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February 2011, Vol. 13, No. 2 There are now   124   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

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Views of Vocabula   Calendar Vocabula Press Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher

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 In the February 2011 Vocabula

We know that numerous polls, particularly those related either to national elections or to what some call nationwide policy-debates, have shown that in both arenas, millions of people not only vote against their own interests but seem unaware that they've done so. Again and again we see that many who vote against a policy would stand to gain the most from the enactment of that policy, and though we hear purported pundits attempt to explain this phenomenon, their explanations seldom explain much. If we look at the phenomenon more insistently, our observations may suggest uncomfortable truths about the general level of verbal acuity found among voters — and thus, it seems, some uncomfortable truths about the holding tanks where young people with great potential purportedly get schooled.

A BBC story1 tells us that people vote against their own interests "not because they do not understand what is in their interest or have not yet had it properly explained to them," but because "they resent having their interests decided for them by politicians who think they know best." True enough, one supposes, at least in some cases. However, though we can probably admit that some people have some (to put the matter mildly) resentment (to put it mildly again) about what goes on in the shadowy back (and front) rooms of government, these facts don't explain why so many people find it reasonable to prioritize their resentments over their interests. Nor does the explanation explain why, if people understand their own interests, they need to have those interests "properly explained to them" in the first place. More ... 

by Richard Lederer

Something has happened to our American language — and I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore. You'll probably recognize the second part of that statement as a rip-off from the film The Wizard of Oz. Being transported out of Kansas is one of a passel of expressions from movies that have launched a thousand lips.

The very first Awards ceremony took place during a banquet held in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The attendance was 250 and tickets cost $10. When the first Academy Awards were handed out on May 16, 1929, movies had just begun to talk.

I would love to have been a time traveler rushing into the Blossom Room to announce the luminous future of the Academy Awards ceremony: "Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain't heard nothing yet!" That's what Al Jolson said in The Jazz Singer (1927) — the mother of all talking films. Ever since, lines from the movies have shaped our hopes and dreams and aspirations and have teemed our tongues. More ... 

Culture and Society
Back to Top  Killing Tom Dooley
by John Kilgore

It was 1958, I was six, and the song on the radio was "Tom Dooley," by the Kingston Trio. When it came on in the supermarket, in the car, in the kitchen at home, grownups would pause and get a strange, dreamy look, humming along, mouthing the words. Sometimes they would meet your gaze and give a solemn little nod, as if it were God Bless America or Onward Christian Soldiers that they were hearing.

This was a lot for a six-year-old to make sense of, since the song was — is — a shuddery blend of love and death, outwardly as devoid of uplifting content as song could be. Based on the well-publicized 1866 murder of a woman named Laura Foster, in North Carolina, by one Tom Dula, the folk song in earlier versions is mainly a bit of Gothic fun, heartless and untroubled as a tabloid. It jeers at Tom and gloats over his well-deserved punishment. But the Kingston Trio's down-tempo version, with its Calypso beat and barbershop harmonies, aims at pathos. It begins with one of those portentous voice-overs that were so much the fashion in Fifties pop:

Throughout history, there have been many songs written about the eternal triangle. This next one tells the story of a Mr. Grayson, a beautiful woman, and a condemned man named Tom Dooley. When the sun rises tomorrow, Tom Dooley must hang.

Then the first of several choruses, mournful, simple: More ... 

by Janet Byron Anderson

To: All
From: Infinitive
Re: Splitting me

I can relieve your confusion by telling you a few things about myself. Long ago I was simple — I had only a body and a tail, which usually wagged as -an: singan, findan, wendan, and so on. Those were happy days.

Then for reasons I'd rather not know, the English Creatures decided to chop off my tail. They threw it away. All that remained was the body: sing, find, wend, and so on. So you see, I was split long ago. I no longer recognized myself. You would not believe my misery.

But the Creatures repented: "What have we done?" they cried. "We still have the infinitive idea but we no longer have anything to express it with!" One of them suggested, "Let's ask To if he would come in and prop up what's left of Infinitive. Between the two of them we'll be able to express the infinitive idea. We can't go on like this." So they brought in To.

I didn't like To and still don't, because he's promiscuous. The Creatures believe he's friends only with Prepositions but I've seen him cavorting with Adverbs when he thinks nobody's looking. For his part, he considered me grim. "If I can live happily without a tail," he boasted, "why can't you?" Our dislike being mutual, we agreed that a space, a split, would always stand between us. This is a good split as far as I'm concerned. It made up for the bad split of long ago. More ... 

by Larry Lefkowitz

The moment I had feared has arrived. As evidenced by the following, which I came across:

. . . our renewed interest in Dante is defined by an absolutism, a post-post-modernist sense . . .

