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July 2011, Vol. 13, No. 7 There are now   4700   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

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Disagreeable English

A Bimonthly Bulletin of Disagreeable English

Six times a year, we will email you this addendum to Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English (which will be available in November 2011). More ... 

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Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher

Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English
A Compendium of Mistakes in Grammar, Usage, and Spelling with Commentary on Lexicographers and Linguists

Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English

Today's popular dictionaries often fail to define words correctly or to distinguish between them; some dictionaries even maintain that one word means the same as another simply because people who do not know the correct meanings of the words confuse them. Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English — a supplement to whatever dictionary you own or use — is an attempt to combat this nonsense, to return meaning and distinction to the words we use.

You can order Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English from Vocabula or Simon & Schuster or Amazon or elsewhere.

The Best Words

The Best Words

The point of learning new words is not to impress your friends or to seem more intelligent than they. The point is to see more, to understand more. An ever-increasing vocabulary uncovers connections, introduces spheres, and — in reminding us that there are words for all thoughts, all feelings, all behaviors, all things — upholds all humankind.

You can order The Best Words from Vocabula or Amazon or elsewhere.

The Dimwit's Dictionary, Third Edition

The Dimwit's Dictionary, Third Edition

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.

You can order The Dimwit's Dictionary, Third Edition from Vocabula or Amazon or elsewhere.

Vocabula Bound 1 and Vocabula Bound 2

Vocabula Bound 1 and Vocabula Bound 2

Vocabula Bound 1 and Vocabula Bound 2

Want to read The Vocabula Review in print, on paper, in a book?

Vocabula Bound 1: Outbursts, Insights, Explanations, and Oddities — twenty-five of the best essays and twenty-six of the best poems published in The Vocabula Review.

Vocabula Bound 2: Our Wresting, Writhing Tongue — twenty-eight of the best essays and ten of the best poems published in The Vocabula Review.

You can order Vocabula Bound 1 and Vocabula Bound 2 from Vocabula Books.

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 In the July 2011 Vocabula

by Mark Halpern

The question of the origin of language is one that has fascinated mankind for thousands of years; some of the earliest writings that have survived to our time have to do with that question. The answers that their authors have given us have ranged very widely, from "it was a gift from God" through "it was an inevitable consequence of natural selection" to "it was just a lucky accident." And as Professor Roy Harris has pointed out in the volume cited in note 1, the question of language's origin has often been conflated with related but logically independent questions such as "what was the first language men ever spoke?" and "are all present-day languages descended from a single ancestor?" and "how do children learn languages so easily?"

Because the question has seldom been put with great precision, and because direct evidence bearing on it, however it is understood, is so meager, attempts to answer it have fallen into disrepute among linguists, almost as much as have investigations into the supernatural or perpetual motion among scientists. But however unsatisfactory most past inquiries into it have been, the question itself does not deserve scornful dismissal: language did originate at some time and in some manner, and any progress made in investigating that event or process will have much to tell us about who we are. So while we may never arrive at a fully satisfactory answer, there is nothing inherently foolish about attempting to reach it.

To avoid the kind of confusion that some past inquiries have gotten bogged down in, the first step is to form a perfectly clear view of where our inquiry begins, including all our presuppositions. What assumptions are we making about the origins of the human race itself? What conditions do we imagine earliest man found himself in? What do we count as language? Answering such questions is no guarantee of success, but failing to answer them practically guarantees failure. For the present inquiry, the answers are these: More ... 

by Richard Lederer

This year we celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of the completion and printing of the most famous of all translations of the Bible, the King James Version. Some commentators have wondered why William Shakespeare was apparently not included among the fifty-four translators chosen. After all, Shakespeare had already written Macbeth in honor of King James (who also fancied himself an expert on witchcraft), and what better committee member could one ask for to work with the greatest collection of religious literature of all ages than the age’s greatest poet?

But an intriguing peculiarity in the King James Bible indicates that Shakespeare was not entirely absent from the monumental project. No one knows who made the astonishing discovery or how on earth he or she did it.

