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March 2011, Vol. 13, No. 3 There are now   120   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 March 2011 Vocabula

Coming in November 2011
Back to Top  Laconic
by Julian Burnside

It is difficult to pin down the current, received meaning of laconic. A statistically meaningless straw poll suggests that in Australia at present it means something like "laid back, relaxed." I confess to having thought that was its proper meaning, but I lack a classical education.

In 1989, in Pacific Dunlop Ltd v Hogan, Sheppard J described Crocodile Dundee as being portrayed in the film of the same name:

... in a laconic, laid-back style and yet [the feats of the character in the film] are all pervaded with a certain cockiness and insolence. All these characteristics are said to be dear to the hearts of many Australians and indeed to reveal the type of personality which Australians like to think they have, even if this involves a certain amount of self-deception.

In the Wisdom Interviews on ABC radio in December 2004, Bruce Petty said:

But it's kind of a careless country I think, it's kind of a little bit indifferent. I mean we call it laconic and we call it nice names like laconic and casual and relaxed, but actually I just don't think we give a stuff about an awful lot of issues, because we've never had to.

The ABC website refers to another person as having "... a laconic attitude of having lived through personal reconciliation twenty years before it started."

Most people, I suspect, would hear the word used this way and understand without censure. Strictly, however, the word is misused in those quotations. More ... 

by Mark Painter

The United States Constitution has about 4,400 words. We declared our independence from Great Britain and started a new nation in 1,326 words. Some publishers of children's books have a 12,000-word limit.

The "iTunes Store TERMS OF SERVICE" checks in at 14,465 words, or 55 pages of minuscule type on an iPhone screen.

I saw this because I received a message that the terms had changed, so I should read them again (as if I did before). Maybe the new version is shorter. But my guess is that they added even more stuff. This is a short excerpt — in their typesize and typeface:

YOU EXPRESSLY ACKNOWLEDGE AND AGREE THAT USE OF THE LICENSED APPLICATION IS AT YOUR SOLE RISK AND THAT THE ENTIRE RISK AS TO SATISFACTORY QUALITY, PERFORMANCE, ACCURACY, AND EFFORT IS WITH YOU. TO THE MAXIMUM EXTENT PERMITTED BY APPLICABLE LAW, THE LICENSED APPLICATION AND ANY SERVICES PERFORMED OR PROVIDED BY THE LICENSED APPLICATION ("SERVICES") ARE PROVIDED "AS IS" AND "AS AVAILABLE", [sic] WITH ALL FAULTS AND WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, AND LICENSOR HEREBY DISCLAIMS ALL WARRANTIES AND CONDITIONS WITH RESPECT TO THE LICENSED APPLICATION AND ANY SERVICES, EITHER EXPRESS, IMPLIED, OR STATUTORY, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THE IMPLIED WARRANTIES AND/OR CONDITIONS OF MERCHANTABILITY, OF SATISFACTORY QUALITY, OF FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE, OF ACCURACY, OF QUIET ENJOYMENT, AND OF NONINFRINGEMENT OF THIRD-PARTY RIGHTS. LICENSOR DOES NOT WARRANT AGAINST INTERFERENCE WITH YOUR ENJOYMENT OF THE LICENSED APPLICATION, THAT THE FUNCTIONS CONTAINED IN OR SERVICES PERFORMED OR PROVIDED BY THE LICENSED APPLICATION WILL MEET YOUR REQUIREMENTS, THAT THE OPERATION OF THE LICENSED APPLICATION OR SERVICES WILL BE UNINTERRUPTED OR ERROR-FREE, OR THAT DEFECTS IN THE LICENSED APPLICATION OR SERVICES WILL BE CORRECTED. NO ORAL OR WRITTEN INFORMATION OR ADVICE GIVEN BY LICENSOR OR ITS AUTHORIZED REPRESENTATIVE SHALL CREATE A WARRANTY. SHOULD THE LICENSED APPLICATION OR SERVICES PROVE DEFECTIVE, YOU ASSUME THE ENTIRE COST OF ALL NECESSARY SERVICING, REPAIR, OR CORRECTION. SOME JURISDICTIONS DO NOT ALLOW THE EXCLUSION OF IMPLIED WARRANTIES OR LIMITATIONS ON APPLICABLE STATUTORY RIGHTS OF A CONSUMER, SO THE ABOVE EXCLUSION AND LIMITATIONS MAY NOT APPLY TO YOU.

