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Wednesday, April 23, 2014   Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
June 2013, Vol. 15, No. 6 There are now   150   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080
 Discuss This Article

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.

You can order Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English from Vocabula or Simon & Schuster or Amazon or elsewhere.


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

To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing

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 June 2013 Vocabula
 The July 2013 issue is due online July 21.

by Mark Halpern

This contribution to Vocabula is a mixture of small observations and arguments falling into two groups that are related to each other only in being concerned with language. The first group is a series of questions addressed to academic linguists, lexicographers, and descriptivists of any kind, in an attempt to start a dialogue about our differences. Long experience tells me that nothing short of having a judge order them to answer on pain of being charged with contempt of court would get them to do so, but it may nevertheless serve some purpose to put on record questions that they regularly decline to answer, or even to acknowledge as having been asked: observing their refusal may suggest some inferences. (I have usually abbreviated the words prescriptivist and prescriptivism as P, and descriptivist and descriptivism as D.)

• If, as I have often been told, writing well does not make one an authority on usage, why are we also being told that some controversial locution must be accepted because Shakespeare (for example) used it?

• To claim that a controversial usage must be accepted because it was once considered correct (for example, disinterested to mean uninterested), or because one thinks that it will one day become correct (for example, R. W. Burchfield's feeling that reticent will come to mean reluctant), is like running a red light with the excuse that not long ago it was green, and may well become green again in the future. As a writer for The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" (February 8, 1964) column said, "we believe that lexicographers can recognize the obvious truth that correct usage changes in time, without proclaiming that there is no correct usage at a given time." Was The New Yorker too sanguine, Mr. D? More ... 

by Joseph Epstein

I was not long ago introduced before giving a talk by a woman who, to authenticate my importance, said that she had Googled my name and found more than 12 million results. She didn't, thank goodness, go on to say what some of these results were. If she had, she might have mentioned that a few years ago I was, in the blog of a minor academic, "Blowhard of the Month." More recently I have been a "wuss," an "old pouf," and a "homophobe." (An old pouf and a homophobe? On the Internet, the law of contradictions, like many other laws, has long ago been abrogated.) Had she checked more closely under Amazon.com she would have discovered that some of the books I've written have been deemed "mediocre," "deeply biased," and (a favorite) "a waste of paper."

"To write a book," said Stendhal, "is to risk being shot at in public." I used to compare having a book out in the world to walking down a deserted street, when suddenly a window opens and from behind a curtain someone yells, "Fool." Twenty or so steps farther a second window opens and out of it another person shouts, "Fraud." Not too much farther on, yet another window opens, and someone screams, "Hey, Emperor. Forget your trousers?" More ... 

When he was a small child, William Claude Dukenfield would play in the street in front of his Philadelphia tenement. His mother would stand on the stoop, watching the world go by, and greeting her neighbors and passers-by with pleasant, conventional words. As soon as the pedestrians were out of earshot, however, Mrs. Dukenfield would mutter caustic remarks about them sotto voce. Young William rejoiced in these rude and penetrating comments, and many years later, when making movies under the nom de théâtre W. C. Fields, he would incorporate the technique into his dialogue (often unscripted). Of course the nature of these nearly whispered remarks would vary according to the character Fields was playing at the time. A rapscallion (such as Fields played in My Little Chickadee, Poppy, and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break) would make derogatory comments; a character who was supposed to garner sympathetic feelings (as in The Bank Dick and It's a Gift) would murmur something observant but innocuous. But in all instances the technique was a vivid and delightful implementation of James Joyce's famous "stream-of-consciousness" writing technique, as applied to the spoken word. What Joyce was doing in Ulysses, W. C. Fields was doing (on a much smaller scale, of course) in movies like You Can't Cheat an Honest Man. More ... 

by Jon N. Hall

Recently, I wrote that many Americans, even highly educated ones, regularly misuse the word "or." I called this the "not-or problem," and located its source in a rule propounded by none other than Bryan A. Garner, usage expert par excellence. I proposed my own rule to replace Garner's, and hoped that my article in the March Vocabula would smoke out Mr. Garner, and that he would engage me on the battlefield of ideas. But my hopes have been dashed, I'm being ignored, and I sit here in my jammies in my parents' basement despised, rejected, and sore afraid. So I'll wade into these muddy waters one more time.

