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Tuesday, May 3, 2016   Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
February 2013, Vol. 15, No. 2 There are now   3100   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080
 Discuss This Article

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?

It was a pleasure to read Clark Elder Morrow's perceptive but scary article. It came at an interesting time, for I had just returned to Salisbury, Maryland from Baldwin, Long Island, where, with nine fellow alumni from the high school class of 1947, I celebrated our 65th reunion. It was a refreshing few hours of animated conversation where nary an "Oh my god — it was like amazing" comment was uttered. There were no "We shudda wents" or "They sent an invitation to Johnny and I" blunders, just English as we learned it at home and in our classrooms during the late thirties and early 1940s. I sent copies of Mr. Morrow's article to my three kids, 52, 54 and 56. who may be among the last generations of Americans who treasure the language and do it no harm. — What do you say?

So, Ms., Miss, or Mrs. Iqbal, it seems you're speaking to the choir, as we say. Those feminists, those narrow-minded "members of the PC brigade," as you call those of us who believe that language reflects the values of its speakers, have made it possible for you to have a platform from which to speak your mind, have welcomed you into the fold, as it were, of our culture and language. You could have approached the topic in a more inclusive and kinder manner by speaking directly to us without the belittling remarks. We obviously come from very different cultures and histories; therefore, it's remarkable that you would attempt to impose your linguistic prejudices on "people like us." I remember hunting for work in New York City during the early 1960s. Could I type? Could I wear more makeup? Could I hike up my bra straps? Did I do shorthand? Oh, no, you certainly can't wear pants to work. I remember working in an engineering department at Columbia University where there was one female grad student in mechanical engineering. Why didn't she go home and have a baby? Or, she's not very pretty, so who cares if she wants to be an engineer. That's the culture women my age come from. We worked against all sorts of ridicule and opposition to knock down barriers set up for us by history, culture, and language. Now conservative women are working to put them right back, and deriding those of us who don't agree with them. Keep your "mankind" and your generic "he." I won't disparage you for it because you don't share my history or my cultural values. But don't swoop down on my culture and insult me for speaking my language the way I choose to speak it. Ask me about it. Give me a good reason why I should speak English the way a native speaker of Urdu or Hindi speaks it. You won't convince me to hop on your linguistic bandwagon, but I will respect the differences we have. — What do you say?

I'm an avid basketball fan, so this article was a treat. Basketball slang seems to spring entirely from inner-city culture. New terms start on the playground and enter the vocabulary of popular rappers, who bring the slang to the suburbs and eventually to TNT and ESPN. As for the verb "ball," that's going to stick around. I remember it didn't feel at all new when Will Smith used it in 1999 (in "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It"), and since then so many rappers and movie stars have used it that it's become commonplace. I'm white and went to a predominantly white high school (graduated in '99), but I used the term often when I played basketball with friends. It's expressive advantage is that it's so much shorter than the alternative: play basketball. The term "baller" is obviously someone who balls, and it has developed multiple meanings, including someone who is rich or someone who is extremely talented at something (He's a baller in the courtroom.) It's even developed — or retained, if it stems from the older usage you mentioned — a sexual connotation, though that's not nearly as common. This usage is here to stay, from dimly lit playgrounds to suburban golf courses. — What do you say?

Deliberately changing these cliche expressions can be fun (breakneck mountain, briny pickles, bumpkin pie, busman's transfer, days of bygones are just a few that come to mind); it's especially amusing to see innocent inexperienced readers misuse these ready-made expressions (One I have recently seen is "blathering idiot" for "blithering idiot." "A plan that went a rye" is also kinda funny ... I rate these up there with malapropisms sprung from spell-checkers, my favorite being "sand wedge" for "sandwich." — What do you say?

I don't read that the author is "sneering" at job training at all. His description of the efficacy of boot camp and jump school demonstrates his respect for the utility of training. His objection is that the university is being (has been?) drafted as a place to receive job training. The university in the traditional sense is a repository for the universe of knowledge. John Kilgore even used the term "monastery," when describing this view. The president of Yale told the incoming freshman class at orientation at least once "If you want to go to college to learn how to make a living, go to a trade school. At Yale, you learn how to live, and if you know how to live, making a living will always follow." ... — What do you say?

Terrific essay. I wish more people (especially women, if I may say so) would speak out against this lunacy. In case you haven't seen it, I highly recommend the Guidelines for Gender-Fair Use of Language of the National Council of Teachers of English, an entertaining manifesto rife with examples of the silly awkwardness that comes with political correctness. ... — 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.

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 Marion Street Press 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 Marion Street Press or Amazon or elsewhere.

101 Elegant Paragraphs

101 Elegant Paragraphs

Read these examples of elegant English at your leisure, and from each you might glean some turn of phrase, some device of rhetoric, some clarity of expression, some novelty of thought that, in more contemporary writing, you seldom will have noticed. From these paragraphs you might indeed learn that language can be written with care and cleverness.

