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Thursday, July 31, 2014   Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
March 2013, Vol. 15, No. 3 There are now   247   people reading TVR. ISSN 1542-7080
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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?

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?

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.



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 In the March 2013 Vocabula
 The April 2013 issue is due online April 14.

At the end of the nineteenth century, a crisis occurred in the Barnum and Bailey Circus. The man who was shot out of the cannon every day was asked by his wife to quit his high-risk profession, much to the distress of the great Phineas Taylor Barnum. P.T., whose wit was equal to his showmanship, summoned the fellow and said, "I beg you to reconsider. Men of your caliber are hard to find."

Barnum, of course, was perpetrating a playful pun on the word caliber, which, from its earliest beginnings, meant "the diameter of a bullet or other projectile."

Whatever you feel about gun-control laws and the Second Amendment, our high-caliber English language is going great guns. Let's go gunning for the guns that stand ready to fire when we speak and write: More ... 


What's wrong with this statement from a May 3, 2011, New York Times column by Thomas Friedman?

It is Arabs saying in their own way: We don't want to be martyrs for Bin Laden or pawns for Mubarak, Assad, Gaddafi, Ben Ali and all the rest.

Stumped? What's wrong with this statement is that it's ambiguous. Friedman is not saying what he intends to say. Given their alternatives, Arabs may not know what they don't want to be. Would Arabs be amenable to being martyrs as long as they don't have to be pawns? Friedman isn't of much help, and his mistake, which he shares with many Americans, is his misuse of the common conjunction "or."

The reader may know what Friedman is trying to express: that Arabs want to be neither martyrs nor pawns. But that's not what he wrote. If Friedman's editor at the Times had merely substituted "nor" for "or," his statement could have been salvaged. But if "nor" makes as much sense to you as does "or," do they mean the same thing? More ... 

by James F. Csank

My favorite subject when I was in law school a few decades ago was evidence. And my favorite part of evidence was the hearsay rule.

In general usage, "hearsay" is defined as "rumor, common talk, or report." Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary (The Publisher's Guild, New York, 1967) defines "hearsay evidence" as "any evidence not based on the personal knowledge of the witness but known to him only through other persons." Wikipedia in essence gives the same definition: "Hearsay is information gathered by one person from another person concerning some event, condition, or thing of which the first person had no direct experience." Merriam-Webster Online is similar: "evidence based not on a witness's personal knowledge but on another's statement not made under oath."

All three of these are wrong. The definition of "hearsay evidence" I learned is "an out-of-court statement offered to prove the truth of the matter stated." (See also this definition.) More ... 


The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by David Galef

Any teacher who assigns written work is bound to read a fair amount of mangled English. As an English professor, I may even receive an unfair amount. The mistakes range from simple typographical errors to awkward expressions and at times whole sentences that make one wonder, What were they thinking. On the other hand, the annoyed reaction Why didn't they proofread? leads to the sad realization that many students are bad spellers, have a poor grasp of diction and syntax, and don't know their way around figurative language. More than one student has told me, "I did look it over. I just didn't see anything wrong."

Correcting stacks of student essays can lead to early drinking and thoughts of adopting some other profession. Still, every once in a while, I come across a mistake with a certain ridiculous charm. I dutifully correct it, then add it to a file simply called Errata. Since I teach English literature, it's occurred to me over the years that these botches form a literature of their own. Allow me to show off some gems from my collection. They include typographical errors, mangled words and phrases, and outright howlers. In this first installment, I'll present what I charitably assume are mis-typings: More ... 

An excellent definition of our most common modern meaning of the word syringe is provided, as so often, by the Oxford English Dictionary: "an instrument that consists of a glass barrel fitted with a plunger and a hollow needle and is used for the injection of medicines or for aspiration of fluid from body cavities ."

The ultimate source of syringe is ancient Greek σῦριγξ (surinx or syrinx), meaning "panpipe, tube, channel, wooden flute." As we look at how a term for flute came to mean hypodermic, we shall retell the founding Greek myth, and a salty little romp it is too, all about randy Pan chasing comely nymphlets through the boscage.

