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|September 2010, Vol. 12, No. 9||There are now 8290 people reading TVR.||ISSN 1542-7080|
Coming in the October 2010 issue of The Vocabula Review:
"That and Which: Muddle or Complexity?"
by Alex Segal
The October issue is due online October 17.
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by David Russinoff
In April, 2009, hoping to improve on an average annual sales rate of 200,000 copies over a span of fifty years, Longman Publishers released a black faux leather-bound, gold-embossed anniversary edition of The Elements of Style. This handsome volume comes adorned with politically correct "gender-fair" language unknown to either of its credited authors and includes several pages of gushing approbation from various public figures past and present, from Dorothy Parker to Ben Affleck, all for $19.95.
Such a spectacle of prescriptivism is bound to draw fire from the academic left. Catherine Prendergast, a self-described "composition scholar," escalates the language war to an unprecedented level of vehemence in her fanciful essay, "The Fighting Style: Reading the Unabomber's Strunk and White," in which she posits that the copy of the manual that "tells us most about [its] legacy" is the one found in Ted Kaczynski's Montana cabin.
Taking off on Andy White's fond memory of his Cornell English professor "Sergeant Strunk snapping orders to his Platoon" Prendergast solemnly warns us of the mortal danger that attends "Sergeant Strunk's warlike, exhortative style, his up-tempo apocalyptic railings against the paucities of modern life": More ...
by Richard Lederer
The Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet
by Amalia E. Gnanadesikan
Order the book here.
This year marks a century since the death, on April 21, 1910, of the most American of American writers, Mark Twain. On the night before that passing, Halley's Comet shone in the skies as it made its closest approach to the earth. Just a year before, Mark Twain had said to a friend: "I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. ... The almighty has said, no doubt, 'Now here go these two unaccountable frauds; they came in together, they must go out together.' Oh! I am looking forward to that."
In My Mark Twain, published the year after his dear friend's death, William Dean Howells wrote, "Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes I knew them all sages, poets, seers, critics, humorists; they were like one other and like other literary men; but Clemens was sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature." More ...
by Paul Zolbrod
Silence, Language, & Society: A guide to style and meaning, grace and compassion
by Robert Hartwell Fiske
Order the book here.
Back in the sixties, when all sections of an Introduction to Literature course followed a common syllabus and enrolled virtually the entire freshman class, I experienced the pleasure of teaching John Keats's To Autumn at Allegheny College. It seldom registered as anyone's favorite poem at first even at a time when students were better acquainted with formal poetry than they now are. But that may help explain what a joy it was to teach, since once they heard it read aloud, they would start responding to it.
"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness," it begins the slight alliteration coupled with the subtle lowering of the vowel sounds in the opening phrase drawing swift attention to the poem's pure lyricism. Perhaps that attentiveness to sound was helped by ballads students heard on top-40's radio before listening became fragmented first by cable-TV then by the Internet. In any case, they were able to hear something that helped draw them into what the lyrics said. More ...
by Maurice Posada
A mighty impact is my peeve! to use a much abused word to raise my voice (yes, one more voice) against the damage done to our English language by a virus spread throughout the land in recent years: a mutant of the word impact. Other voices have risen against it; this one gives a speculative explanation of why and how the virus wormed its way into the language and offers hope for a way back to its better health.
Here's a symptom of its health: a writing teacher, in a recent article telling aspiring writers how to write, wrote, "Her story impacted me to such an extent that thoughts of the cat consumed my mind for hours each day." That sudden sight and sound of the word impacted immediately made me think of an impacted tooth hardly the effect the writer intended. But impact is so widely misused that seeing it used in the tender context of a cat made me narrow my eyes, arch my back, and hiss. More ...
by Robert Hartwell Fiske
 Yes, a great many people, whatever their education, do not shrink from expressing their views on good usage or bad grammar. The English language is not the purview solely of the lexicographers and linguists, the, let us call them, "lexlings"; it concerns all of us who speak and write it. We all, no matter what our station in life, need to be heedful of how we express ourselves. Although the NOAD lexlings do not, here, admit this, lexlings often disparage people who offer their views on the English language. If you do not have an advanced degree in linguistics, these lexlings maintain, you do not have the credentials to offer your views on the language. That lexlings believe, and sometimes admit they believe, people unschooled in linguistics contribute nothing to the debate about usage and grammar is as inane as it is insulting. More ...
