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 In the April 2011 Vocabula

Coming in November 2011 Coming in November 2011
by Clark Elder Morrow

Advertisement Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English
An indispensable supplement to whatever dictionary you may own or use.
Preorder Today.

The once mighty Oxford English Dictionary continues its slide into stark irrelevancy, I see: the OED just released its addendum of words for the March 2011OED Online, and some of these entries are not even words. Old James Murray's labor of love deems it advisable to continue adding acronyms to its once-fabled wordhoard, and — not content with that (and feeling a little old-fogeyish about limiting its collection to mere words and initialisms) — pops in symbols as well. That's right: the once-august and once-respected tsar of all dictionaries has opted to include in its pages the heart symbol, ♥, as one definition under the entry for love. The OED mandarins of modernity boast that this may very well be the first time an entry has derived its origin from "t-shirts and bumper-stickers." They must be very proud. What do they care if they've just helped precipitate the Apocalypse of St John?

So it is now undeniable that there is no phrase, no adjectival compound, no tattoo symbol, no random smudge on a page or a pair of pants anywhere in the world, that the editors of the OED will not enshrine in its pages — electronic and otherwise. It does not matter how far the term in question may lie from mainstream usage — it doesn't matter how completely unheard-of the word or mark or scrawl may be — it matters not how asinine or silly or childish or contemptible the pictogram or smear may be — it matters only that some sort of consensus emerge among the geeky gurus of the OED as to its inclusion, and the mark or scratching or happy-face is hallowed forever in some (hopefully) hidden corner of the estimable tome. More ... 

by Helen Lang Leath

I sit in a creative writing critique group, waiting my turn. I am visiting for the first time, ready to read my audition for membership. If they decide that I am not capable of writing proper English, they will reject me. I do not know what to expect because the writers are not the professors of literature I am accustomed to dealing with.

I wait as each of the other people reads something new or revised. The members are polite to one another. Their suggestions are gentle. They always admire whatever they hear. I am eager for them to admire my story.

But when I finish reading, there is silence. I look at their faces. There are no smiles, no words. I wait. Perhaps this quiet is part of the usual procedure when evaluating someone new.

The self-proclaimed leader of the group asks me for what audience I intend the story. Because it has been published in a small literary journal, I don't know how to answer her. I hesitate to say I intended the story for a sophisticated, literate audience. Won't they be insulted?

She asks about a sentence or two, suggesting words I can move, words I can remove, words I don't really need. She wonders why I've included certain details, how they fit in the story. Do I really need them? She is tampering with my style.

She picks up a page from her own manuscript and holds it beside one of mine. "Do you see the difference?" she asks. I don't. "You don't have enough white space," she explains. The other members agree with her that my story needs much more white space. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest
The 2011 Contest Ends May 31.
Enter Today.

This past January, I traveled to Melbourne to watch Aussie Millions poker action and the Australian Open tennis championships. During my three visits to the Down Underworld, I have come to love the Australian people. They are a patriotic, sports-crazed, fair, and friendly society, except for their annoying habit on the trams of constantly standing up and offering me their seats.

Australia is a land of many paradoxes. It is an outpost of English culture and English speaking tacked on to the southern tail-end of Asia. Just beyond the horizon from the teeming millions of Southeast Asia, Australia is stunningly underpopulated. With a land mass almost the size of the continental United States Australia is inhabited by only about 22 million souls.

When we think of Australia, we picture a wide, sun-baked Outback tended by a breed of tall, lean cattlemen and sheep farmers who all look like Paul Hogan and Greg Norman. But Australia is the most urbanized society in the world, with more than 70 percent of its population packed into its eight major cities, seven of them along the huge coast. Almost half of all Australians live in Sydney and Melbourne. More ... 

by John Kilgore

What is it about the word athleticism? I can still remember hearing it for the first time, in the late eighties, on Monday Night Football, from Hall of Fame lineman and broadcaster Dan Deirdorf. Instantly, prompted by no special theory, I groaned. A moment later I snickered, with that mistaken confidence that washes over an English teacher two or three times a week, when he hears some ungainly usage he knows will never catch on.

But catch on is exactly what athleticism has done. For over two decades now, the commentariat has used it with increasing frequency and self-confidence. During February's broadcast of the NBA All Star game, it seemed to find its way into the conversation about twice a minute, often with a solemnity that conveyed the speaker's deep conviction that he had nailed his point. "The question is whether the East bench can counter the West's athleticism." All heads nod solemnly, and we fade to the Miller Lite spot.

