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November 2010, Vol. 12, No. 11 There are now   284   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

Coming in the December 2010 issue of The Vocabula Review:
"Sleeping Dogs"
by Edwin Battistella

The December issue is due online December 19.

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 In the November 2010 Vocabula

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The Gregg Reference Manual

by William A. Sabin
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I suppose I should begin with something of a confession. Although I am a professional writer and author of ten novels and about eight hundred other publications, and although I've been teaching creative writing workshops on both the undergraduate and graduate level for more than twenty years in what would be construed as at least highly respectable programs, and although I am more or less officially designated as the senior creative writing professor in my university, I have no idea what a proper workshop is or how to teach it, let alone how one should work.

I should also admit that I never took but one course in creative writing. The course I did take was back in 1967. It was taught by Eugene McKinney, a playwright of some note back around the middle of the twentieth century. I was a freshman drama major at the time; the course was required.

Mr. McKinney's class met in a rehearsal hall of the university theater. There were about eight students enrolled, as I recall, including a young woman in whom I had a profound romantic interest and who utterly ignored me for the entire semester. We sat in folding chairs — no desks — in a semicircle; Mr. McKinney sat in the center, smoking a pipe, and regaling us with anecdotes from his life in the professional theater: stories about famous actors and actresses, of disastrous opening nights and horrendous critical reactions. He was a very charming man, endearing, really; but he had no idea how to teach a class. More ... 

Citizens of the United States can be divided into two groups. The first comprises people who speak and write English clearly, crisply, concisely, and communicatively. Frankly, I'm not sure if they really exist.

The other group comprises people who fudge their facts, mix their metaphors, confuse their clichés, slaughter their syntax, and dangle their participles in public. These are the happily unaware, whose interpretations are unclouded by doubt. These are the people who create the mangled meanderings that Funk would never tell Wagnall and that Merriam would never confide to Webster.

These citizens of America start fracturing at an early age, as young scholars in our nation's schools. Witness this fractured chronicle of American history made up entirely of certified, genuine, authentic, unretouched student fabrications: More ... 

Since economists are equal to anything, and economics is largely a matter of what (and how) economists write, economics, in practice, could be virtually anything you cared to specify. To introduce a measure of sanity into proceedings, the field has in this brief essay been narrowed down to one sample of what economists can get up to when they are purportedly studying the phenomenon of poverty. This sample covers the case of what one might, in a desperate bid for comprehensiveness, allude to as analytico-positivistic-moral-philosophico-mathematical economics — work that is intensive in the squiggles of symbolic logic; "impossibilities"; tricky variational arguments; and de rigueur references to Marx and Engels to guard against the charge of fiddling while Rome burns.

While the mathematical whiz-kids look down their splendid noses on their less favored brethren, not least the data-grubbers among them, the latter tend to give themselves airs of moral superiority: they may not sparkle, but at least they do relevant and socially responsible work, which is what keeps them honest (and poor). The sad fact is that both types of economist are equally despised by that variety of radical scholar — now increasingly visible on the horizon — that thinks nothing of shooting off tracts with titles like "Discursive Displacement of the Subject in Poverty: The Ideological Complicity of Homo Oeconomicus, or de la pauvreté: Gendered Subjectivity and Patriarchal Reification in Statistical Re-presentation and the Production of an Official Discourse on Deprivation," destined for publication in The Post-Structuralist Critical Review, and not in some low-brow 1,500 words-an-article journal like Math Econ Letters or — unmentionably worse — Applied Journal of Compulsory Regression Research.

The sample that follows should serve to underline the basis for the sort of warning that D. B. Wyndham-Lewis (the first "Beachcomber") might have issued, had he been around, to complacent math-econ practitioners: 'Watch out, you cads! The post-mods are just round the corner!' More ... 

Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure ... — Northanger Abbey

In one of Kipling's short stories, a character, talking about his service in WWI says, There's no one to match Jane when you're in a tight place. There really is no one like Jane Austen for understanding human behavior and for making one consider quotidian morality. Other than Shakespeare and George Eliot, I don't think anyone writes as well about how to live a fully conscious life as Jane Austen. Gilbert Ryle, the English philosopher who coined the phrase "ghost in the machine," was asked if he read novels. "Oh yes," he said. "I read all six of them, every year." But what do you do after you've read Austen's six novels many times? You read Georgette Heyer.