Adela Could Not Find Her Way out of the Woods
Adela entered the woods at precisely 9 a.m. one irreconcilable Tuesday. She wore a long coonskin coat, unfastened, a black and blue striped muffler, a top hat, black half-gloves with the ends cut off. No top, blue jeans slashed at the knees, and the most expensive Gucci thin strapped sandals she'd been able to find. Airy confections, made for posing on red carpets in gold lamé gowns, not for blazing muddy forest trails. Soon they would be ruined. Adela hoped to use the strappy sandals to ruin her father. He would say that on opening her latest credit card bill "Adela, are you trying to RUIN me?" She had five credit cards, actually, arriving staggered through the month, so he accused her of trying to ruin him often. It was a stupid thing for him to say and he knew Adela knew it. If she spent a thousand dollars, ten thousand, a hundred thousand a day every day for the rest of her life, Adela couldn't ruin her father, who had made all his money legally stealing the idea for a handheld communications device from the retiring nerd who discovered it. Know how hard it is to spend one hundred thousand dollars a day, every day? Adela knew. It was hard. It was. More ...
Vocabula RevisitedDuty, Honor, Country
by Verónica Albin
Remember the book Coffee, Tea, or Me that was later turned into a movie? It is some forty years old, so I had to go to Amazon to refresh my memory for you. The novel, purportedly the "uninhibited memoirs of two airline stewardesses," was published by Bartholomew House in New York under the names Trudy Baker and Rachel Jones. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times when people still put fancy clothes on to fly, and flight attendants, at least those on Braniff, took fancy clothes off, piece by piece, in that infamous play-on words ritual known as the "air strip." Back then the attendants were all female, young, and purty as a pitcher, and Braniff was not alone in selling meat. PSA conjured an image of its stewardesses of purity, sobriety, and availability; Southwest Airlines flew with "Love Birds"; and National Airlines, infamously, carried the slogan that enraged feminists: "I'm Cheryl, fly me." In any event, the novel was evidently popular because, in English, it spawned three sequels: The Coffee, Tea or Me Girls Lay It on the Line, The CToM Girls Get Away from It All, and The CToM Girls ‘Round the World Diary. Since one ought not to mention deep works of literature such as these in a journal of the caliber of The Vocabula Review without having done thorough research, I discovered a book called Coffee, Tea or Me, Mei Shih ai ching published in Taiwan a few years later, but Trudy and Rachel aren't the authors. I did find, however, an observation about Trudy Baker by one George Thompson that said: "RLIN (Research Libraries Information Network) also shows Trudy Baker to be the author of a number of elementary school math texts, published in Canada, so perhaps she has reformed, not that I necessarily think that one needs to reform from being an uninhibited airline stewardess, nor that writing mathematics texts would be a symptom of reformation." Indeed, Mr. Thompson. Indeed. Reformed or not, this important book just recently got republished by Penguin, which tells us a lot about the fine taste of the American reader. More ...
A PoemThe Ravens
by Barbara Rockman
Having clipped their nails
by Emily McKeage
We always sat together
The Elder StatesmanThe Oracle of Eros
by Clark Elder Morrow
I consider myself something of a theoretician of romance, but I must admit that I was incomplete in my studies until I discovered the poetry of Coventry Patmore (18231896). In his day (or shortly thereafter), Patmore was recognized as an expert on matters of sexuality. Not sexual mechanics, as the term seems to imply nowadays, but spiritual sexuality the realm where metaphysical differences between men and women are examined with the awe and love of a reverent collector. In this realm, we are all amateurs, of course, but (rather wonderfully) there is no better word to describe a lover of the differences between the sexes than a word that means "lover," as "amateur" does.
If you begin to investigate Patmore today, you will run up against a great deal of irrelevant information about how he was "the poet of Victorian domesticity," and how he formalized "the Victorian notion of the ideal woman as a domestic goddess." The fact that these assertions are true is far less interesting than the fact that he saw more deeply into the nature of our relations with the opposite sex than anyone else at least anyone whose name is not Joyce or Durrell. I know what you're going to say; you're going to say that Dorothy Parker is insightful in this field and yes, she is often obsessive with the theme. But at the same time she's a bit limited: her string is always tuned to the key of men's infidelity (or their short attention spans), or of woman's endless surrender to romantic hope when experience counsels abstention. Her view is bittersweetly keen, but not deep. Dante, who is the grand patriarch in the world of idealized love, is writing about divine grace more than erotic attraction. More ...
Postcards from BabelThe Stuff of Thought
by Amalia Gnanadesikan
In the absence of true literary genius, try putting dragons into your next story. Or telepathy. Better yet, try dragons with telepathy. Secrets from a lost civilization will hook your audience too, as will most forms of magic. Magical dragons with telepathy that come from a lost civilization will certainly work … like magic.
In fact, they'll work much like Cheese Balls: those garish orange spheres that appear to be cardboard or Styrofoam covered with a mixture of salt, cheese, and artificial flavor that hits you somewhere in the brainstem and makes it virtually impossible to stop eating them even when you know they're not really food and don't actually taste very good. Some instinctive response to certain ingredients, like salt (or dragons), is clearly at work here.
