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May 2011, Vol. 13, No. 5 There are now   116   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080

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 In the May 2011 Vocabula

by Bill Casselman

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Literally "sweet note" in French, billet-doux means "love letter" in English. In French, billet doux was once a phrase odorous with rococo luxe, like the voluptuous coquette afroth in laced sleeves perched at her escritoire. With flowers and a note from her lover freshly arrived, milady turns, naughty imp, to cast a beckoning smile from Fragonard's sumptuous apartment in the long-ago Paris of Louis XV.

Nowadays billet-doux bears the mocking taint of satire or is starkly archaic. Billet-doux mopes under an old-fashioned sense, like faded dentelle de Chantilly from a once-fresh jabot, now only yellowed lace folded away in a great-grandmother's rosewood coffer, an accessory never to be reworn.

But in alert English expository prose (see modern magazine and newspaper citations that follow) billet-doux as a printed word is still popular. Even in French however, the phrase has been replaced by the literal, dowdy, and prosaic lettre d'amour. When billet doux first appeared in French print in 1680 CE, it already had synonyms like billet galant and billet amoureux.

Is the hyphen in billet-doux correct? It is the customary English form. There is no hyphen in the phrase in French. More ... 

Perhaps nothing in the fetid grammatical atmosphere we are all breathing is more disturbing than the frequent presence of so-called singular they. This should be seen as plain error but is tolerated by some, perhaps to avoid the stilted, awkward he or she construction. As an example, consider the following sentence: "If a writer does not wish to offend the female reader, they should avoid male-gendered general pronouns."

I confess it hurt to compose that sentence even as an example of what should never be uttered or written. Nonetheless, this ungrammatical practice has been gaining unofficial cachet in the past forty years — indeed, it has a long history as an alternative usage even in a few passages in Shakespeare and other British and American classics, when grammatical rules were looser than they became in the eighteenth century. Avoidance may be the best solution. For instance, we might recast that offensive example as follows: "If writers do not wish to offend the general reader, they should avoid use of singular they."

As the Italians say, c'è sempre una terza via (there's always another way). Thus I deplore a willingness to deploy a solecism even if one can thereby "avoid sexism." Just last year, asked to write a recommendation for a student who wanted to enroll in a graduate program, I found myself reading the following from an admissions officer at one of the most respected universities in this country: More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by Richard Lederer

This year marks the four-hundredth anniversary of the completion and printing of the most famous translation of the Bible, the King James version.

James I, who fancied himself a scholar and theologian, decided to assure his immortality by sponsoring a new Bible worthy of the splendor of his kingdom. To this end, James appointed a commission of fifty-four learned clerical and lay scholars, divided into three groups in Cambridge, Westminster, and Oxford. Seven years of loving labor, 1604–1611, produced what John Livingston Lowes called "the noblest monument of English prose." Few readers would dissent from that verdict.

While the spiritual values of the Bible are almost universally recognized, the enduring effect of the Bible on the English language is often overlooked. The fact is, though, that a great number of biblical words, references, and expressions have become part of our everyday speech, so that even people who don't read the Bible carry its text on their tongues. More ... 

by Clark Elder Morrow

Although this sort of slang changes quite rapidly, the following list of argot was current and in widespread use in the Southern California region as of 2010.

Prostitutes

304 — a prostitute (304 typed into a calculator, and viewed upside-down, seems to spell "hoe").

Barracuda — a prostitute who takes money but who does not render a "service."

Breezes — a plural term for prostitutes.

Bottom Bitch — usually the older, more experienced prostitute among those of a particular pimp; one who instructs the new prostitutes in how to perform their business; she often recruits for the pimp and may act as a sort of business partner.

Choosie Susie — a prostitute who "chooses up" often (see Choose Up).

Circuit Girl — a prostitute who moves around the country a great deal, working under the direction of a pimp.

Fresh — a "fresh" is a prostitute who is new to the business.

Gig — slang term for prostitution, as in "She's gigging now."

Game — prostitution, as in "He's in the game now."

Ho — a prostitute.

Holly — a prostitute. More ... 

An Appreciation
Back to Top  The Great Mystery of Words
by Carey Harrison

My great and dear friend, the poet Robert Kelly, is being celebrated this month for his splendid longevity as teacher and bard (and as teacher at Bard, for the past fifty years). We shall celebrate, too, his achievement in exceeding mere longevity. Like our expanding universe, Kelly continues to accelerate beyond our capacity to rein him in, hold him, and sum him up. His poetry is more direct than ever, as if rapidly approaching headquarters. There is less and less adornment. And there's something almost shocking about this directness, as though at any moment we shall be skewered by a truth so final and so simple that it will feel like the end of words.

