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June 2011, Vol. 13, No. 6 There are now   210   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

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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 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

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 In the June 2011 Vocabula

by John Kilgore

APRIL 13, 2011

Hello, WTFR? ... Yes, I'd like to make a dedication. To Kobe Bryant. ... Yes, the same one. ... Just a fan, but I'm thinking of him. ... Can you play "If I Could Turn Back Time," by Cher?
[Intense Glam-Rock introduction, the sound of big emotions and big hair]

If I could turn back time
If I could find a way
I'd take back those words that have hurt you
And you'd stay
...

Memo to those who have better things to do than follow celebrity news: Kobe is in trouble again. And in a way it is about sex again, though this time the flap is nowhere near as grave as the rape charge, filed against him in 2003, that evolved into 2004's civil suit (after a "public apology" admired in legal circles for the way it married overdone contrition to a denial of actual guilt), and then into a 2005 settlement for "unspecified damages" that were surely a rock-solid investment in the nicely recovering Kobe brand.

No, this time the brouhaha concerns a word: one syllable, three bare phonemes. In an April 12 game with San Antonio, the Lakers' Bryant incurred a personal foul, protested it with his usual energy, got hit with a technical, and was pulled from the game by his coach, the hardly less famous Phil Jackson. The game camera tracked Kobe to the bench, where his slightly squinty eyes (a mild misfortune from the PR and advertising point of view, costing him perhaps no more than a few dozen million yearly in lost revenues) went on smoldering with the fire that has made him a player for the ages. He threw a towel and jostled a chair, but found the relief insufficient. He shouted "Bennie!" twice to get the attention of referee Bennie Adams.

So far no problem: all this was well within the bounds of sports melodrama, the histrionic fun that sells all the shoes and Gatorade. But then, too quickly to be restrained by teammates or intercepted by video editors, Kobe confounded commerce and ritual decorum by uttering, on 54-inch screens and surround-sound systems across the nation, the word that, in manly contrast to the AP and the networks, I dare to quote in full:

"Fag!" More ... 

by David Radavich

Let's face it: literature as a public forum is an endangered species. As a commercial enterprise, however, literature grows apace. This is not surprising, given the relentless corporatization of America in recent decades. But it is time we admit this increasingly self-evident truth. Those of us who grieve over the loss of public education, libraries, parks, and other civic amenities will just have to get over it and adapt to corporate control of every sphere of American life — including our bodies and our bedrooms.

One of the curious anomalies of literature of our time is the mushrooming of the creative writing industry. Its tremendous success is not surprising. After all, until recently at least, CW has been well supported by colleges and universities, as well as by government-funded arts organizations now becoming dinosaurs in the new corporate era. Amid a steady decline in departments of English, creative writing has proved to be an area of exuberant growth.

No, the curious element is that much of the creative writing industry, on the surface, appears anti-business and staunchly liberal, though not overtly or ardently so. But underneath that veneer, CW has become an industry, as surely as Exxon and AT&T, replicating its franchise in the furthest corners of the culture. And more and more publishing is now controlled by corporations and their charitable tentacles, the various private foundations. If you want to succeed these days as an author, you have to play the commercial game — complete with marketing, self-promotion, and commodification — or retire to your cave. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

You are in the embrace of an extraordinary travel experience, aching to share the moment with your social network: "This place is amazing!" you post. But no one seems impressed. On your return home you proclaim, "It was so great." Your audience is still underwhelmed. You try again. "The food, the scenery, the people — everything was awesome." Polite nods and perhaps a half-yawned "So, uh ... you had a nice trip?"

A nice trip? Don't they get it? Here's what you had: a transformative, epiphanic experience; a glimpse of Elysium; an exalting, frown-flipping, nirvanic week in a paradisal sanctuary for the spirit. But like most people, you tried to describe something distinctively special with a handful of overused, stock superlatives — terms of acclaim so beaten down they emit nothing but white squeaks.

Once, when amazing meant "as bewildering as a maze" or when terrific stood for "terrifying," such superlatives packed big mojo. But squandered on the likes of "amazing fingernails" or "awesome chicken wings," they've lost their power to set off the extraordinary from the commonplace. It's no crime to call a heap of nachos fantastic or unbelievable, as we all do in casual jabber. But then how do we acclaim the sight of, say, an Incan city rising like a vision from a cloud-puncturing Andes summit? Machu Picchu ain't no nacho. More ... 

by Richard Lederer

Four hundred years ago, in 1611, the most renowned of all biblical translations was completed and printed. Among the many wonders of the King James Bible is that it stands as one of the few great accomplishments achieved by a committee.

Another of its amazements is that, along with the works of William Shakespeare, the King James Bible is the most fruitful source of everyday phrases in the English speaking world.

Many such expressions are direct borrowings, such as "kingdom come," in Matthew 6:10, and "the eleventh hour," from Matthew's version of Jesus' parable of the workers in the vineyard who gained employment so late in the day (Matthew 20:6).