Translation: (1) we don't claim that anything will work, or do anything that you might expect it to do (such as playing tunes); (2) if it's defective or breaks you have to fix it at your expense; and (3) these terms are so one-sided and outrageous that in some states they are illegal. More ... 

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

by Richard Lederer

Garnering twelve Academy Award nominations and four Oscars, including Best Picture, The King's Speech became, on February 28, the most honored film of the year. Among its many excellencies is the double entendre in its title. The word Speech in The King's Speech means the speaking of George VI, the stammerer who did not want to become king. At the same time and in the same space, the word Speech means the particular address, in 1939, that King George VI delivered to his British subjects exhorting them to join in battle against the Germans.

In other words, Speech in the context of this triumphant film is an accordion word.

Like people, words grow after they are born. Once created, words seldom sit still and remain the same forever. Some words expand to take over larger territories: Once fabulous meant "resembling or based on a fable." Later came the expanded meaning, "incredible and marvelous." A holiday first signified "a holy day," but modern holidays include secular days, such as Valentine's Day and Independence Day. Other words have traveled in the opposite direction. Meat began life as "food" and liquor as "drink." Once an undertaker could undertake to do anything; nowadays undertakers specifically manage funerals. These words have narrowed considerably. More ... 

by Susan Lear Weisgrau
Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts. — Albert Einstein

Testing improves education the same way that bombing promotes democracy. — Steve Cohn

I've been a tutor of students taking the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) for the last twenty years, and I'm sorry to say that during these years, the test has gotten longer in time (almost 4 hours) and lesser in fairness (privileged kids can afford tutors like me, and others can't). Somehow, among the many strategies and hints I give students, I manage also to teach some skills that might be useful. Or I may be fooling myself into thinking they're useful to keep me from waking in the middle of the night.

The Verbal test (they're on their own when it comes to the Math test), comprises two sections: Critical Reading and Reading Passages. The Critical Reading section also has two parts. The first is Sentence Completion, in which students have to choose the best words to fit into one or two blanks in a sentence, for example:

The spot remover dissolved the concentrated stain but also allowed it to ____________, spreading across the fabric. The choices are (a) coagulate (b) disintegrate (c) disperse (d) condense (e) evaporate
More ... 

by Mark Halpern

I take the view that torture is an evil; that like most human evils it cannot be entirely abolished without some change in human nature so profound that the creatures that emerged would be something other than human; that anyone not utterly divorced from reality knows this; that the studies that devote themselves mainly or exclusively to deploring torture or exposing its horrors are as useless as medical studies that devoted themselves to deploring disease; and that such studies not only accomplish nothing toward minimizing and mitigating torture, but effectively promote torture by diverting attention from the realities involved, leaving torturers free to do their worst because their deeds are hidden and unacknowledged.

The topic of torture is treated today much as cancer was in our grandparents' or even our parents' time; it was a disease so terrifying that people spoke of it in fearful whispers, and anyone suffering from the disease was treated as if he had a shameful secret. Even today we read obituaries whose subjects are discreetly said to have died from "a long illness," but for the most part cancer and its victims have come out of the closet, and today's cancer victim not only has a much better chance of survival, but is usually spared being treated as a pariah. There is reason to want torture, too, to come out of the closet, and be dealt with as we are now dealing with cancer. More ... 

by Ward Farnsworth

Isocolon

Isocolon (ai-so-co-lon), one of the most common and important rhetorical figures, is the use of successive sentences, clauses, or phrases similar in length and parallel in structure. An example familiar to the modern American ear was uttered by John Kennedy in his inaugural address of 1961:

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

In some cases of isocolon the structural match may be so complete that the number of syllables in each phrase is the same; in the more common case the parallel clauses just use the same parts of speech in the same order. The device can produce pleasing rhythms, and the parallel structures it creates may helpfully reinforce a parallel substance in the speaker's claims. We have encountered isocolon a few times already, and here we also will see further examples of anaphora and other such repetitive devices familiar from earlier chapters. Repetition of structure and of words often go well together.