I am by no means denigrating the genres of fantasy and science fiction they include numerous works of genius (try Terry Pratchett's Discworld series if you don't believe me). I have, however, watched myself consume quite a few very badly written books, held in their grip by some primal response to ancient secrets, mysterious beasts, supernatural powers, or a connection between minds that is closer than words.
I don't pretend to understand why, at least for the dragons, magic, and ancient civilizations. Telepathy, on the other hand, is a little closer to my line of work. More ...
Bethumped with WordsCircus: The Origin of the Word
by Bill Casselman
Our English noun circus descends from the name of one building in ancient Rome, namely, the Circus Maximus, Latin, literally "the largest exhibition space for public spectacles." Chariot races, gladiatorial combats, athletic competitions, wild-animal spectacles, Christiani ad leones (Christian martyrs fed to starved lions) all took place within the stone oval surrounded by stone tiers of seating.
The first use of circus recorded in English is in a work by Chaucer written around 1380 and probably refers to the Circus Maximus in Rome. At the left is a modern ikon depicting the martyrdom of Saint Ignatius, said to be the first Christian fed to the lions in Rome.
The Circus Maximus at its largest expansion under the emperor Trajan held more spectators than any other building ever built then or since, approximately 250,000 Romans crammed in. The Roman satirist Juvenal sourly but correctly saw that the blood-soaked sands of the Circus Maximus and the Coliseum were free entertainment conceived to distract a poor and starving Roman underclass. Juvenal dismissed the gladiatorial gore as mere panem et circenses. Although the phrase's literal translation is "bread and gladiator shows," today we might translate it freely as something like "free bread and wrestling matches," something to keep the starving masses happy for a few hours. Is reality-show television much different? A distraction for the unemployed dummies so they will sit still while the wealthy and the powerful pickpocket what's left in their patched jeans? More ...
Harrison's CornerThe Mole in the Earthquake
by Carey Harrison
Dear patient reader! You are accustomed, if you have stayed with me for some or all of these past five and more years of monthly dispatches from the cultural front, to my metaphors. We are bogged down in the trench warfare of battle of the linguistic Somme; we are trapped in the mud of college students' illiteracy and sheer lack of interest in learning; I am when reduced to my rebel loneliness, Harrison against the tide a mole blindly pursuing my tiny channels while the entire landscape is churning around me: a mole in an earthquake. This summer your mole was once more worming his way through the battlefield, trying to find the decisions that make best sense in a topography on the move. During my summer school Shakespeare class, I encountered a student no longer young but nobly determined to be a high school teacher. Her vocabulary is restricted by any standards; her grammar faulty; this, her final class before graduation, was her first encounter with Shakespeare, of whom she could make neither linguistic head nor narrative tail. What to tell her? How to grade her? After my class she would be a full-fledged, qualified teacher, destined for high school English deployment, and programmed to spread the virus of ignorance that afflicts the high school graduates I teach. More ...
The Common ReaderA Secret About Love
by Kevin Mims
More than thirty years ago, I worked as a busboy at a Sacramento restaurant called McLeod's. As I flitted from table to table refilling water glasses and removing salad plates, I was constantly catching snippets of conversation. This was frustrating because I happen to prefer full sentences to mere fragments. One day, at lunchtime, while cleaning a recently vacated table, I overheard a bit of conversation between a fiftysomething father and his twenty-five-ish daughter at an adjacent table. After some comments by the daughter that were inaudible to me, the father paused, leaned forward slowly as if to emphasize what he was about to say, and then told his daughter, "You can spare yourself a lot of heartache in this world if you'll just remember the phrase BLADES RADIANT AND BOLD AS THE DAWN."
The girl recoiled slightly, as if blown back by an invisible gust of wind. "What the heck does that mean?" she said.
"It's an acronym," the father told her. "It stands for Both Love And Deep, Enriching Sleep Require a Dreamer In A Near Trance And No Disruptions. But Only Lovers Dare Awaken So Take Heed ...." More ...
If you’ve ever taken a chemistry course, or been in a science lab, you had to have noticed a periodic table of the chemical elements hanging on a wall. To a scientist, the chart is a cornucopia of scientific information about the build-up of atoms and the periodicity of elemental properties. From hydrogen to ununoctium atomic numbers 1 to 118 the PT lists all the atoms that, individually or in combinations, make up everything we sense around us. 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 ...
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Let us go then, you and I,
Free in VocabulaGotcha 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 ...
Over the last eleven years and more than 136 issues of The Vocabula Review we have devoted ourselves to producing and publishing this journal, certainly the principal web destination for anyone interested in words and language. But it has come at a high cost. The income from our subscription fees is not nearly enough to cover the costs of maintaining and improving The Vocabula Review website. It's not enough to pay our writers; it's not enough to pay our editor.
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