Elegant English, as these paragraphs show, is exhilarating; it stirs our thoughts and feelings as ably as everyday English blurs them.

You can order 101 Elegant Paragraphs from Vocabula Books or Amazon.

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 In the February 2013 Vocabula
 The March 2013 issue is due online March 17.

by Clark Elder Morrow

In a strange sort of way, people create and alter words in much the same manner that bureaucrats create (and mutilate) advanced weapons systems.

I say that because I was thinking the other day about a movie I saw years ago — whose title I cannot recall — that depicted the weapons procurement procedure for the Department of Defense. In that film, the point was made that the whole weapon design protocol was deeply flawed, because it worked like this: someone would come up with a great idea for a badly needed device — such as (in the case of the movie) an armored personnel carrier specially designed for long treks through the desert. A superb prototype is drawn up, and then the trouble begins. All up and down the Pentagon's chain of command, individuals have to review the design, and of course every reviewer feels his self-importance is involved in the opinion he will give on the prototype. The predictable result is that each link in the chain feels compelled to make some sort of change to the proposed vehicle. One general recommends that a set of machine guns be added. Another general says a cannon should be added. I don't remember the film very well, but I recall that one after another, general after general suggests an addition to or a refinement of the original excellent design. Some of the recommendations are patently absurd: flamethrowers, a platform for a camel, a helicopter landing-pad, and so on. Every reviewer of the vehicle's design understands himself to be at liberty to make any kind of alteration he can come up with — no matter how ridiculous on the face of it. The important point — and the essential message of the movie — is that human beings, when asked for their opinion on a matter of perceived importance, are loath to simply sign off on a great idea. Instead they become convinced that they can and must leave a sizeable footprint on it. More ... 

Over the past few years, even the most casual readers of writing on the arts may occasionally have felt as if they had somehow wandered, while reading online reviews or leafing through the New York Times, onto the scene of a street fight. Again and again, on pages that traditionally carried calm analyses of retrospectives and meticulous reports of auction prices, writers on the arts were suddenly duking it out, like brawlers upsetting the wall hangings of a tasteful saloon. And what were they fighting about? Why, about language: about word choices, syntactical decisions, and organizational habits. Small potatoes, it might seem, but the weapons used — from sardonic complaints to open dismissal — invoked a cool fury and a sense that the stakes were in fact high.

Consider, for example, Geoff Dyer's searing review of Michael Fried's Why Photography Matters, which ran in the New York Times in July 2011 and was soon being read by astonished readers with no substantive interest in photography. Why the broad interest? Arguably, it was a form of rubbernecking — of staring, that is, at a scene of grisly violence. How else to describe Dyer's declaration, for instance, that the depths of Fried's self-absorption are hard to fathom? Or his claim that Fried's dully repetitive tendency to comment on what he would attempt to do in subsequent chapters had yielded "a masterpiece of its kind in that it takes the style of perpetual announcement of what is about to happen to extremes of deferment that have never been seen before"? In the end, Dyer's essay wasn't really a review; it was more of a drive-by shooting, motivated by a deep frustration with a stylistic tendency. More ... 

by Richard Lederer

"The war between the sexes is the only one in which both sides regularly sleep with the enemy," observed Quentin Crisp. "Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence," quipped H. L. Mencken. Whatever your opinion about love, literature swirls with it, and we often draw our images of love from the books we read, especially from the ancient books.

Commemorating Valentine's Day, here's a quiz about the couples who couple in these archetypal stories. Starting with Adam and Eve, the Bible has chronicled many a married couple. Match the biblical husbands on the left with their biblical wives on the right. For extra credit, can you explain why there is one fewer husband than wife? More ... 

Tournure (TURN-yer) is a word borrowed from French, meaning graceful deportment. A noun now obsolescent, it is worthy of revival.

Tournure pays semantic attention to beauty of bodily movement, to agile suppleness, to a willow's winsome pliancy, to the nimble ease of choice poise. Nowadays so scorned a mode is grace that the wedding bride arrives stoop-shouldered and shod in rubber boots. Upon the very table of the nuptial feast yawn wide bouquets of plastic lilies that accomplish one thing: they obscure from view the people sitting across the table from you. Of course, once one has spoken to those tablemates, the bride's rural cousins, clad in what appears to be binder twine and spit, it is possible to be grateful for wide bouquets. But, oh my, those lily stamens made from pipe cleaners, now that's clever! What a glutinously ornate wedding cake, and with a shelf life of 300 years. Yummy. At head table, directly in front of the microphone, the hunched-up groom blows his nose into a handerkerchief and then opens the hanky to inspect discharged mucosities and comment freely upon his own nasal ejecta to revolted fellow symposiasts. More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

A Poem
Back to Top  My Bony Hands
by Donna Gorrell

My hands are bony. No, wrinkled and bony.
As I remember, they've always been bony.
I was six years old looking at my bony hands
And comparing them to my little sister's hands.
At two years old, hers were soft, plump.
I wanted hands like hers. More ... 