Isocolon, like anaphora, tends to mark an utterance as stylish and oratorical, so like all rhetorical devices — only more so — it has to be used with sensitivity to the occasion. An excessive or clumsy use of the device can create too glaring a finish and too strong a sense of calculation. Brutus's funeral oration in Julius Caesar is the classic example. The speech is eloquent, and makes constant use of isocolon (some examples appear below) — so constant that the result seems a little overpolished and off-putting, and sets up the audience to be carried away soon afterwards by Antony's speech, which has a less studied feel. (Antony's speech is full of guile, and for that matter full of rhetorical figures, but they are a bit subtler.) More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Small Talk
by Anna Jean Mallinson

When I was young, I scorned small talk. I thought it represented the shallowness and pettiness of people at large: why didn't they talk about important things? But now I take it as a sign of tact, the courtesy with which we mutually accommodate our shared knowledge of the strangeness and transience of life. Kafka, the genius of small talk, understood this and out of it he made a style that compassionately addresses, by not seeming to address, the human condition of being born "strangers and afraid in a world we never made."

Small talk clusters eagerly around life's greatest occasions — funerals, births, weddings — which shows that small talk, seemingly about nothing, is really a way of helping ourselves and others feel at home in the face of the momentous, the out-of-scale. Oblique, piece-meal, and diffident, it benignly establishes a relationship that is mutual without the strain of intimacy. One hears people who boast of "having no small talk," as if this were a sign of their superiority. However do they manage trips by airplane, let alone weddings, funerals, and staff parties? More ... 

The Elder Statesman
Back to Top  Fictions, Legal and Otherwise
by Clark Elder Morrow

There isn't a lot of what we'd recognize as fiction before the advent of the Roman Empire. There are sagas and epic poems, of course, which we are not in the habit of calling fiction, and there are certainly plenty of plays — but then again, we don't usually call verse plays fiction, either, even though they are as "made up" as any novel or movie script fresh from the imagination of a modern author. Fiction — by which we primarily mean novels and short stories — is more recent, and most of it dates from the Renaissance, though the coming of "ten-penny" or "dime-store" or "pulp" fiction occurs in the Roman period. Exceptions there are, I readily concede, but I'm speaking of fiction in bulk, en masse, and not of every isolated irruption of the genre.

The ancient Greeks wrote adventure stories that have been called "extended anecdotes," but they were most probably meant to be read as exhortatory models for heroic behavior, and not simply as entertainment (the distinguishing hallmark of fiction per se). Motion pictures, like fiction, are entertainment before they're anything else — the widespread view of the film director as auteur comes relatively late in its development. Early classical prose is remarkable for being erotic or frivolous or both: Anthias and Habercomes, Chaereas and Callirhoe, Leucippe and Clitophon — it's a veritable cavalcade of silly sexcapades and cheapjack adventure, all designed to convince a newfound reading public that nonpoetic, nondramatic writing can be fun. The novel, the classic short story, the talkie: all these are meant to catch and hold our attention; then, afterwards, perhaps, to enlighten. This is fundamentally different from the purposes of epic poetry or heroic chronicle or the Aesopian fable, which are crafted expressly to instruct and inspire. More ... 