If you love Jane Austen for the romance in her novels, Heyer will do, but then just about any novel will provide what you're looking for. Romance is in the air we breathe in this culture, and every book and film has something of romance in it. If you read Austen for the wit, you're in the right place with Heyer of course, but the wit of Samuel Johnson or Oscar Wilde — not to mention P. G. Wodehouse — can make you laugh as well. Of course, if you're reading for brilliant insights into human behavior or for sublime symmetry of syntax, there's no one to match Jane Austen.

But if what you love about Austen's novels are the settings, the period details, the colloquialisms of the time, then you'll enjoy reading Georgette Heyer's novels. They're satisfying escape literature; they make me smile and sigh and lament that language today isn't as colorful and richly suggestive as it was then. Heyer's books don't make me think, but there are times when thought is a burden — when I'm Friday-faced and having a fit of the blue devils — those are the times I reach for a Heyer. More ... 

by Marion D.S. Dreyfus

Friends snorted when they heard where I worked, even though it was so close to home and paid significantly more than the average company for editing. "If you go any lower, girl, you'll strike oil."

Granted, Penthouse was not for the faint-hearted. But the offices were well appointed; as far as one could tell, everyone observed the usual hygiene; and people bore a genial grin more often than in the precincts of what I imagined one might call widget society, the world beyond porn mags.

Despite the public persona of Bob Guccione as a purveyor of the lowest, the worst, the most foul, it was, in fact, a funny job, with its lingua franca the stuff of which most homes wash their children's mouths out with industrial-strength soap. I rewrote and edited what would probably best be described by the bible belters as literary bottom feeding; schmutz, in Yiddish (which has a treasured lexicon of choice words for all the stuff that sounds boring in Merriam-Webster); muck, if you will.

I enjoyed the work. Not only was it often of a higher literary character than some other magazines I had written and edited for, but the office was delightfully unpredictable from one day to the next, and the people wafting through were often the meat and potatoes of the gossip tabloids and supermarket fantasies of the male half of the population. More ... 

Culture and Society
Back to Top  Please Stop Understanding
by Mark Halpern
Surrender is essentially an operation by means of which we set about explaining instead of acting. — Charles Péguy

As has been widely noted, there has been since the attacks of 9/11/2001 a marked increase in the number of American students electing to study Arabic, the Koran, and Islamic history and culture in general. And a stroll through any bookshop that stocks serious nonfiction — winter reading — will turn up ample evidence of the reading public's lust for learning on these subjects, or at least the lust for lecturing on these subjects by those who have special knowledge of them. I am alarmed by this turn of events, and find in it more evidence of the failure of our culture, the culture of the West, to deal with the situation we are in. My examples are drawn from our reaction to militant Islam, since that is what we face today, but my argument applies just as well to any such threat, wherever it might be coming from; if written twenty-five years ago, the references to Islam and the Koran would have been instead to Marxism and Das Kapital; if written twenty-five years from now, the references might be to Militant Scientology and The Secret Teachings of L. Ron Hubbard and Lyndon LaRouche.

The reason for this outburst of popular or semi-popular interest in the subjects mentioned is practically never made explicit, because to most writers and readers in the West it is too obvious to need mention. Only a bore would explain something so evident as why we need to understand the people who have done and are doing such strange things as flying aircraft into Manhattan skyscrapers, and why the first step in a quest for that understanding should be learning the language in which these people express themselves, and studying the literature — especially the fundamental texts of their religion — in which they have recorded their history and their visions of their own destiny. And if only a bore would trouble to expound it, surely no one would be so perverse as to deny it? But I deny it; I say that we show we are seriously lacking in understanding when we turn our predicament into a call for understanding, at least of the kind that is achieved by study and reading. Even worse, I say that we are at least sometimes using a call for study and reading as a cowardly pretext for what we are really doing, surrendering to our attackers. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by John Kilgore

There was this fabulous chicken, unlike any other. Her motion was so fluid, so swift, people said she was sheer poultry in motion.

