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January 2011, Vol. 13, No. 1 There are now   93   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

Coming in the February 2011 issue of The Vocabula Review:
"Why Do People Vote Against Their Own Interests? Or, What Do Our Schools Apparently Not Do?"
by Tim Lyons

The February issue is due online February 20.

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 In the January 2011 Vocabula

In 1909, a year after the publication of the popular second edition of The King's English, the classic reference work of H. W. and F. G. Fowler, the first author wrote to his publisher with a proposal for a sequel:

Another scheme that has attractions is that of an idiom dictionary — that is, one that would give only such words as are in sufficiently general use to have acquired numerous senses or constructions and consequently to be liable to misuse ....

A century later, Fowler's monumental Dictionary of Modern English Usage (MEU, 1926) remains the standard by which all works of its genre are judged.

MEU was not the first systematic treatment of errors in English usage. Half a century earlier, Dean Henry Alford's manual of usage and idiom, The Queen's English (1864), exposed (some would say exemplified) the decadence of popular usage in his time. Of particular concern to Alford was "the deterioration which our Queen's English has undergone at the hands of the Americans." But it was the American Alfred Ayres who produced the first alphabetized usage dictionary, The Verbalist (1882), bearing the subtitle "A Manual Devoted to Brief Discussions of the Right and Wrong Use of Words and to Some Other Matters of Interest to Those Who Would Speak and Write with Propriety." Another American, Ambrose Bierce, was the author of Write it Right: A Handbook of Literary Faults (1909), his purpose being "to teach precision in writing," which, he held, "is attained by choice of the word that accurately and adequately expresses what the author has in mind, and by exclusion of that which either denotes or connotes something else." In contrast to Fowler's reflection on the "numerous senses" of words, Bierce took a parochial view of proper usage: More ... 

by Richard Lederer

Fifty years ago, on January 20, 1961, thousands of visitors converged on Washington, D.C., for the inauguration of our thirty-fifth president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. A blizzard had struck the eastern seaboard that day. The streets of the capital were clogged with snow and stranded automobiles, but the inaugural ceremony went on, and a new president delivered one of the most memorable addresses in American history.

What makes President Kennedy's speech so unforgettable is its striking use of parallel structure — the repetition of grammatical forms to emphasize similar ideas. Let's look at four brief excerpts from that famous inaugural address that exemplify the president's powerful use of parallelism. More ... 

Culture and Society
Back to Top  Notes from Planet America
by John Kilgore

January 12, 2011

So this is what "Second Amendment remedies" look like. Six dead, among them a federal judge and a nine-year-old child. Fourteen wounded, among them Gabby Giffords, by all accounts one of the brightest, most idealistic, hardest working and most compassionate members of Congress, and surely the prettiest. The wife of an astronaut, kin to the movie star Gwynneth Paltrow, a "blue dog Democrat" who believes in cooperation and coalition building. She was the real target it seems, and no one is even asking why the gunman should add eighteen bystanders to his hit-list, with a wantonness that would have outraged the moral conscience of John Wilkes Booth. This is America, and when we do something, we do it big.

Four days ago, as it happens, I was doing sit-ups in front of CNN and got to hear Giffords give a cogent, tough, funny account of her hopes and plans for the upcoming session of Congress. Today we are all reduced to watching as the commentators report, with grotesque cheeriness, the grand good news that she has managed to make a thumbs-up gesture. In the evening the same weirdly upbeat mood characterizes a memorial service for the victims, which takes place in a gym, is attended by twenty-eight-thousand people, and boasts no less a keynote speaker than Barak Obama himself. When the president reveals that Giffords has just managed to open her eyes for the first time, wild cheering breaks out, and for a moment it feels as if the crowd might start doing the wave. Afterwards commentators widely note the incongruity, but do not seem greatly troubled by it. Good speech, is the consensus. Fine speech. Rose to the occasion, might set a new tone for the country. More ... 

by David Galef

This is not an age for royalty and its trappings. Manufacturers and advertisers, please take note. The last time I saw a product trading on such an image, it had a name like Regal Shoe Cream, and the idea that the title would elevate the product was ludicrous. Shoe-buffers to the king? The very brand that her majesty uses for her riding boots? I moved on and chose a more proletarian-sounding brand: Brown's Polish, maybe.