Bethumped with Words
Back to Top  The Origin of Amuse Is Not Amusing!
by Bill Casselman

The English verb to amuse came into common use after Shakespeare. Its original sense was entirely negative, namely, "to gaze stunned at something." It is perhaps from French à, "to, at" + muser, "to stare stupidly." Maybe amuse is a direct borrowing from the Italian verb amusare. But to muse or muser was in use in the earliest French with a pejorative meaning, for example, from CE 1086 the adjective musart, "absent-minded, foolish." -Art or -ard was an active pejorative agent suffix in older French.

Thus muse is originally descriptive of a gaping, staring look; likewise, muser had the Anglo-Norman sense "to gape, stare, wonder, marvel."

In a desperate attempt to be innovative — even when the abandonment of etymological reason results — the Oxford English Dictionary has taken to manufacturing, quite out of the vaporous ether, word roots that never existed. Being in need of a primitive French noun, the OED etymologist has sat up all night knitting a new word *mus, an unattested form (philological gobbledygook that means "never existed"). States the OED, in an utter delirium of neological frenzy, that this wee root means "the snout of an animal." What has happened is that the OED, without acknowledging the theft, has "borrowed" this etymological suggestion from Earlier French and Italian amateur wordsmiths who first posited this supposititious flapdoodle, based on the fact that there is an early Italian word, muso that means "the snout of an animal." There is also still in modern French the common word for muzzle, snout, or nose of an animal, le museau. Thus, according to this putative origin, if you "mused," you sat dumbfounded looking like a stupid animal. One must remember, as certain frantic dictionary-rifflers apparently cannot, the present existence of a form like museau does not automatically imply that a preceding form, *mus, ever existed. More ... 

by Kevin Mims

I found it in a dusty second-hand shop in Nevada City, California. A small leather-bound travel journal with the words "My Trip Abroad" embossed in gold upon the cover. The leather was old and well-worn. Handwritten on the journal's opening page was written: "To Helen from Aunt Lizzie — June, 1909." I am a sucker for old letters, diaries, and other handwritten ephemera, but quite often I come across lovely old travel journals in antiques stores only to open them up and find no writing inside, or only a few entries followed by a vast sea of empty pages. And so I flipped through the pages of Helen's 1909 travel journal and was delighted to find her handwriting on every single page of it.

The journal begins on Saturday, June 12. Helen writes: "We left New York at 2 o'clock p.m. after a very fine send off. All our friends and relations were at the boat (so it seemed) and gave us at least 10 pounds of Huyler's to beguile the passage." Already the reader can see — from the parenthetical aside and the word beguile — that Helen is articulate. And already he has a little mystery to solve. What the heck is a Huyler?" In the pre-Internet years, it might have taken me weeks or months to solve this mystery. Here in the early twenty-first century, it took only a few seconds. I typed "Huyler" into a search engine, which led me to a Wikipedia entry where I learned that "Huyler's was a candy and restaurant chain in the New York City metropolitan area beginning in the 19th century." A contemporary novelist writing a story set in 1909 might fill up page after page in an effort to give the reader a sense of stepping back in time. But Helen managed to do it in just her second sentence, by employing a word that now seems quaint (beguile) and making reference to a long-forgotten treat. In her next sentence, she mentions receiving "a dozen of beautiful roses" from someone named Alida Swift, as well as five steamer letters, "including a fine one from Miss Vanderbilt." I'm not sure which Miss Vanderbilt sent the letter, but there's little doubt she was a relative of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad tycoon and New York socialite. Helen is well-connected socially. Her father was a longtime professor at Yale (where William Henry Vanderbilt II died of typhus in his junior year; Cornelius Vanderbilt III earned his B.A., and Cornelius Vanderbilt II endowed a large student dormitory) and a close associate of Woodrow Wilson, who was president of the university from 1902 to 1910. At this point, we still don't know how old Helen is, but the next few sentences help to narrow it down a bit. "After dinner … we all played tag on the second deck until the steward told us we were keeping the people awake. Daddy introduced us to Mr. Miller (the 3rd officer) and he presented us with two Anchor Line hatpins. Thus closed our first evening on board the 'Columbia.'" Still young enough to call her father "Daddy," to play tag on deck, and to be scolded by the steward, Helen is probably in her early teens in June 1909. She is traveling in the company of her parents (Professor and Mrs. William L. Robertson of Princeton, New Jersey), her college-age brother, Stuart, and her cousins George and Louise, both of whom are a few years older than Helen. Also on board are various friends and acquaintances of the family. More ... 