Humblest of tropes, the paronomasia — "pun" to its siblings and golf buddies — typically earns not an appreciative chuckle but a groan of pain. It can inspire Bronx cheers or mock insults, like John Dennis's declaration that "The man who would make so vile a pun would not scruple to pick a pocket," an upside-down compliment that seems, nonetheless, founded in real annoyance. Clearly we think the punster has somehow cheated, though in a way merely foolish and petty, childish perhaps but not evil. What could lie at the root of this feeling? The answer, I think, has to do with the basic nature of listening: with the mental gymnastics we continually perform, without quite knowing it, in order to understand even the simplest phrase. Unjustly despised, the pun turns out to be surprisingly profound, not a silly game with language but part of its fundamental nature. More ... 

The Elder Statesman
Back to Top  Human Nature and Books
by Clark Elder Morrow

Let me show you how little human nature has changed over the centuries. This is one slight example, culled from thousands in our literature. In the ancient Akkadian version of the famous Gilgamesh saga, which dates from about 2000 BC, the hero Gilgamesh meets for the first time a wild man called Enkidu. Gilgamesh, claiming his droit de seigneur as king, is about to enjoy a young woman who awaits her wedding to an unnamed young man of wealth and position. The half-civilized Enkidu happens to find himself in the doorway of the maiden's chambers, and the two men, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, immediately — upon sight of each other — fall into combat:

Enkidu blocked the entry to the marital chamber,
and would not allow Gilgamreh to be brought in.
They grappled with each other at the entry to the marital chamber,
in the street they attacked each other, the public square of the land.
The doorposts trembled and the wall shook,

Gilgamesh bent his knees, with his other foot on the ground,
his anger abated and he turned his chest away.
After he turned his chest Enkidu said to Gilgamesh:
"Your mother bore you ever unique,
the Wild Cow of the Enclosure, Ninsun,
your head is elevated over (other) men,
Enlil has destined for you the kingship over the people."
...
They kissed each other and became friends.

The first impulse between males who are constituted to be the greatest of friends is to attack each other — to engage in a contest of strength — to determine immediately who is the stronger, the alpha male. In the Gilgamesh story, it's clear that Enkidu recognizes Gilgamesh as the superior man, and acknowledges him as such at once. The same thing happens in the Robin Hood saga, when Friar Tuck and Robin encounter one another on that famous log across a brook: they immediately come to blows with their pikes so that the pecking order can be determined without further delay. It's clear from every instance of this perennial trial by combat that no trace of humiliation or shame attaches to the loser; neither Enkidu nor Friar Tuck loses a cubit of his prior status in the eyes of the victor, or — just as important — in the estimation of the public at large. Both of these legendary figures loom large in the stories, and it occurs to no one to laugh at or belittle either because he has been forced to assume his rightful place by the side of his more lordly companion. More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back to Top  Horse Sense
by Bill Casselman

Equus caballus is our starting phrase today, the zoological name of the common horse. Both the genus name, Equus, and the species name, caballus, are Latin.

Equus is the classical Latin word for horse, from which descend English words like equine, equestrian, and equitation, "the art of riding on horseback."

Caballus is Vulgar or Street or Low Latin and meant "nag," spavined old wretch of a horse, the only kind of bedraggled horse poor people might afford in ancient Rome. Caballus is not a native Latin word but was an early borrowing into Latin from a Celtic language encountered during a first incursion by Roman legions into ancient Gaul, heard by soldiers, brought back to Rome as a useful word for nag, and then centuries later exported back to Gaul where it eventually became the French word for horse, cheval.

Equine Delvings


An equus was a healthy, well-kept mount bestrode by a free citizen or an aristocratic rider, a horse that a Roman knight might ride into battle in a war of conquest. There was indeed a class, an order, a stratum of Roman society, called equites, "knights." They belonged to an order between the senatorial and the ordinary citizen and were the class from which originally the cavalry was drawn. Incidentally, the English word cavalry stems from caballus, as we explain later. The equites' reward for supplying mounted warriors was exclusive right to certain financial and judicial offices in the government of Rome. However lofty the social heights they attained later under the Roman empire, equites began in the earliest days of the kingdom of Rome as citizen members of a Roman family who could afford, when summoned by their king, to send at least one horse and one rider into military service. More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back to Top  Swell, Buster!
by Carey Harrison

As someone who grew up in the America of the '40s and early '50s, and then departed to be educated in Britain, returning much later to find a much altered and swiftly changing America, I find myself making a nostalgic list of terms from my childhood that have faded from use, or are fading fast. You can say that again. You still hear this, but not from anyone under, say, 50? Likewise, You bet and Go figure are anchored on the far side of time. How many people under 50 still address others as, Hey, buster? Even Hey, kid, is starting to feel old. It's too polite for the range of available modern epithets. And if someone addresses you as Sir, you can be fairly confident he is or has been in the military, or is straight off the farm in some far-off, possibly Amish region.