For some time now I have felt it in my bones — that the post-post-modernist age was upon us. Yes, we have crossed the boundary separating post-modernism and have arrived (at last!) to post-post-modernism. The parameters have been breached, the Kierkegaardian leap made. We have been told in no uncertain semiotic terms: You are here. "Here" being at the gateway or, if you prefer, the interface into post-post-modernism. I, for one, feel a bit like those space travelers who have hyperspaced a time-warp and arrived at a new position in the universe. Terra incognita, yet full of promise. Post-post-modernism. The possibilities are limitless. Perhaps deconstruction will become de-deconstruction. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Crying Over Split Milk
by Joseph Epstein

I was reading along in an article in the New York Times Magazine about a woman who reacted to being fired from a rather cushy job by working out her depression through over-eating, when I came upon the following sentence: "I put the plate of peanut better, a half bottle of wine, a glass and a linen napkin on a tray and climbed back to my bedroom." Ah, thought I, "peanut better, what can be butter?"

Why do people take such pleasure in discovering typographical errors — typos, in the trade term — especially in putatively august publications? I confess I do. Is there a touch of Schadenfreude in it? Not so much "see how the mighty have fallen" as "see how sloppy, sadly incompetent, bereft of standards they have become." Catching a typo heightens the reading experience, making a reader feel he is perhaps just a touch superior to the author, his or her editors, and, it does not go too far to say, the culture of our day.

My own pleasure in discovering typos is, alas, less than complete because of the typos readers have found — and too often reported to me — in my own published scribblings. I am less than a demon proofreader, especially of my own writing. I have published books with smaller publishing companies in which I found it necessary to hire a professional proofreader to go over my galley or page proofs. This, though, didn't ensure the books in question were typo-free. Few things are more demoralizing than a letter from a reader, even a friendly reader, who, after praising you, notes: "By the way, on page 273, where I think you meant the word content the word context appears. I mention this, not in a spirit of gotcha, but so that you can correct it for the second edition of your fine book." More ... 

The Elder Statesman
Back to Top  Academese
by Clark Elder Morrow

Academics write in their own style, almost in their own language. Here's a sample of it, which I'll analyze in a moment. Good luck wading through it.

Secondary sexual characteristics convey information about reproductive potential. In the same way that facial symmetry and masculinity, and shoulder-to-hip ratio convey information about reproductive/genetic quality in males, waist-to-hip-ratio (WHR) is a phenotypic cue to fertility, fecundity, neurodevelopmental resources in offspring, and overall health, and is indicative of "good genes" in women. Here, using fMRI, we found that males show activation in brain reward centers in response to naked female bodies when surgically altered to express an optimal (~0.7) WHR with redistributed body fat, but relatively unaffected body mass index (BMI). Relative to presurgical bodies, brain activation to postsurgical bodies was observed in bilateral orbital frontal cortex. While changes in BMI only revealed activation in visual brain substrates, changes in WHR revealed activation in the anterior cingulate cortex, an area associated with reward processing and decision-making. When regressing ratings of attractiveness on brain activation, we observed activation in forebrain substrates, notably the nucleus accumbens, a forebrain nucleus highly involved in reward processes. These findings suggest that an hourglass figure (i.e., an optimal WHR) activates brain centers that drive appetitive sociality/attention toward females that represent the highest-quality reproductive partners.

The authors are from Georgia Gwinnett College and the University of Texas at Austin. More ... 

by Bill Casselman

A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which a sentence or phrase has a surprise ending. It is often funny and so is used by comedians.

Throughout 2010 and now into 2011, paraprosdokian has become an Internet buzzword. I have received dozens of emails containing lists of snappy lines that e-senders claim as exemplary paraprosdokians.

First I will give you some samples of this figure. I have no doubt it exists. What I object to is the attempt by lackadaisical, slipshod scholarship to claim that the word paraprosdokian is a term in classical rhetoric or to insist that it is a valid rhetorical label sanctioned by centuries of scholarly use. It is no such thing, as I will prove.

Paraprosdokians are sentences, often joke lines, that have a surprise ending, often paradoxical or bathed in comic understatement:

Groucho Marx, to an audience after a speech he gave that was not well received, "I've had a wonderful evening — but this wasn't it."

"War does not determine who is right — only who is left."

"The TV evening news is where they begin with ‘Good evening,' and then proceed to tell you why it isn't."

"Dolphins are so smart that, within a few weeks of captivity, they can train people to stand on the very edge of the pool and throw them fish."

"If I am reading this graph correctly — I'd be very surprised." — Stephen Colbert

"If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn't be a bit surprised." — Dorothy Parker

"A modest man, who has much to be modest about." — Winston Churchill

"There, but for the grace of God, goes God." — Winston Churchill about a pompous fellow politician

"Where there's a will, I want to be in it."

"I sleep 8 hours a day. And at least 10 at night." — Bill Hicks

More ... 

Harrison's Corner
Back to Top  The Virus of Ignorance
by Carey Harrison

Back in the swing of the spring semester, and the usual suspects are appearing in my classroom. I don't mean my undergraduates, many of whom are indeed repeat offenders and have taken classes with me before. I mean the virus so many of them carry, the virus of ignorance. Until I came to these shores, I thought of ignorance as an absence. Many of my current students carry it like a shield, to ward off information. In them ignorance is more of a weapon than a lack. It's not that they're actually proud of being ignorant. They simply don't see why they should be ashamed of it, let alone why they should care to try to amend it.