In 1610, the year of the most intensive work on the translation, Shakespeare was 46 years old. Given this clue, we turn to the Forty-sixth Psalm as it appears in the King James Bible. Count down to the forty-sixth word from the beginning and then count up to the forty-sixth word from the end, excluding the cadential Selah: More ... 

by John Kilgore (and Others)

Sunday, April 17, 2011, 1:46 PM
FROM: David Russinoff
TO: John Kilgore
SUBJECT: "Two Thousand Words About a Word" [In the April Vocabula Review]


It appears to me that your very thoughtful essay is flawed by a misuse of "comprise":

And the framework itself is defined in turn by the words that comprise it.

Do you disagree?



Monday, April 18, 2011, 12:19 AM
FROM: John Kilgore
TO: David Russinoff
CC: Robert Hartwell Fiske, David Miller
SUBJECT: "Comprise"


Thanks for your cordial note. It turns out to be a fascinating topic, probably better worth an essay than athleticism was. (Of course, that essay in turn would contain two or three other cruxes, requiring three more essays, and so on. But that's intrinsic to the crazy, Sisyphean fun of writing about language in the first place, no?)

Comprise is one of the very few words in my vocabulary that I am aware of using in accordance with a consciously acquired rule, or perhaps I should call it an anti-rule. Back in college a very bright friend who shared most of my academic interests told me that the word could have either of two essentially opposite meanings: to compose or to be composed of. Ever the lazy scholar, I never followed up with a dictionary or handbook, but happily took his word for it from that day to this. And I shared his sense of amused pleasure at the odd trickiness of comprise: one more idiom that fails of strict logic, but is somehow all the more appealing for that very reason.

So then your note came, and of course, there does turn out to be a controversy. Here are the definitions and usage note from, which except for a few trivial differences are the same as in my Random House Webster's [1987 ... 2001]: More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

If you bring that sentence in for a fitting, I can have it shortened by Wednesday. — Hawkeye, M*A*S*H

Too much has already been written about the subject of brevity in writing, and it seems odd to write more about an already overblown topic. Ironically, one can never say enough about saying less. I start the last year students will spend in high school with a class on brevity in writing by telling them what Henry VIII said to each of his wives, and what I can also say to someone reading this essay: "Don't worry, I won't keep you long."

As an English teacher, I find myself wanting to tell everything I know about a piece of literature. What if we finish studying Huckleberry Finn, and I forgot to tell them about something, like Leslie Fiedler's essay on homoeroticism in the novel? I can probably omit that one, but I can't omit telling them about the death of Twain's daughter, Susy. No matter how much I tell or we discuss, there's always more that I missed. I feel sure that their education will be blighted if I leave something out. I can understand, then, how the students feel when they write essays for class. Say everything you can about a subject, and then say more. More ... 

by Bill Casselman

The genus Gentiana is named after King Gentius of Illyria who discovered the medical uses of the roots of yellow Gentian around 500 BCE. Illyria was an ancient kingdom on the east coast of the Adriatic Sea comprising what is now northern Albania and Montenegro. The Romans defeated Gentius, the last king of Illyria, at Scodra in 168 BCE and captured him, bringing him to Rome in 165 BCE.

Most dictionaries, including the current Oxford English Dictionary, agree with this origin, saying that gentian owes its name to this King Gentius, relying for this assertion on two ancient authors. It will be of interest, I hope, to see the actual passage that gives us our only clue about the origin of this flower's name. It appeared in The Natural History, a primitive kind of encyclopedia of science written by Pliny the Elder, a working lawyer and lifelong public servant of Roman emperors. Born in 23 CE, Pliny crammed fact-mongering into a life of imperial offices. He died from poisonous fumes while investigating the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, the same volcanic disaster that buried the little town of Pompeii. While Pliny was not a scientist and was a trifle gullible, he did have a curiosity about the natural world that preserved many ancient kernels of lore and knowledge. From Book 25, Section 34, of his Natural History, here is Pliny's entry on which, for the next two thousand years, philological writers would depend for an explanation of the origin of the name of the gentian: More ... 

by Judy Gruen

In this brutish economy, with food and fuel prices rising and new jobs harder to find than an honest politician, most of us are refusing to buy anything without a "rewards" card or coupon as part of the deal. We are also rightly indignant at the epidemic of reckless spending and business chicanery that helped land us in this sorry soup. Is it any wonder that we feel we have no choice but to take every measure possible to protect ourselves from bunco artists, flimflammers, bamboozlers, rogues, and the otherwise slippery, shifty, and shameless?