On Wednesday of last week, I asked one of my students (I know the date because the student in question, heavily decorated with metal piercings, is in my Modern Irish Literature graduate class) how she was feeling. This 20-something Goth answered, Swell. I thought I'd heard wrong and asked her to repeat it. Yes, that was what she'd said. Of course she knew just how anachronistic it was — it made me feel for a moment as if I was in a Gene Kelly musical — and she reveled in the effect. Like me, she just loves the word. More ... 

Some of my books are enjoying a temporary Amazon vacation. At least, that's what I keep telling myself. In fact, I have boxed up selected books and shipped them to a warehouse in Fernley, Nevada, owned by Amazon.com. Large chunks of my library are now a part of the Fulfillment By Amazon program and are listed among the used books for sale in Amazon's vast database of titles. I determined the sales price for the books and then I shipped them to Fernley. When one of my books is purchased, Amazon will package it and send it to its new owner, and I will receive a deposit in my bank account (the sales price minus Amazon's cut).

Ordinarily, I hate to part with books, but financial hardship has made it necessary. They say the first cut is the deepest, but in this case that was not true. The first slice I cut out of my home library consisted of books with little sentimental value. Many of them were cookbooks my wife and I no longer use. Only about half the titles were from my literary shelves (novels, poetry, short-stories, belles lettres), and many of those were gifts that I had no intention of ever reading (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest and The Double Comfort Safari Club, for instance, both of which were given to me by a well-meaning friend who knows little about books but thinks bestsellers are always a safe gift for an avid reader). These books were easy to part with. More ... 

One way to make your readers go away is to sneer at them. Write pompously. It works every time; they will make a point of avoiding what you wrote. And one way to write pompously is to drain the energy of your sentences with "being" verbs, like this:

I am hopeful that that solution to your predicament will be an effective resolution to your problem.

What is this writer trying to say? The sentence was in trouble from the start.

Look at it. It starts with a being verb and a weak adjective: am hopeful. The writer could easily have replaced it with the action verb hope.

Then we have that that. Grammatically it's all right, but it's awkward. Then we read will be an effective resolution to your problem. What's that clause doing there?

The writer can write the sentence much more clearly this way:

I hope that solves your problem.

Technically, action verbs and their opposites, being verbs, don't exist. What writers informally call action verbs, grammarians divide into transitive verbs, which move the action from the subject to the object of the sentence, and intransitive verbs, which sound active but have no object: More ... 

It all started with the Norman occupation of England in the eleventh century, when William the Conqueror invaded England and defeated King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Consequently, the ruling class of England was replaced by a French-speaking one. The conquering Normans spoke a dialect of French, and so thousands of French words were absorbed into the native English. A hybrid language, Anglo-Norman, became the language of England and the basis of the English we now speak.

Today, between one third and two thirds of our English language can be traced to a French origin. English speakers who have never studied French already know thousands of French words. Although most of those words have been assimilated into our vocabulary, hundreds of French expressions have been preserved in their original forms and are regularly used to specifically describe situations requiring many more English words. Nevertheless, some writing guides discourage the use of foreign expressions for fear of misuse and misspelling. In addition, it gives the Archie Bunkers of the world an opportunity to butcher a second language with faux-French phrases, or French bonapropisms. 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 ... 

We all know far too well how to write everyday English, but few of us know how to write elegant English — English that is expressed with music as well as meaning, style as well as substance. The point of this feature is not to suggest that people should try to emulate these examples of elegant English but to show that the language can be written with grace and polish — qualities that much contemporary writing is bereft of and could benefit from. 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 ... 

Funeral Blues

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. 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 ... 

 Features

 Columnists


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Human Nature and Books

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Horse Sense

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — Swell, Buster!

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — In the Realms of the Insolvent: A Booklover Falls on Hard Times

Robert Knight: Knight on the Journalistic Style — How to Ensure No One Will Read Your Words: Why We Need Action Verbs and the Energy They Inject

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