Take the dear lady who enrolled for my British Writing Since 1950 class. This is a three-hour evening class, for reasons that elude me, since three-hour classes are a format that made sense only when everybody smoked, and took a twenty-minute outdoor cigarette break halfway through the class, regardless of the weather (ah, that passionate addiction!). Now that almost nobody smokes, at any rate in my students' generation — it's only staff and faculty who lurk outside the doors, puffing defiantly — the whole fun of the interruption is gone. I informed the class that we would be watching British films made from British novels and plays written since 1950. I repeated this several times: there exists no class I know of, whose every member can assimilate something said once (even "Fire!" would find someone willing to ask me to repeat myself). At the end of the class, the above-mentioned lady, a little older than the rest, 30 years old or so, approached me to ask if we would be including Rob Roy in the syllabus. I'm not even sure if I know of a movie — there must have been one — of Rob Roy, but I reminded the student that we were going to watch British films based on British books or plays written since 1950. Since she looked blank, I reminded her of Sir Walter Scott and the period in which he flourished. To tell the truth, she looked more than blank, since where history is concerned, my students are not only unaware of it but innocent of any of the uses to which it might be put. A colleague of mine maintains that previous generations have what he calls "hooks" in their minds, whereby the name of a book or author summons a little slideshow of images thereunto appertaining, much as you might Google some book title or author's name, click on Images, and be regaled with these. Such hooks, my colleague says, have vanished. (I picture a changing room full of discarded overcoats lying on the floor.) When you say Milton, they see nothing. Admittedly, the same could be said of Milton, but he had a decent excuse. The explanation apparently lies in Google. That's to say: Google is, in some people's minds, the explanation. Now that we have an exo-brain in the form of the Internet, which can be consulted virtually anywhere (anywhere at all if you have a smart phone), why carry around the old hooks, the old contingent information? If your phone's so smart, why do you have to be? More ... 

Knight on the Journalistic Style
Back to Top  Misusing English for Propaganda and Profit
by Robert Knight

First, a disclaimer. Now that I'm no longer a working journalist, I'm no longer an unbiased observer. So I have chosen to become a frothy-mouthed liberal, the kind that earns the scorn of today's Tea Partiers yet earned the mockery of yesteryear's Yippies.

I'm older now; that doesn't mean I'm necessarily wiser. But between my undergrad years and now I picked up some appreciation for the misuse of English in politics — not exactly a new topic, I know. And it is not difficult to conclude that the Tea Partiers and their ilk have proved much better at writing bumper-stickers than my fellow progressives (the PC term for liberals).

Why? The short answer is we liberals have decided to let lawyers and economists do our writing for us.

Case in point: A few months ago, the news media were full of references to the statement that the recession is over. We knew that was absurd. Unemployment was high — it still is — and financial markets were low. The recession itself certainly had not ended; it hasn't yet. What it did was bottom out (we hope).

But that isn't what the media reported. We simply parroted what some obscure Washington economic council said. More ... 

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in partnership with the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), has declared 2011 as the International Year of Chemistry (IYC) — a year to celebrate the achievements and contributions of chemistry. Their broad objective is to increase public appreciation and understanding of chemistry in meeting world needs. Everyone is invited by the IYC network to participate by engaging in a project, sharing an idea, or providing information that would enhance interest in and appreciation of the enormous contributions that chemistry has made to society. In response to the invitation, this Language Module is a plug for chemistry, and a footnote about the language of chemistry.

The impact of chemistry cannot be overstated. Every living organism and inorganic object (inorganism?) is made up of atoms and molecules, and chemistry is the science of their interactions. It is considered a "central" science because it joins physics and mathematics, biology and medicine, as well as earth and environmental sciences. Modern chemistry encompasses the five traditional areas of chemistry: organic, inorganic, bio, analytical, and physical chemistry. More specialized "chemistries" have emerged such as polymer chemistry, quantum chemistry, neurochemistry, forensic chemistry, and many others. Chemical innovations over the past 100 years have provided life-saving and life-improving breakthroughs in the fields of food, medicine, energy, transportation, environment, communications, and manufacturing. To chemophobes, and their half empty beakers, chemistry is what gave us pollution and poisons. To chemophiles, with their beakers half-full, chemistry is what gave us penicillin and plastics — and protection against pollution and poisons. 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 ... 

To Brooklyn Bridge

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull's wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty—

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
—Till elevators drop us from our day ... 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 — Academese

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — The Bogus Word Paraprosdokian and Lazy Con Artists of Academe

Carey Harrison: Harrison's Corner — The Virus of Ignorance

Robert Knight: Knight on the Journalistic Style — Misusing English for Propaganda and Profit

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