Matters have come to such a pass that any whisper of royalty seems to cast a slur on the product. For instance, who believes that Royal Pudding is anything but a cheap powdered mix trying to evoke an era of silver-plated dessert trolleys bearing Napoleons? Does the name Majestic Tours convey a journey fit for a king or mere wishful thinking by some old-fashioned ad copywriter? Swilling from a fifth of Crown Royal is inferior to sipping the single malts available nowadays with unpronounceable Scottish names. Imperial Margarine is anything but. Prince Spaghetti Sauce and even the borough Queens are notable for their broad, low-rent appeal, with only ironic connections to royalty. In short, royalty-linked names have come to signify what's cheap. More ... 

Life Tales
Back to Top  Long Live, My Lolita!
by Barbara Goldowsky

August 2008 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication in the United States of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita — that great, dark, wondrous work that gripped the prude and prurient alike. Having aroused the wrath of censors both in Europe and the United States, the banned novel was labeled "unpublishable" and "repulsive." At the same time, influential editors found it "very funny" despite its disturbing content.

Had she lived to celebrate her and her author's milestone, Nabokov's heroine and I might have shared some grandmotherly gossip over cups of tea. We might have chuckled about books that can be offered today without raising anyone's blood pressure. Lolita, whose fictional birthdate is not far from my actual one, has always lived in my mind as a real person. Her presence has been so constant, indeed, that I was hardly aware of the strange twist I had given her story over the years. Because I mourned the childhood stolen from her, I constructed a fantasy in which she found contentment in a humdrum dailiness that would set Humbert Humbert, her seducer and tormentor, to grinding his teeth down to their roots. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  To Wit
by Tina Bennett

"The Englishman is funny; he makes you laugh. The Irishman is witty; he makes you think." So goes an early line in the 2004 film Blind Flight, about an Englishman and an Irishman. No, they don't walk into a bar, but they do find themselves held hostage together for several years in Beirut in the 1980s. The line highlights the subtle but essential distinction between wit and general humor, and aligns wit, as it should, with a kind of cognition that humor may not require.

Wit is agonizingly elusive to define. One can inventory its characteristics but find that the sum of the parts do not satisfactorily add up to a whole. It is largely a verbal device, although one can perhaps imagine cleverly juxtaposed objects providing the same effect, nonverbally, as a wisecrack. Wit, and humor in general, depends on the unexpected, and in this way, is a close relative of irony. But it is this dependence on the unexpected that makes wittiness a socially dangerous tool. If the audience does not share one's expectations, the audience will certainly not appreciate the wit. More ... 

A Poem
Back to Top  Envy
by David Radavich

When I presume I've done my deeds so well,
I look upon your willowed words and tell
myself there's really no more point in hoping—
I might just as well be sitting here alone,
that's the hard truth, toasting shadows, moping
for glory in this world before I die. More ... 

The Elder Statesman
Back to Top  A Primer on Sapanese
by Clark Elder Morrow

Who would have thought that so many of us would be native Sapanese speakers? And yet that's how it turns out: most of the people blogging and chatting on the Internet reveal themselves as speakers of an instinctive Sapanese, even without knowing it. Now I myself am incapable of turning a phrase in this cringe-making language, though of course — like everyone else — I recognize the tongue as soon as I see it, and can read and comprehend the execrable patois upon sight. But when it comes to constructing a sentence in it, forget it — I am as helpless as a teat-engrossed baby.

The nature of Sapanese is quite simple — though, as I say, not simple enough for just any cumbersome galoot to pick it up willy-nilly. Yet even the most notoriously simpleminded and superficially educated people blabber and blather away in this lip-music as easily as if they had been reared in it from their suckling days. Sapanese appears to be easy on first sight; here is a representative sample, culled from that treasure-trove of Sapanese, Facebook.com:

Awwww, how cute! He looks just like a cute puppy. My own doggie-woggie looks just like that when he's pouty. I just want to kiss his schmoopey face! Love you!
More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back to Top  Winterbourne, a Winter Word
by Bill Casselman

Here is one more lexical snowball for your winter word fort. A winterbourne is a stream that flows only in winter. British writer about games, sports, and nature Richard Jefferies in Wild Life in a Southern County published in CE 1879 gives this clear explanation: "The villages on the downs are generally on a bourne, or winter water-course.... In summer it is a broad winding trench along whose bed you may stroll dry-shod.... In winter, the bourne often has the appearance of a broad brook."

The second root in the word winterbourne is Old English burn, "a stream," whose fellow Germanic reflexes include modern Dutch born, modern poetic German Born, and the Vikings' Old Norse brunnr. In all these languages, the root is an old and frequent part of surnames like Kaltenbrunner and Burnham and sometimes Burns "lives beside a well or small stream." The Viking root lies, hidden by time's insistent metamorphoses, in English surnames like Brumby, a dwelling name from a place in Lincolnshire, Brumby, from the Old Norse brunnr, "well," "stream"+ br "farmstead."