Now in my time I have come to terms with plenty of other initially disliked usages: "lifestyle," disyllabic "cool," "parent" and "party" as verbs, viral "diversity," viral "awesome," viral "like," viral "viral," "web surfing," phrases on the plan of "so not ready," "Google" as both noun and verb, singular "they" in some cases, -gate as a suffix meaning "scandal," "issue" to mean doubt, problem, defect, or all three, "blog," "text me," "self-addressed stamped envelope" (think about it), and on and on. In fact a full census of expressions gradually accepted by my inner censor, or anyone's, is impossible, for the very good reason that such usages blend in till they feel no different from the rest of one's repertoire. In the monkey house of language we are all shameless mimics and hypocrites; we first denounce emergent usages, then suddenly adopt them as our own: shoddy behavior, but necessary if our jabber is to remain consistent, communal, shared. More ... 

Book Review
Back to Top  You Are What You Speak
by Mark Halpern

But are you what you write? If so, Robert Lane Greene has a problem. The first half of his book deals with what he considers the myths and misconceptions about language entertained by linguistic prescriptivists, whom he calls "sticklers." The other half is about the interaction between language and the processes of nation-building, of the formation of linguistic loyalties, and of dialects and creoles. It is the first half alone that I discuss here; the second contains some interesting information, and so far as I can tell is quite sound, but its subjects are not ones on which I'm qualified to comment critically.

My most general observation on the myths-and-misconceptions part is that it breaks little new ground — virtually every topic and argument in it is to be found in the many popular anti-prescriptivist books by such writers as Crystal, Nunberg, Aitchison, Hall, Lynch, McWhorter, Trudgill, Trask, and a host of others — but it is distinguished by a degree of confusion that exceeds the norm even for such books. Of Greene's errors, some are generic — all descriptivists make them, or they wouldn't be descriptivists — but some of his sins are original, or even if not quite original, at least exhibited in more vivid colors than those they're usually seen in. And some of his fresh errors are especially interesting to me, since they occur in the course of his attempts to refute statements of mine. More ... 

by Bill Casselman

Tabula rasa or blank slate — no, not a brain scan of Sarah Palin — is a neat Latin phrase worth knowing.

The literal Latin meaning of tabula rasa is "scraped tablet." It was the small wooden board coated on one side with wax upon which Roman school children incised their letters learning how to write. Pupils used a stylus to imprint the letters. A stylus was a pen-like piece of metal with a point on the end. Modest heat and new wax could return the tabula to pristine condition. It was not made of scratched-on slate, as some erroneous online "experts" proclaim. How would one quickly remove scratches from slate in a classroom? Stultus est ita magister digitalis, "such an online teacher is a fool."

Rasa is a passive past participle of the verb radere, "to erase, to scrape away, to shave off," used as a postpositive adjective agreeing in gender and number with the feminine noun tabula.

English is very familiar with an agent noun derived from the same verb, namely, razor, "thing that scrapes away a beard or cuts hair." The word came into England and into English with the Norman Conquest after 1066 CE. Its Anglo-Norman form was rasur; its Old French, Middle French, and modern French forms include rasoir — all from a Late Latin root word rasorium.

When the tabula was full of letters, its incised wax was scraped free of those letters, and the Roman pupil was then ready to refill it with his or her Latin alphabet lessons. Eventually, new wax had to be applied.

Tabula rasa's developed meaning is "blank slate" or "clean slate," referring to the human mind before receiving knowledge through experience, through reaction of the senses to the external world of objects. More ... 

by David Russinoff

The time-honored practice of illustrating the rules of grammar with the improprieties of respected authors dates back to Bishop Robert Lowth, whose seminal work, A Short Introduction to English Grammar1 (1762), cites countless errors in the works of the most revered figures of English literature, from Shakespeare to Pope. William Cobbett dissected the writings of Samuel Johnson, George III, and others in A Grammar of the English Language,2 (1818) and later boasted,3 "How many false pretenders to erudition have I exposed to shame merely by my knowledge of grammar! How many of the insolent and ignorant great and powerful have I pulled down and made little and despicable!" Across the Atlantic, Goold Brown, in The Grammar of English Grammars4 (1851), similarly drew attention to the errors of virtually every grammarian who preceded him, including Lowth himself.