One of the reasons folks misuse English nowadays is that we're writing with computers, using word processing programs. We rely on software to alert us of our mistakes. But, as we all know, sometimes word processing programs flag things as errors that aren't errors, and sometimes they don't flag actual errors. Consider this: More ... 


The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by Richard Lederer

A proverb is a well-known, venerable saying rooted in philosophical or religious wisdom. Just about everybody knows some proverbs, and we often base decisions on these instructive maxims. But when you line up proverbs that spout conflicting advice, you have to wonder if these beloved aphorisms aren't simply personal observations masquerading as universal truths.

How can it be true that you should look before you leap but make hay while the sun shines? It's better to be safe than sorry, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. Haste makes waste, but he who hesitates is lost. Patience is a virtue, but opportunity knocks but once. Slow and steady wins the race, but gather ye rosebuds while ye may. A stitch in time saves nine, but better late than never. Don't count your chickens before they're hatched, but forewarned is forearmed. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today, but don't cross that bridge until you come to it. There's no time like the present, but well begun is half done. All things come to him who waits, but strike while the iron is hot. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, but faint heart never won fair maiden. More ... 

Back to Top  Copper
by Bill Casselman

Ductile, hammerable copper, bringer of bronze weapons overthrowing the Stone Age, quack's cure for arthritic stricture, valid trace element in human nutriment, or malleable as a maidenly bracelet, the metal's distinct tincture compounded of red and brown chromas, of golden undertone, of russet luminance and cupric hue and auburn glint, all these properties of copper have been millennial pleasures to the eye and hand of humankind.

Our English word copper stems from an early Germanic borrowing of the Latin cuprum, "copper." Where did the word begin? On the stark and lovely Mediterranean isle of Cyprus, we think, where, at least one thousand years before Christ, copper mines abounded. In a syllabic script called Mycenaean Greek Linear B, there appears a demonym, the name for an island dweller, recorded as ku-pi-ri-jo, "person of Cyprus, a Cypriot." More ... 

In October 2011, I published an essay in Vocabula called The Wonder of Eastern European Loanwords, which — not surprisingly — discussed the many words in English that have their roots in the languages of the former Soviet and Ottoman nations. This month, however, I want to discuss something a little closer to home, both literally (well, geographically) and in terms of my interests as a linguist and anthropologist. All across the United States are places like Puyallup, Sequim, Natchitoches, Ponchatoula, Canandaigua, Wapakoneta, Punxsutawney, and Quinnipiac whose names hail from the now dying tongues of Native Americans. In fact, twenty-six of our fifty states have names of indigenous heritage. As do more of our words than we might think. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Dropping Names
by Skip Eisiminger

Set me down in front of a typewriter or a word processor, and I'll type my name; hand me a new pen, and I'll sign my John Henry grand as John Hancock. Some would judge this behavior as evidence of egocentrism; others would see it as a failure of the imagination. I know it to be, however, both as well as a recognition that names are debts, and I'm in arrears. "Sterling (Skip) Kenwood Eisiminger, Junior" is a heavy debt, indeed, and its sissy-snobbish connotations like those of "Sir Percival Llewellyn St. Cloud" mired me in more playground rows than I care to recall. But with middle age, I know the truth of Thoreau's observation: "With knowledge of the name comes a distincter knowledge and recognition of the thing." 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). We will, however, publish Oddments and Miscellanea.


"Oddments and Miscellanea" is a collection of musings about language, quotations from the enemies of English, archival material, and more. 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

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 ... 

Free in Vocabula
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 ... 

Free in Vocabula
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 ... 

 Featured Essays

Mixed Bag — Mark Halpern

Go Google Yourself — Joseph Epstein

James Joyce and W. C. Fields: Brothers in Art — Clark Elder Morrow

Or What: The Saga Continues — Jon N. Hall

How Wise Is Proverbial Wisdom? — Richard Lederer

Copper — Bill Casselman

A Language Not Our Own: English's Indigenous Language Roots — Sean A. Guynes

Vocabula Revisited: Dropping Names — Skip Eisiminger

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Robert Hartwell Fiske's
Disagreeable English

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The point of this collection is to show that the language can be written with grace and polish — qualities that much contemporary writing is bereft of and could benefit from. Read these examples of elegant English, 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.


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