Film Review
Back to Top  NO
by Marion DS Dreyfus

Remember the great Costa–Gavras political thriller from 1969, Z, so powerful a prototypical, subversive, rebel-vs-oppressive- government thriller that it still resonates, even today, in dozens of action-adventure intrigue pictures, from Kazakhstan to Algeria? NO bears a strong resemblance to Z. It is almost a documentary in its unflinching reproduction of that time, the late 1980s, and place, Chile.

In that earlier film, after the murder of a prominent leftist, an investigator (Jean Louis Trintignant, sleek, young, and gorgeous then if not now, in the current Amour) tries to unearth the truth while government pols scramble to cover up their participation and culpability in the murder.

In NO, a critically important work for what it reveals about relentlessly bullying and fraudulent leadership and the tricks such leadership pulls to hide responsibility and machinations from the public, the script follows the tense efforts of subversive democratic free-thinkers to rid themselves of the torture- and murder-rife dictator, Augusto Pinochet (written PIN-O-8 on cars in the movie, referring to 8 = ocho = chet), after the 1973 coup displacing President of Chile, Salvador Allende, as head of a popular unity coalition of communists and socialists. More ... 

Personal Essay
Back to Top  Green Grocer
by Pat Gallant

I'm not very good at fooling myself; it's a skill I never developed. I recognize that, with the passing of each year, my fan base of strangers shrinks. While I am realistic, it is still somewhat jarring to see who finds me attractive; they can be called, euphemistically, "seniors," as in "citizens," not "high school."

Many moons ago, my mother taught me the art of dressing down. I embraced that style for years, and it served me well. Now, I have switched to, for want of a better word, the art of camouflage. I no longer buy what looks good on the rack, or on a model, or in a store window; rather, I buy what best conceals bulges, poufs, or sags, without making me look matronly — perish the word. The right camouflage can do wonders to hide gravitational pull, unruly breasts, and a waistline that has gone hither and yon. My breasts and waist had been mere acquaintances for years, but after childbirth, they became fast friends, joined somewhere between north and south, neither situated at its place of origin. I have also observed that the worst thing an older woman can do is to try to dress young; it mysteriously produces the opposite effect. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Shooting Stars
by John Kilgore

The news came in the door at 5:00, borne by the first students arriving to my English 1092 class, Honors Literature and Composition. A shooting at NIU, had I heard about it?

I hadn't, but NIU is up in De Kalb, only a four-hour drive from here. Some of my freshmen would have friends there, would have visited the campus, would have applied the year before and been accepted or rejected. The young faces settling into desks in front of me did not seem unduly disturbed, but who really knew? Did I detect more glances than usual at the door and the second-floor windows? We never lock the door, and the windows open so slightly that only a contortionist could wriggle through and dive out, down into the prickly shrubbery below. Better to take your chances holding very, very still, while the moron with the rifle chooses someone else.

That classroom has pretty good computer equipment. I turned on the display, Googled "NIU," and there we had it: the story almost in real-time. Eerily, it had happened in Cole Hall; our own ugly and dysfunctional building is called Coleman Hall. Around 3:00, it seemed, the gunman entered a crowded Ocean Sciences lecture from the stage side, like a guest on Leno, and began firing his shotgun into the audience. In about the time it takes to tell it (no doubt), he injured sixteen students, killed five, and took his own life. 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 ... 

We all know far too well how to write everyday English, but few of us know how to write elegant English — English that is expressed with music as well as meaning, style as well as substance. The point of this feature is not to suggest that people should emulate these examples of elegant English but to show that the language can be written with grace and polish — qualities that much contemporary writing is bereft of and could benefit from. More ... 

People long to write a clear, a readable, even, at times, an elegant sentence. In "Toward the Making of a Sentence," we talk about the style and sound, the grammar and punctuation, the words and meaning of a sentence. 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 ... 

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 ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back to Top  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. More ... 

 Featured Essays

Of War-Wagons and Words — Clark Elder Morrow

"Apt to call barbarous": Stylistic Debates Involving Artwriting — Kerr Houston and Ingrid Pimsner

Ancient Literary Lovers — Richard Lederer

Tournure: A Word Meaning Graceful Deportment — Bill Casselman

A Poem — Donna Gorrell

Film Review: NO — Marion DS Dreyfus

Personal Essay: Green Grocer — Pat Gallant

Vocabula Revisited: Shooting Stars — John Kilgore

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Second International

This Merriam-Webster's Second International, 1957 edition, is for sale for $350 (including postage). It is in pristine condition.

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Merriam-Webster's Second International