Knight on the Journalistic Style
Back to Top  Journalism? Academic, My Dear Wordsmiths
by Robert Knight

No one who seeks self-honesty, journalists included, knows the answer to how journalism is evolving in the twenty-first century. That uncertainty compounds itself when we address how we're going to write journalistically during the next decade or so.

This isn't the first time people have asked the question. In antiquity, when news in the form of gossip and graffiti resembled today's blogging but without the Internet's reach, few could comprehend the impact of the migration of European writing from Latin to vernacular languages. Later, few appreciated what would happen after Gutenburg applied the Chinese idea of moveable type.

In more recent times, the question again arose when newspapers learned how to turn photographs into halftone images that could be printed, when radio station people discovered they could cover news, and when television became the major news medium. Each time, the style of what we now call journalistic writing changed. Before Twitter developed, we had generally accepted two forms of news writing that we conveniently lumped into a common denominator called the Associated Press style.

Mainstream newspapers created their own styles using The AP Style Book as a base; TV and radio news writers generally adopted the AP broadcast style of writing. The two are quite different. Now we need to address the evolution of journalistic writing as only a symptom of a much bigger challenge we face in journalism and, therefore, democracy.

Here's an example that pretty much defines the dilemma:

As I write, members of the Board of Regents at the University of Colorado Boulder are debating if they should abolish the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and replace it with a department, maybe in the College of Arts and Sciences, that would emphasize communication technology, not journalism. They also are asking if they should eliminate journalism degrees and replace them with certificates. More ... 

If you look up "symmetry" in Wikipedia, you'll find links to symmetry in geometry, mathematics, science, nature, architecture, arts and crafts, music — but nothing about symmetry in language. Don't we have symmetry in the English language? Of course, but first we need to define symmetry. One type of symmetry is the sense of proportion and harmony we see in the rhyming sequences of our poems; in the enjoyable repetition of our lyrics; and in the inverted structure of chiasmi often found in our most stirring speeches. This symmetry is the aesthetically pleasing balance and parallelism often observed in all forms of written and spoken English.

Then there's the precise, well-defined physical concept of symmetry that involves rules of geometry and an exact correspondence in position about a point or line. The obvious example of this type of linguistic symmetry is the palindrome. Palindromic words, for example, radar, civic, level, kayak, racecar, possess line symmetry; that is, they can be vertically bisected such that one half of the word is a reflection of the other half. A similar construction is the word unit palindrome. In this case, the center of symmetry is a word instead of a letter; for example, You can cage a swallow can't you, but you can't swallow a cage can you? Or Leaves fall when fall leaves. Or Blessed are they that believe that they are blessed. Each of these sentences exhibits bilateral symmetry about a central word — but in the first sentence, when in the second, and believe in the third — with identical words and spaces on either side of the central 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 ... 

I Knew a Woman

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.) 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  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 ... 

 Features

Laconic — Julian Burnside

Contract or Novella? — Mark Painter

Playing with Accordion Words — Richard Lederer

SAT or Sad? — Susan Lear Weisgrau

Culture and Society: Torture…and the Torture Literature — Mark Halpern

Book Excerpt: Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric — Ward Farnsworth

Vocabula Revisited: Small Talk — Anna Jean Mallinson

 Columnists


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Fictions, Legal and Otherwise

Bill Casselman: Bethumped with Words — The Origin of Amuse Is Not Amusing!

Kevin Mims: The Common Reader — Dancing on Oatmeal: Helen Robertson's Grand Tour

Robert Knight: Knight on the Journalistic Style — Journalism? Academic, My Dear Wordsmiths

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