Correspondingly, his take on the nature of utterance itself has become crisper than ever. He not only hasn't lost a step, he's gained one, and we who shall be gathering to applaud his half-century will also be struggling to keep up with him. How shall we find words to pay tribute, when his own reporting on the how, the why and the what of which we speak is so perfectly clear that we can only muddy the waters? All that seems to mark Kelly's advancing age is a thinning of the veil — not Eliot's glum "Shadow" but the necessary veil that shields us from the Medusa gaze of the absolute, source of our utterance. "Advancing age" sounds well here: we hear him as we might a scout, or advance guard, who has a closer glimpse of our dear spouse and adversary, truth. More ... 

Despite worshipping Yahoo, Ilse had managed to keep the forceps of evil at bay during the Nazi error. However weapons of mass production terrified her, so she placed all her eggs in one basketball, dodged a fuselage of bullets crossing the Check border, and fled to Civil, Spain. But when she heard John Lenin and Ringo Trotsky on the radio, she tied up all the dead ends and fled once more. Fortunately she was affluent in English, so New Pork was the obvious choice. Before leaving Spain, however, she called a tax attorney to stuff her dog, Dido, after she was Judenized.

Arriving in New Pork, she felt she was on terra cotta at last. And the caricature assassinations were over, but she had just cracked pandemonium's box. "Funny how the best intentions go a rye," she mused. Determined to make a go of it, she exorcised daily and towed the line. Though she lived in a chantey by the tracks, she nevertheless managed to hire a tooter, who helped her make steadfast progress toward her dream job: census taker for the Autobahn Society. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Too Wretched for Words
by Christopher Orlet

The English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge — a first-rate, if underappreciated writer — believed success could be had only in second-rate pursuits — like becoming a millionaire or a prime minister. First-rate pursuits involved "trying to understand what life is about" and therefore must inevitably result in a sense of failure. Thus could a Napoleon or a Roosevelt feel themselves successful, but a Socrates, never.

In our time there have been hordes of first-rate moneymakers who have had no interest in "trying to understand what life is about." Stephen King is a first-rate commercial novelist. Danielle Steele is certainly top-drawer at what she does. Both can be read effortlessly in an afternoon with the brain on autopilot. But Joseph Conrad, who must sit very near the top of any literary snob's A-list, was forever dissatisfied with his work, calling his masterpiece Lord Jim "too wretched for words."

The slur "second-rate" is too often used to describe — not the incompetent nor the unprofessional — but one whose views or politics are contrary to our own. To the conservative, Bill Clinton was a second-rate president, while to the liberal Al Franken he remains the greatest commander-in-chief since FDR. The conservative, likewise, gives Ronald Reagan the head chair in his pantheon of twentieth-century heads-of-state, while to the liberal he was a disaster on the proportion of that which befell Pompeii. No two registers of first-rate twentieth-century presidents look the same, but rest assured the majority of White House occupants were second-raters. By all accounts, Taft was third-rate. Harding, a third-rate Taft. Hoover, Ford, and Carter probably also fit that category. Perhaps the bulk of nineteenth-century presidents were second-rate or worse. Polk, Buchanan, Arthur, Garfield, Harrison, Hayes, Johnson, Grant come readily to mind. Yet these grand wizards must have done something right; the young republic did not go bust, and the only real revolution came under the supposedly first-rate president A. Lincoln. 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.

We will publish a regular issue again in September.

More Good Summer Reading


A local doctor-owned hospital considered adding a wing to its health facility. The cost of the addition was reported to be approximately $100 million, with a construction schedule of nine months. The owners — all medical specialists — met to discuss and vote on the proposed project. Since the doctors were now also the administrators, they needed to pay close attention to the bottom line. As doctors, they needed to consider the effect of the addition on the long-term health of the hospital. As specialists, they rationalized their votes with liberal use of medical metaphors. A secretary recorded the minutes of the meeting, capturing the doctors’ yea and nay votes in their specialized jargon: 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 ... 

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 Most of It

He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree–hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder–broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter–love, original response. 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

Billet-Doux — Bill Casselman

Another Plea for Avoidance of "Singular They" — Robert Hollander

Good Words from the Good Book — Richard Lederer

The "Pimp-Ho-John" Lexicon — Clark Elder Morrow

The Great Mystery of Words — Carey Harrison

Ilse and Max, or the Future of English — Skip Eisiminger

Vocabula Revisited: Too Wretched for Words — Christopher Orlet

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