricious. It has a surface plausibility, a veneer of verisimilitude. But if you look into it even modestly, and think about it for a moment or two, you'll see at once that the first bracket of terms involves a neutral specialization, whereas the second involves a negative one. Virtuosity is a narrowing, not a debasing, of what is meant by virtue. The narrowing is accomplished without a pejorative tone attaching to virtuosity. This is not the case when religious is degraded into religiosity. Some people (radio commentator Dennis Prager, for example) don't understand the difference, and use religiosity when they mean religious. They don't see or feel the negative shading involved in religiosity ("an insincere show of religion"). You could argue that virtuosity is a slight demeaning of the term virtue, and I would probably agree with you: a man who is a virtuoso on the violin is not as praiseworthy or as admirable as a man who is — by all accounts — thoroughly virtuous (the violinist, after all, may be a swine). It's perhaps safer to say that the virtuoso may or may not be as praiseworthy, but that his superiority or inferiority to the virtuous man cannot be determined from his violin-playing alone, no matter how astonishing it may be. Both words grow out of the Latin term for strength, so that an expert violinist demonstrates the strength of his technique and passion, while a virtuous man exhibits that power of influence and example that good people generally have.

A poetaster is a creator of doggerel; he is someone who subverts the positive notion most people have of a poet; he produces a shoddy product — or at least one that is inferior to that produced by a competent poet. He does not stand in the same relation to the poet as the virtuoso does to the virtuous man. His position is more nearly comparable to that which religiosity commands in regard to religion. Words often oscillate through neutral, positive, and negative shades of meaning, and back again, and often in a surprisingly short time. Look at the word oversight. It originally meant "supervision, superintendence; care or management." Now it more often denotes "failure or omission to see," "inadvertence," "a mistake of inadvertence." In other words, oversight has come to mean the opposite of what it originally meant, while maintaining its first definition. It went from "We kept good oversight of the project, so as to avoid budget overruns" to "Michael's little math oversight will result in a three million dollar charge against profits, I'm afraid." More ... 

Back to Top  Notes on a Yellow Pickup
by John Kilgore

Seen on a bumper sticker recently: "Speak English or Go the F*@#$ Home!" The slogan adorned an old yellow pickup, in Indianapolis as it happened, where my wife and I were spending the weekend. Here in the heartland, someone clearly felt it his right to have others speak his language, not their own.

The easiest thing to say about the sentiment is that it is idiotic. In America of all places, this "mighty nation of nations," this crazy quilt of imported cultures, what should anyone expect but a grand smorgasbord of languages? And what reigning sentiment but one of cheerful accommodation to resultant difficulties? The driver might have felt his thought was somehow patriotic; I found it positively un-American.

What especially galled was the slogan's disingenuous view of language acquisition. The fellow in the pickup is pretending not to know (what everyone really does know), that acquiring a second language is desperately difficult and time consuming. Nature blesses every Homo sapiens with one language learned to mastery, very early on; but the original miracle is never fully repeated. Adult immigrants are notoriously condemned to incurable accents and other handicaps, and many of them, even some who are quite bright and conscientious, never do become functional in a second language. In that case they discover workarounds, like other people with disabilities. But to blame their predicament on laziness or bad attitude is ridiculous.

The command to "Speak English," thus, is pure cant, the bully's usual tactic of pretending that the offense comes from the victim. Only the second part of the slogan really counts: "Go the F$#@#! Home," a fine little nugget of xenophobic meanness. The driver wants the Other and his foreign argot and culture simply to vanish, removing the anxiety somehow implicit in their very existence. I burn to ask this fellow how many foreign languages he has learned, and wonder whether he speaks even English all that well. More ... 

Postcards from Babel
Back to Top  Please Don't Say What You Mean
by Amalia Gnanadesikan

A linguist colleague of mine says that when he was in graduate school he and his classmates used to play a certain unusual party game. Linguists are known (to themselves, at least) for their unusual party games, hilarious to themselves and entirely uninteresting to others. This particular game involved thinking of the most unusual thing to say that would get someone to close a window — without ever mentioning the window. The winning utterance was apparently, "Cheetahs are retromictural."

It helps to know that retromictural means "urinating backwards." If, therefore, there were a cheetah outside your open window, the statement "Cheetahs are retromictural" might indeed get you to close the window very quickly, depending on which way the cheetah was facing.