Found as localities throughout Wiltshire and Dorset with one or two popping up on the maps of Berkshire and Gloucestershire, Winterbourne or its variants are commonplace names. Founding ancestors of English families who lived in or near these communities took their surnames from such places. More ... 

The Common Reader
Back to Top  Life Lessons from Barsetshire
by Kevin Mims

For me, one of the literary highlights of 2010 was reading the six novels of Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire series. I have written before about my difficulty in getting through mere trilogies, not to mention tetralogies (four-book series) and pentalogies (five-book series). But Trollope's chronicles of Barsetshire — which is a sextology, no less — proved to be the exception to the rule. I believe I would have found the series impossible not to finish, so compelling were its characters and storylines. In addition to those obvious merits, the series is replete with numerous observations on religion, politics, money, love, marriage, and dozens of other subjects that are never less than thought-provoking and quite often mind-altering in the sense that they can entirely change the way one thinks about a subject. A compilation of just a few of the wise and witty maxims to be found within the pages of the Barsetshire chronicles follows. Not all these represent Trollope's own opinions. Some of them were put into the mouths of rather flawed characters, which may be Trollope's way of discounting them. Others — for instance, "Wise people, when they are in the wrong, always put themselves right by finding fault with the people against whom they have sinned." — are undoubtedly meant to be ironic. But as food for thought, Trollope's philosophical observations and social commentary rarely leave the reader undernourished. Here, then, is a sampling of the feast to be found in the Barsetshire books. More ... 

Knight on the Journalistic Style
Back to Top  Play the Music? Practice the Skill
by Robert Knight

Few who know and love the language would ever confuse the beauty of English with the smooth, sophisticated sound of French, the music of Spanish or Italian, or the seductive sibilance of the Slavic languages. At its base, English is a Germanic language, as are Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Flemish. English shares much of German's reliance on athletic diphthongs, harsh consonants, and guttural utterances. Don't, however, make the mistake of assuming that because English carries the occasional dissonance, it is without rhythm, music, or grace. To write or edit English well, the writer must listen to its "tumble of words," as Robert MacNeil calls it. In Wordstruck, he puts it this way:

We forget perhaps that human language is primarily speech. It has always been and it remains so. The very word language means tongue. The ability to read and write is, at the most, five thousand years old, while speech goes back hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million years, to the remotest origins of our species. So the aural pathways to the mind — to say nothing of the heart — must be wondrously extensive. Like the streets of a big city, you have many ways to get there. By contrast, the neural pathways developed by reading are arguably less well established, like scarce roads in uninhabitable country.

Despite MacNeil's emphasis on the aural, we writers seem to be most influenced by what we read because, well, we're writers. Yet, emulating great writers might not be a great way to learn to write with style. More ... 

A vocabulary review today would reveal an increasing use of technical verbiage — especially chemical terminology — and especially as it relates to food. Every box, bottle, or bag that contains a food product comes labeled with terminology that means one thing to a chemist and something entirely different to a consumer who may confuse hydrocarbons with carbohydrates. For example, on the Nutrition Facts label on food packaging, the adjective saturated might be an everyday word meaning thoroughly soaked, waterlogged, or packed full, but in the context of the type of fat in the food, it requires a specific chemical interpretation. Throw in derivative words such as unsaturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans fat and you need a BS degree in chemistry to understand their structural nuances. Since trans fat is by far the worst fat of the bunch, this LM will try to distill the chemicalese out of the flask of fat food facts and translate it into plain English. 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 Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage

The hot night makes us keep our bedroom windows open.
Our magnolia blossoms. Life begins to happen.
My hopped up husband drops his home disputes,
and hits the streets to cruise for prostitutes,
free-lancing out along the razor's edge.
This screwball might kill his wife, then take the pledge. 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

The Assassination of Henry Fowler by the Coward Robert Burchfield — David Russinoff

A Stylish Inauguration Speech — Richard Lederer

Culture and Society: Notes from Planet America — John Kilgore

A Royal Pain — David Galef

Life Tales: Long Live, My Lolita! — Barbara Goldowsky

Vocabula Revisited: To Wit — Tina Bennett

 Poetry


A Poem: Envy — David Radavich

 Columnists


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — A Primer on Sapanese

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — Winterbourne, a Winter Word

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — Life Lessons from Barsetshire

Robert Knight: Knight on the Journalistic Style — Play the Music, Practice the Skill

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