Others have entered our modern idiom in a slightly revised form, as "crystal clear" (from "clear as crystal" in Revelation 22:1) and "by the skin of my teeth." The latter echoes Job's lament in Job 19:20: "My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth" ("by the skin of my teeth" in the Revised Standard Version). "But teeth don't have any skin," you protest. In the biblical phrase, the "skin" refers to a margin of safety as thin as the enamel on the teeth. More ... 

by Bill Casselman

The modern Arabic name for Egypt is Misr, pronounced in English something like mees'err. In street Arabic, the colloquial pronunciation is mas-er.

More fanatic anti-Semitic Islamists are always upset to learn that Misr may derive from the biblical Hebrew name for Egypt, Mizraim. In Hebrew מִצְרַיִם מִצְרָיִם, the modern Hebrew pronunciation is "mitsRAyim" or Tiberian Hebrew "misRAyim." The noun suffix –ayim indicates nouns that come in pairs or twos or doubles and so are declined with what is called a dual ending. This dual ending in the ancient Hebrew name for Egypt may refer to the two Egypts of antiquity, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt.

The root is still kicking around in Hebrew. The brilliant Israeli designer Isaac Mizrahi bears a surname that indicates an ancestor came from a Jewish community east of Israel. Mizrahim מזרחים are "eastern" Jews descended from Jewish enclaves mostly in the Arab world, from the Middle East, from North Africa, and even the Caucasus. El-mizrach means "the East" in modern Hebrew. More ... 

by Clark Elder Morrow

The task of the musician is to sculpt raw material while the material itself is flying through the air. In a manner of speaking, of course. It's as though the pianist or the violinist found himself a superhero, gliding alongside a long mass of molten malleable stuff, shaping the sound-goo into a predetermined form, all the while traversing a ballistic arc. On the fly, as it were. It's an exhilarating and tricky task, and consequently a whole music criticism industry has arisen to describe how well or how poorly the music superhero performs his task.

The music critic has evolved a language of his own — one intimately adjusted to and appropriate for such a high-wire act as the musician performs. Over the years — from the vague and polite terms used in the eighteenth century, through the philosophically tangled formulas of critics like Eduard Hanslick in the nineteenth, to the stylings developed by the critics of Gramophone magazine in the twentieth — over this length of time a critical arsenal of words and phrases has grown into being, and is used nowadays with a surprising regularity. More ... 

by Rod L. Evans

Animals in Groups


BASK: n. a group of crocodiles, which also come in floats.

"We knew that we had run into a bask of crocodiles rather than a CONGREGATION (see) of alligators because of their tapered snouts."

BLOAT: n. a group of hippos.

"When we saw a bloat of hippos in Africa, our biology professor told us that DNA and other evidence seem to indicate that the closest living relatives to hippos aren't pigs but cetaceans, such as whales and porpoises."

BOUQUET: n. a group of pheasants in take-off.

"Dick shot at a pheasant in a bouquet as the pheasant was released from captivity."

BUSINESS: n. a group of ferrets.

"It is difficult to keep track of even one ferret, much less a business of them." More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  The Ultimate Legal Thriller
by Kevin Mims

While picking through a box full of books at a yard sale many years ago, I came across a 1951 edition of Black's Law Dictionary with a price I couldn't resist: free. Although I'm not a lawyer, my battered old Black's, with the green imitation-leather binding, has been one of my favorite reference books almost since the moment I first opened it all those years ago.

One of the joys of browsing through an old dictionary is the encounter with strange-sounding words and oddball definitions. Black's 1951 edition has plenty of both. But it has much more to offer than your ordinary half-century-old reference book. Black's contains a wealth of epigrams, historical facts, cultural revelations, word histories, sound advice, mystical observations, and more. It contains horrifying descriptions of torture devices that will give you more chills than all the legal thrillers ever penned by Grisham or Turow. With its myriad terms dedicated to defining the legal status of women through the centuries, the book provides an inadvertent history of sexism in Western Civilization. It also contains thousands of antique Latin expressions, many of which have applications that go well beyond their strict legal interpretations. Some of these expressions contain words of wisdom that wouldn't be out of place in the Book of Proverbs or a collection of pithy aphorisms. I've sometimes thought of compiling a book called Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Black's Law Dictionary. Here are just a few examples of the kind of advice for living to be found in Black's 1951 edition. 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


In his 1997 best-selling book, Brain Droppings, George Carlin wrote his now famous monologue on the violence of football vs. the tameness of baseball. He compares football helmets to baseball caps; contrasts football blitzes and bombs to baseball bunts and bloopers; and notes that football has blocking, clipping, spearing, piling on, unnecessary roughness while baseball has the squeeze play, the sacrifice fly, the intentional walk, the fielder's choice. Where baseball has a hot corner (third base), football has a coffin corner. Baseball has a seventh-inning stretch; football has a two-minute warning. Tie games in baseball simply go on for extra innings, whereas tie games in football are often decided in a sudden death period. When a football player gets knocked out, he's carried off to get an x-ray. When a baseball pitcher gets knocked out of the box, he's sent off to get a shower. Football games are played on a gridiron and begin in the fall, when everything is dying. Baseball is played in a park and begins in the spring, the season of new life. More ... 

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 ... 

The Bat

Castellated, tall
From battlements fall
Shades on heroic
Lonely grass,
Where the moonlight's echoes die and pass.
Near the rustic boorish,
Fustian Moorish,
Castle wall of the ultimate Shade, 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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