The scenario might be fanciful, but a disconnect of this sort between what we say (a simple statement of fact in this example) and what we intend to communicate (such as an instruction to close the window) is extremely common.

A colleague might ask me, "Do you know where Susan is?" On the face of it, this is what is called a yes–no question, but if I value my work relationships I won't simply answer yes or no. "She's gone to lunch," would work for an answer. "She was here a minute ago," accompanied by a perplexed look works too, though it neither answers yes or no nor relays where Susan actually is. More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back to Top  Herb as Word
by Bill Casselman

In Latin, herba was any plant not a shrub or a tree. In botany, an herb is any nonwoody, seed-bearing plant that dies to the ground after its growing season, and, if perennial, sprouts again the following spring. In general English usage, an herb is any plant whose parts are used for curative, aromatic, or cooking purposes.

By the way, even the ancient Romans sometimes dropped the initial letter h and said erba, thus producing early the present Italian word for grass, with which compare l'herbe with its French meanings of herb, plant, weed, grass, and — most felicitous — picnic lunch, in the phrase le déjeuner sur l'herbe, the subject of an Impressionist masterwork by Édouard Manet. Several French impressionists painted picnics, and later artists like Pablo Picasso parodied them.

Known to lovers of French cuisine is the bouquet garni, a bundle of fines herbes tied together, perhaps in a mesh bag, cooked with a dish and afterward removed. Fines herbes are also used to decorate and add savor to the surface of a cooked dish. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back to Top  It's Not That Big of a Deal
by Carey Harrison

My office mate for fifteen years, the linguist John Roy, tells me it's inevitable, if you have a receptive spirit. You pick up the language around you, good or bad, regardless of your taste, your principles, or your best intentions. "It's off of Flatbush," I hear myself say. And, "He's not that bad of a writer." I heard Jon Stewart use that locution on The Daily Show, without apology. Soon it'll be in The New York Times.

The overriding instinct of the receptive spirit is not simply to adopt a protective coloring and fit in — with my unapologetic British accent I'll never fit in, and whereas if it was a Polish accent I'd be looked at askance, my accent draws admiration and even envy wherever I go — but rather it derives from an almost unconscious wish to be understood. And it's a hard time to make oneself understood, it seems to me. Some five years ago I described, in these pages, an experience that still haunts me: reaching the front of a coffee shop line I asked for a bottle of water, careful to say "a boddle of wadder," as brutal as this sounds in my ears, and I watched the girl behind the glass counter bend toward the gleaming plastic bottles of water beneath the glass, then pause, and look up at me. "You did say a slice of apple crunch cake," she asked. True story. You can see how such an event might stay with and even traumatize me.

No matter how charming my interlocutors find my accent, I do want to make my utterances comprehensible. I have also considered the possible anaesthetic effect of my accent, or indeed of any accent, any violation of the norm that speaks "friend" to a nation whose ingrained xenophobia extends to erecting the least helpful road and transport signs of any country on earth. After all, if you don't already know the way to Newark Airport, where are you from and what the heck are you doing here, among us? We Americans will smell you out, goldurnit it, no matter how much you may have contrived to look like us. We know you're an invader from outer space, one of the pinko pod people, just from the way you say "wadder." More ... 

On August 16 of this year, I celebrated my 52nd birthday. If my old high-school classmates reunited for the purpose of naming a "least successful graduate from the class of 1976," I would almost certainly be it. For most of my adult life, I have been trying to earn a living as a freelance writer. Currently, my writing brings in about $450 on a good a month. That may sound miserable, but it's three times what I was making last year at this time. A few weeks ago, on my birthday, my parents, who are in their late 70s, sent me a check for $1000. They send me checks every now and then to help me out financially. I am fairly certain that, back in August 1958, it never occurred to them that their newborn son would still be a financial burden to them well into the next century.

Two days after my most recent birthday, on August 18, 2010, the New York Times published a story headlined "What Is It About 20-Somethings?" in which it labeled many recent college graduates as "failures to launch" and "boomerang kids" simply because so many of them have yet to find meaningful work and remain dependent financially on their parents. My status as a world-class underachiever has engendered in me a great deal of sympathy for those adults in their 20s and 30s who are still tied financially to their parents in one way or another.

