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Tuesday, May 3, 2016   Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
August 2013, Vol. 15, No. 8 There are now   287   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080
 Discuss This Article

Bravo! Mr. Halpern, your writings on this subject are an unfailing source of insight and pleasure. Thanks so much for the wit, will, energy, and patience you bring to this oddly important controversy. Enlightening enough on its own turf, Linguistics seems to insist on jumping the fence into the traditional fields of rhetoric, editing, criticism, and of course humanistic grammar (which I like to think of as language criticism), where its highly abstract methods and principles grow clumsy, unhelpful, and sophomoric. You do a better job than anyone of leading the bull back out of the corn, over and over. — What do you say?

Actually, there really are some good reasons to Google oneself, as page rank and visibility can have considerable importance. Thanks for a great article. And the word, fantasts, too. I have never used that one, but will correct that problem. Much appreciated. — What do you say?

Well written, and I totally agree. I have never found it irritating or offensive to read "he" as a generic pronoun for both sexes. In fact, what I find more irritating is the use of the two words (he/she, his/her) when one will do. When an author goes so far as to make attempts at political correctness by changing words like mankind, postman, or even policeman, I start stewing over how much of an influence a petty minority has had on contemporary writers. And I find that really, really, sad. — What do you say?

Excellent. — What do you say?

Bravo! What a wonderful essay — I think it beautifully and elegantly captures a poignant moment of life. I found it very moving, and it reawakened old memories of the immigrant dreams of my parents. I also enjoyed the photos and learning about dirndles. — What do you say?

I thought at first that you were merely darkening counsel with a rather too-finespun casuitry, but I own now that your logic is irresistible. You stayed with your argument long enough to convince me (I'm ashamed to admit that if you had stopped your pen earlier I might have tossed the article aside with only a grimace, and an air of bemusement disguising my uncertainty). I am persuaded now that I have been guilty of using "or" as I do the word "and" when I have gone about negating; I had never noticed before the ambiguity involved. You have uncovered a very well hidden landmine in the language — one so well hidden that even when pointed out it remains difficult to see, camouflaged as it is under so many layers of accepted (though inexcusable) usage.

Your article is one more proof of the importance of The Vocabula Review. Thank you for it. — What do you say?

Bravo to Kerr Houston and Ingrid Pimsner! Their essay on art criticism is pellucid, learned and elegant. — What do you say?

I like this article. I have probably 3,000 books in my home (I hope I never have to move). In a moment of weakness I bought a Nook. I read one book, then gave it to be my niece. Bless her for taking it off my hands. I like the heft of a printed book. I like to turn the pages. I enjoy reading it. Had ebooks never been invented, my life would be just as enjoyable — so long as there are books. — What do you say?

A fascinating article. I just wanted to add that in Quebec, dolphins are often called marsouins (sea swine) rather than dauphins. — What do you say?

What a preposterous, linguistically naive and snobbish essay! Ms. Anderson's is a fascist view of language that ignores how living languages operate. She posits that vocabulary items must not stray outside their originating specialties. Poppycock! — What do you say?

Simply, what a lovely essay. — What do you say?

Good article; sweet, too. But the way you slipped in the pronouncement, "By the age of four, children from welfare families have heard thirty-five-million fewer words than their financially better-off peers" wasn't quite fair. You don't cite a source, but even if you have one or two sources, I'd remind you that there are many financially well off families who bring up their children up in front of the television just as there are many so-called "welfare" families who do quite the opposite. If money were the deciding factor in language acquisition and/or the accumulation of an extensive lexicon, we'd have a nation of Churchills and Chisholms. But, uhm, like, you know, just like listen, ah, to like just about uhm anyone in the, you know, like, public eye? — What do you say?

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.