One easy way is to pay closer attention to advertisements, because darned if those ads are not always cleverly sneaking critical information about their products and services right under our noses.

How many of us have even noticed all that itty-bitty print at the bottom of the page of so many ads? It's easy to miss, because you'd almost need the Hubble telescope to read it. Once you become more alert, however, you will often notice tiny asterisks (like this ***) that are followed by a slew of warnings and caveats about the product or service being sold. These appear on everything from ads for "No surgery required!" derma-fillers for the aging face, investment funds run by former Nobel Prize winners in economics, and even fruit gift boxes. More ... 

Book Excerpt
Back to Top  Wicked Good Words
by Mim Harrison

You Say Hello …

Globalization goes only so far. You can still spot Americans abroad by using your ears instead of your eyes: they're the ones who say "hi" as a form of greeting. Its linguistic ancestry is older than Columbus, being a variant of "Hy!," an exclamation used in the Old World back in 1475. The first American to say "hi" instead of "hello" — or at least, the first one recorded — was a Kansan, in 1862. That makes it an American word by just a year: Kansas was granted statehood in January 1861.

"Hi" is within linguistic shouting distance of hey, which made it into Webster's Compendious Dictionary of 1806 as "a word of joy or exhortation." We're usually glad to see the person we're greeting, so that's the joy part of it. As for the exhortation — if you heard someone in Missouri shout hi there in 1892, that person was most likely trying to herd cows. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  On the Comma's Cutting Edge
by Mark Zimmermann
At best one can advise that punctuation marks be handled the way musicians handle forbidden chord progressions and incorrect voice leading. With every act of punctuation, like every musical cadence, one can tell whether there is an intention or whether it is pure sloppiness. — Theodor Adorno, fr. "Punctuation Marks" (trans. Shierry Weber Nicholson)

Seldom is the comma praised. Seldom does it rise above the obscurity of its name. Even among many dedicated English teachers, comma inspires about as much enthusiasm as that word it so closely resembles: coma. This is easy enough to understand; of the punctuation marks most commonly affecting the rhythms of English — ellipses, semicolons, colons, dashes, periods, exclamation points — the comma is weakest, signaling only a slight pause. Never in any major English-language writer's work has it attracted the degree of stylistic, convention-busting attention lavished either by Dickinson on the dash or by Whitman and Ginsberg on the exclamation point. Never has, likely never will. Meanwhile, a poet as gifted as Theodore Roethke consigns the comma to meekly rot amid bureaucratic oblivion:

Desolation in immaculate public places,
Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,
Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,
Endless duplication of lives and objects.

But the comma is not to be underestimated, as Roethke's punctuation shows. More ... 

Summer Edition

In June, July, and August, The Vocabula Review will be published as summer editions; that is, we will publish Feature essays but few, if any, of the Department pieces (Disagreeable English, Clues to Concise Writing, Scarcely Used Words).

The August issue will be devoted to previously published essays from the Vocabula archives. What's more, the August issue will be free, for one month, to all to read.

More Good Summer Reading

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  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 ... 

 Featured Essays

On the Origin of Language — Mark Halpern

Is Shakespeare Hiding in the Bible? — Richard Lederer

Ambiguous "Comprise": Correspondence — John Kilgore (and Others)

Talking About Brevity with High School Seniors — Susan Lear Weisgrau

Gentian: Origin of a Flower Name — Bill Casselman

Your Results May Vary — Judy Gruen

Book Excerpt: Wicked Good Words — Mim Harrison

Vocabula Revisited: On the Comma's Cutting Edge — Mark Zimmermann

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And Coming in January 2012

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Disagreeable English

A Bimonthly Bulletin of Disagreeable English

Six times a year, we will email you this addendum to Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English (which will be available in November 2011). Each bulletin will include new examples of misused, misspelled, or mispronounced English.

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