One myth about underachievers is that we are all lazy and prefer loafing around to actually working for a living. I may not be the hardest working man in the writing biz, but I guarantee you that there are financially successful writers in this world who put far less energy into their careers than I do into mine. If I am a financial failure, it isn't because I don't work hard. Currently, I have several regular writing gigs. Inside The City, a local (Sacramento) magazine, pays me to produce a personal essay, a profile of a local citizen, and a calendar of upcoming events for each monthly issue. I am paid $150 for each of these tasks. In an average month, these three pieces add up to about 4,000 words. I also write a monthly column for The Vocabula Review called "The Common Reader," which you already know because you are reading it right now. I would guess that my "Common Reader" columns run, on average, in excess of 4,000 words each. Alas, Vocabula is not yet a profit-making venture, so I am not paid for my contributions to it. I write the column because I enjoy the work and because I admire the magazine and its editor Robert Hartwell Fiske. More ... 

Knight on the Journalistic Style
Back to Top  The Well-Crafted Intro
by Robert Knight

It takes time to save time.

As an on-deadline writer, you have a choice:

Write down any old thing to get started and then flounder, or

Work deliberately (and playfully), and take the time to get an introduction that feels right and helps organize the print story.

Note the use of the word feels. Feeling is not cerebral. It has nothing to do with belief. Getting the introduction right is a visceral task:

1. For the writer, that means playing around with it until it does feel good. If it does, chances are the reader will feel good about it too.

2. For the reader, if the intro hasn't done its job, the rest of the piece represents wasted time and effort. If readers decide that the rest of the story will not merit their continued time and effort, they get even with you. They simply, deftly, move on, to another story, another publication or another medium.

More ... 

From a linguistic standpoint, the arrow is a multitasking metaphor. You can be straight as an arrow; time flies like an arrow; you can get shot by Cupid's arrow; Hamlet suffered slings and arrows. Even the Bible has several references to the metaphorical arrow: They sharpen their tongues like swords and aim their words like deadly arrows (Psalms 64:3), and Their tongue is as an arrow shot out (Jeremiah 9:8). One metaphorical basis for the similarity between arrows and words is that, once released, neither can be recalled, and the harm they do cannot be stopped. A slip of the tongue or of the finger (on the "send" button of an email message) is all it takes to send an irretrievable message into air space or cyber space.

Words and arrows are alike in other ways. If the shaft of the arrow is like a word, then the arrowhead is like a prefix and the fletching a suffix. But it's the arrowhead that is the primary functional part of the arrow. It can be sharpened, blunted, or modified to affect the trajectory and impact. Similarly, a prefix added to a word can be used to modify its meaning, often from one extreme to another — macro to micro, mono to multi, sub and supra, pre and post, pro and con (as in progress and congress), neo and retro, hyper and hypo, poly and mono, maxi and mini, and so on. That's where the prefixation ends. Unlike arrowheads, prefixes are not interchangeable. Otherwise, if John Bobbit can be dismembered (and re-membered) then a lawyer can be distorted and disbarred, a noisy dog disbarked, a sailor discussed, a hairdresser distressed, a magician disillusioned, a poker player discarded, an accountant disfigured, a medium dispirited, a model disposed, and a musician disconcerted. 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 ... 

Whereas a witticism is a clever remark or phrase — indeed, the height of expression — a "dimwitticism" is the converse; it is a commonplace remark or phrase. Dimwitticisms are worn-out words and phrases; they are expressions that dull our reason and dim our insight, formulas that we rely on when we are too lazy to express what we think or even to discover how we feel. The more we use them, the more we conform — in thought and feeling — to everyone else who uses them. 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 ... 


You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time—
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal 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  Newly Coined Words

Have you recently coined a word? If so, tell us what it is and we may add it to our list of Newly Coined Words. For your neologism to qualify, it must be useful and not found on Google before we list it here. More ... 


Sleeping Dogs — Edwin Battistella

Call It As It Is — Katharine Merow

Good Grief! — Richard Lederer

The Problem with Both — Lee Dembart

Language Classic: The Grammar of English Grammars — Goold Brown

Vocabula Revisited: The Look-At-Me Generation — Christopher Orlet


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Oscillating Words and Wandering Wombs

John Kilgore: Shibboleths — Notes on a Yellow Pickup

Amalia Gnanadesikan: Postcards from Babel — Please Don't Say What You Mean

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Herb as Word

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — It's Not That Big of a Deal

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — A Glutton for Publishment: A Defense of Underachievers, Middle-Aged Wannabes, and Loudon Wainwright Jr.

Robert Knight: Knight on the Journalistic Style — The Well-Crafted Intro


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