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To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing
The essential guide to writing succinctly

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To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing is the perfect reference book for anyone who wants to communicate more effectively through clear and beautiful prose. In this freshly updated edition that features hundreds of new entries, Robert Hartwell Fiske lays out multiple lines of attack against verbiage. He starts by training writers, new or experienced, to tackle wordy trends in their work. His "Dictionary of Concise Writing" helps them identify and correct — or delete — thousands of specific redundant phrases. In addition, writers can turn to the new "Guide to Obfuscation: A Reverse Dictionary" to build a more pithy vocabulary. Filled with real-world examples that provide clarity and context for Fiske's rules of concision, this is a writer's sharpest weapon against verbosity.

You can preorder To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing from Amazon or W. W. Norton.

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 In the August 2013 Vocabula
 The September 2013 issue is due online September 15.

According to a recent article by Adam Liptak in The New York Times,1 the Justices of the Supreme Court in their written opinions often quote dictionaries to establish definitions of words to support their reasoning. Liptak quotes a number of writers in this article who criticize this judicial practice. No less an authority than Jesse Sheidlower, the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, is quoted (unfortunately, no citation is provided for this quotation) as saying: "I think that it's probably wrong, in almost all situations, to use a dictionary in the courtroom. Dictionary definitions are written with a lot of things in mind, but rigorously circumscribing the exact meanings of terms is not usually one of them."

Liptak's article also cites a study in The Marquette Law Review,2 which found that the justices used a variety of dictionaries to define 295 words or phrases in 225 opinions in the ten years starting in October 2000. This frequent reliance on dictionaries is relatively recent. Justices did not often cite dictionaries in the past. Liptak quotes the aptly named Judge Learned Hand, writing in a 1945 decision:3 "It is one of the surest indexes of a mature and developed jurisprudence not to make a fortress out of the dictionary, but to remember that statutes always have some purpose or object to accomplish, whose sympathetic and imaginative discovery is the surest guide to their meaning." More ... 

by Jean Mallinson

The phrase "no rhyme or reason" poses rhyme as an opposite to reason, so it may seem odd to consider the reasons for rhyme, but it has long been a controversial subject for English poets and some critics, as though its use in poetry had to be justified or argued against.

Rhyme has a mixed history in English poetry. Anglo Saxon and most Middle English poetry were based on formal patterns of alliteration. Chaucer (1343–1400) introduced rhyme following Italian and French models. Sir Philip Sidney in his Defence of Poesy (1583) after praising rhyme as an aide memoire, concludes, "Besides, one word so, as it were, begetting another, as, be it in rime or measured verse, by the former a man shall have a near guess to the follower." Sidney says that the "chief life of poetry standeth in that like sounding of the words, which we call rime." Sidney makes reading a poem a kind of collaboration between poet and reader, the pleasure enhanced by the promise, mixed with surprise, of rhyme. After him, Thomas Campion wrote a learned essay, Observations in the Art of English Poesie, (1602) arguing against rhyme in English poetry, and Samuel Daniel wrote in response A Defence of Ryme (1603), championing rhyme against Campion's denigration. In the circle of people who cared about such things, rhyme was a hot topic. Reading these impassioned early essays gives one the feeling of listening in on a conversation crucial to the beginnings of English poetry. A few decades later (1667) John Milton, with Classical models in mind, abjures rhyme, which he called "the jingling sound of like endings," for his high purposes: More ... 

by Bill Casselman

When long ago the first European ships disembarked their brutish cargo of scruffy immigrants on North America's pristine shores, those more picayune members of the European fairy world, to wit, brownies, goblins, sprites and, in particular, teenie-weenie elves, with their sorcerous and occult endowment, did not stand a chance. Large, thuggish aboriginal spirits like the northwestern trickster Raven or his eastern counterpart Nanubush were buffoons that played cheap tricks on humankind. To some southwestern tribes, he was Coyote, to southeastern peoples, Rabbit and Hare among the Sioux. He had many names: Iktomi and Winabojo. But he was a big, cloddish prankster, a snickerer of the night world, who, instead of bedazzling humans with bounteous sleight-of-hand was the kind of imp that preferred to place a fart-cushion under the chief's blanket. What a loss that we never welcomed clever elves to our continent!