There followed a long line of commentators who focused on published errors in grammar and usage for their intrinsic interest, rather than in support of a comprehensive treatment of the subject. Perhaps the first of these was Henry Alford, the Dean of Canterbury, who offered A Plea for the Queen's English5 (1864) in protest against the linguistic offenses of the popular press. Thomas Embly Osmun, an American drama critic who wrote under the pen name Alfred Ayres, published an alphabetized list of commonly observed errors entitled The Verbalist6 (1881), which might be considered the first dictionary of English usage — a precursor to Fowler's Modern English Usage7 (1926) and its many imitations of the last century. More ... 

Outside of Dick and Jane and the occasional "Kapow," "Pfft," and "What th'?" journalistic writing might be the most cartoonish of writing forms. It takes news (whatever that is) and chops it into bite-size bits. It does so with its eye on the clock and the limits of time and space that used to be conveniently divided between what we called print (space) and broadcast (time).

The writing might be toonish, but serious journalistic subjects are real, and treating them with cartoon language does the news consumer a disservice. The "new" news media have only muddied the definitions. But some distinctions remain distinct. Since the advent of the Internet, the dividing line has blurred some, but space and time still remain the two constant constraints of journalistic writing.

What does that mean for the reader, viewer, or listener? It means that because trivial, simple stories are easier to write, that is what is going to appear most often in any news medium. It also means that when we are forced to cover something complex, our writing is going to simplify it. Too often that doesn't mean the time-honored KISS principle, "Keep it simple, stupid," but "Keep it simplistic so you stay stupid." Journalists who have little respect for English as anything other than a tool see only two possibilities: either make it complex and boring or make it simple and entertaining. More ... 

My first realization that many adults remain in a state of perpetual adolescence came in the summer of 2007, when several of my acquaintances, all members of a home education support group, engaged in a bout of bickering, slander, and name-calling reminiscent of an elementary school playground. Their bitter denunciations, ignited by a telephone quarrel between two women on the organization's board, and fueled by a third woman to whom fighting comes as naturally as breathing, exploded into a firestorm of emails, public tears, gossip, and resignations, all of which eventually left the group a smoldering ruin.

While these men and women laid waste an organization founded, ironically enough, to enhance the religious education of their children, an impression formed within me regarding adulthood and the current status of the grownup. Like a new pair of glasses, the quarrels of these parents caused me to perceive certain phenomena that until then had lain hidden from my eyes, so that during the course of that long summer I became acutely aware of the massive number of adolescents masquerading as adults in our society. President Bush, the field of candidates running for president, strangers in the street, most of my personal friends, and perhaps even I myself: nearly everyone I knew or knew of appeared permanently mired in some strange swampland of youth. There were, it suddenly seemed to me, few real grownups left in the world. More ... 

Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "The poetry of words is quite as beautiful as the poetry of sentences." One might presume to paraphrase the jurist by adding that the symmetry of letters is as beautiful as the symmetry of words.

Language Module 41 looked for symmetry in language at the macroscopic level of sentences, phrases, and words. This LM focuses its search of symmetry at the microscopic level of individual letters. Limiting our examination to uppercase letters, the first question is how many letters of the alphabet are symmetrical about a line, or a point? If a line bisects the letter vertically and the left half mirrors the right half, then the letter has a vertical line of symmetry. There are eleven letters with this bilateral symmetry: A, H, I, M, O, T, U, V, W, X, Y. If a line bisects the letter horizontally with the upper half superimposable over the lower half, then the letter is horizontally symmetrical and belongs to this group: B, C, D, E, H, I, K, O, X. For these two sets of symmetries, a mirror can be used to instantly reveal both types of symmetrical letters. Holding a horizontal row of the twenty-six capital letters to a mirror, the eleven vertically symmetrical letters are unchanged and clearly stand out from the other fifteen unreadable letters. Turning the row of letters upside down, now it's the nine horizontally symmetrical letters that are unaffected, with the other seventeen being ineligible. A uniquely symmetrical word that switches its line of symmetry depending on whether it is written in the uppercase or lowercase is the word bid. BID has a horizontal line of symmetry, while bid has a vertical line of symmetry. 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 ... 

Spring and Fall: To a Young Child

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; More ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back to Top  Vocabula Poll

OMG and LOL and the heart symbol belong in dictionaries. 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 — at least in the sense you define it — before we list it here. More ... 



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