Oh sure, Santa's elves survived in fairy lore, but what an ugly crew of shrunken, peevish munchkins they turned out to be, slavishly carving wooden toys for nasty, ungrateful little children who never thanked them. Ever hear of a kid leaving out milk and cookies for Santa's elves? No. Only Oreos for the fat man.

To undo the unjust desuetude into which the elfin realm has plunged, today we celebrate that neat word: elf. It appears to be a reflex of an odd and wonderful Indo-European root whose chief meaning was "evil white," white as a symbol of magic belonging to the night. In Old English, it was ælf, with its West Saxon adjective ylfig, "of the elfish world," that did not make it into modern English. But see my word coinage below. More ... 

Thomas Pynchon, J. D. Salinger, Charles Portis, Cormac McCarthy, Harper Lee, J. P. Donleavy, Denis Johnson, Don DeLillo — America has produced an impressive crop of writers who are both relatively famous and famously reclusive. These writers rarely give (or gave, in the case of Salinger) interviews, appear on television, or engage in public speaking. I am an American and, therefore, perhaps biased, but this phenomenon — the famous recluse writer — seems almost uniquely American to me. There was, of course, the famous case of B. Traven, the author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, who was so reclusive that to this day, forty-four years after his death, no one knows for sure who he was, when he was born, or where he came from (Wikipedia offers two possible identities: he was either a German whose birth name was Ret Marut or a Pole born Otto Feige).

Undoubtedly Canada, England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, and other countries have their share of reclusive writers. But, off hand, I can’t think of any famous living examples from countries other than the United States. Some describe South Africa’s Nobel Prize–winning novelist J. M. Coetzee as a recluse, but I would dispute that designation. Coetzee recently published a collection of the letters he and American author Paul Auster have exchanged through the years. Can you imagine Pynchon or Salinger or Lee allowing their private correspondence to be published during their lifetime? No. You can’t be reclusive if you have an active presence on Twitter or Facebook, and you can’t be a recluse if you allow everyone in the world access to your private correspondence. Moreover, Coetzee spent much of his life working as a professor at the University of Cape Town. You can’t be both a recluse and a university professor at the same time. More ... 

by Mark Halpern

This brief paper is properly an extended footnote to the study of the Eskimo Snow Vocabulary (ESV) controversy that appears in my book Language & Human Nature, but I have included enough information about that controversy here, I hope, to make it comprehensible even to those having no previous acquaintance with the subject.

The ESV controversy started as an attempt to debunk the popular notion that the number of words Eskimo languages have for snow and ice in their various types, conditions, and situations is very large, as compared with other languages, of which English was generally taken as representative. The debunking campaign was set off in 1989 by Geoffrey K. Pullum's essay, "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax." In that essay, Pullum, then professor of linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, ridiculed that notion, not by counting such words in an Eskimo language, but by quoting some wildly differing estimates of their number made by journalists and other imaginative writers, by offering some scornful remarks about their irresponsibility, and by tying it all together with some colorful if not quite coherent arguments.1 He was motivated to shoot down this canard, he explained, only in small part by a wish to correct this particular myth — after all, how important is the question of how many snow words the Eskimos have? — but much more by a wish to teach a cautionary lesson on human gullibility, shoddy scholarship, and even latent racism. So, although the debate would seem to hinge on a simple counting of words, no substantial list of Eskimo-language words was offered by anyone involved until I did so some years later.2 More ... 

Each summer, Comi-Con comes to San Diego, where, back in August 1970, it began life in the basement of the U.S. Grant Hotel. That first event drew some 300 attendees. This summer, more than 130,000 flocked to the fun as our city perks up to the joys and color of comic book characters in our collective consciousness. These comical creations are so woven into the warp and woof of our culture that some of them have transmogrified into words in our everyday speech and writing.

Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814), a vice president to James Madison, is the inspiration for a political term in our English language. In 1812, in an effort to sustain his party's power, Gerry, who was then governor of Massachusetts, divided that state into electoral districts with more regard to politics than to geographical reality.

To a drawing of one of the governor's manipulated districts Gilbert Stuart — the same fellow who had painted the famous portrait of George Washington — added a head, eyes, wings, and claws. According to one version of the story, Stuart exclaimed about his creation, "That looks like a salamander!"

"No," countered the editor of the newspaper in which the cartoon was to appear, "Better call it a Gerrymander!" More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Organ Solo: Masturbation Words
by Mark Morton

Sex is less about bodies than bodies in motion. It's not the static organs that make sex, but rather the things that are done with them (or to them). To put it another way, sex is more about verbs than nouns.

For most people, the main sex verb is fuck. In fact, in 1999, an entire book was published — The F-Word — which was devoted to that single term. However, there are plenty of actions that happen before copulation, and thus plenty of words before fuck, including those that refer to the autoerotic activities that commonly coincide with the discovery of one's sexuality. Masturbation is perhaps the most familiar of these words, but it's not the oldest: that honor goes to frig, which dates back to the late sixteenth century. In origin, frig probably derives from the earlier verb frike, which derives from the Old English frician, meaning to move briskly. Nowadays, frig is still used as a verb denoting masturbation, but it's probably more familiar as a mild equivalent for the catch-all adjective fucking, as in "That frigging guy hung up on me!"

The next masturbation term to emerge in English was the sin of self-pollution in 1626, which construed autoeroticism as a sinful and damaging activity, as did the term the sin of self-abuse, which appeared in 1728. That negative view of masturbation was fanned into a social frenzy in 1710, thanks to the publication of Onania: The Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, And All Its Frightful Consequences, in Both Sexes Considered, With Spiritual and Physical Advice to those Who Have Already Injured Themselves by this Abominable Practice. The title Onania was inspired by the unfortunate story of Onan, whose troubles began in the Book of Genesis when his brother died and his father asked him to have sex with his widowed sister-in-law so that she would beget children. Onan initially complied, but at the last minute changed his mind and instead of impregnating his dead brother's wife, he "spilled his seed upon the ground." This willful squandering of his vital bodily essence so displeased the Almighty that he smote Onan on the spot. Several thousand years later, his name was adapted for the title of a book. Onania was so popular that it prompted numerous spin-offs, including Of the Crime of Onan, Onania Displayed, and Onania Examined, all of which helped prompt the invention of the word onanism as a synonym for self-pollution. These books, and others, vividly described the debilitating effects of onanism. In a French text published in 1760, called L'Onanisme, Samuel Tissot reported what the autoerotic habit had done to one of his patients: More ... 

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 (Elegant English, Disagreeable English, Scarcely Used Words).

Free in Vocabula
Back to Top  Gotcha Grammar

Here are quotations from well-known people, all of whom have used words ungrammatically or unstylistically. These are unnotable quotes, a collection of solecisms, by well-known people who speak as though they should be unknown. More ... 

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Back to Top  Best Words

Love a word? Tell us what it is and perhaps we'll add it to our list of Best Words. There need not be any well-reasoned analysis of your high regard for a word; emotional reactions to the sound or meaning of words are welcome. If a word you love is already listed, you are welcome to tell us why you, too, love the word. The Best Words have an aura of fun or majesty. More ... 

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Back to Top  Worst Words

Hate a word? Tell us what it is and perhaps we'll add it to our list of Worst Words. There need not be any well-reasoned analysis of your distaste for a word; visceral reactions to the sound or meaning of words are welcome. If a word you hate is already listed, you are welcome to tell us why you, too, hate the word. The Worst Words have an aura of foolishness or odium. More ... 

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Back to Top  TVR Radio 2

We welcome your submitting MP3 recordings of literary essays or poems to TVR Radio 2. If we like your recording, we'll add it to our database. More ... 

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