Like many another evocative Greek noun falling into the thicket of myth, the word syrinx was at some date personified by the ancients and became Syrinx, a pert woodland nymph. Nymphs were benevolent, sexy young female spirits who guarded and haunted freshwater streams, fountains, wells, and springs. Nymphs were, if you like, female "spirits of place." The word nymph is related to the Greek word for "bride," suggestive of their nubility and sexual ripeness. More ... 

by Clark Elder Morrow

The English language has evolved a vast array of finely tuned words signifying minute shades of moral meaning. I am not speaking of legal terms, though they, too, are subtly differentiated. I am talking about the words we use commonly for all those situations that call for speech steeped in ethical connotation. When we speak of pity, empathy, and sympathy, we customarily use those words with care, attempting to keep nice distinctions in mind. I try to remember that empathy and sympathy are not the same thing, though they often appear to be interchangeable. I may, for instance, know very well what a person is feeling, while failing utterly to sympathize with him. On the other hand, I may sympathize deeply with a woman while having no idea what she is feeling (as when I cringe for her as she gives birth). Interestingly, sympathy and compassion are etymologically the same, though compassion veers more in the direction of pity. And as for pity, that is something I may feel for any creature whether I sympathize with it or not, and whether I empathize with it or not. For example, I may not be in accord with any conceivable thought, interest, or purpose of a randomly appearing mouse, and I may have no idea what it's undergoing as it dies in the teeth of the neighborhood cat, but I can still pity its ignominious fate. In this case, pity is recognition of a very minor tragedy mixed with the smallest modicum of regret. My guiding principle in determining when to use sympathy and when to use empathy is that the latter involves identity of sensation, whereas the former involves a community of mind and emotion, often without identity of sensation. Pity is not always confined to the minor and the modicum but may very well rage in spiritual squalls throughout the soul, irising to the scope of the suffering observed. It is the most volatile and tear-stained of the trio, and for that reason the one most likely to seduce Judgment. More ... 

Personal Essay
Back to Top  Immigrant Dreams
by Barbara Goldowsky

In the mid-1950s, in Chicago, my mother quit her secure, reasonably well-paid job as bookkeeper for an import–export firm and decided to become an independent entrepreneur. She took it into her head to open a boutique selling imported traditional German clothing (Lederhosen, Dirndls) as well as hand-knitted sweaters and a line of contemporary women's fashions.

It was a surprising decision because we had been in the United States only five years. My mother had left Germany with nothing but her children. She had divorced her husband before emigrating. When she decided on this bold venture, she had no capital or savings, no knowledge of American business. Her English was poor; she had managed at her job because the firm dealt with Europe and her co-workers were bilingual. It helped that the neighborhood was an old, established German one. Her salary had supported three of us: herself, my brother, and me. I was nineteen, my brother six years younger. He attended public school, while I had started at the city two-year college, which, to my great delight, was tuition-free. This would never have been possible in Germany, where all higher education was private and expensive. I dreamed of a career as a journalist, and I loved studying history, politics, and literature to achieve it. The American system held untold promises, so I willingly accepted the low-paying after-school jobs necessary to supplement the family income. All through high school, I worked at stuffing envelopes, answering office telephones, or as a mother's helper. More ... 

by Paul M. Levitt

"A new philosophy," said John Donne, "calls all in doubt." With the publication of Chaim Perelman's The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation (1969) and The Realm of Rhetoric (1982), narrative became an accepted form of argument — corrupting the teaching of both literature and composition. Narrative in the hands of anyone but a skilled practitioner becomes plot summary, which may explain why those students who matriculate from composition into literature classes are unable to analyze and to argue. Narrative emphasizes style; analysis, thinking.

In my former capacity as co-director of the University of Colorado writing program, even though I knew that much composition theory currently frowns on argument as a "hegemonic construct," I tried to teach students how to state an issue and defend a thesis by analyzing facts. The new university writing program promotes, especially at the freshman level, emotive/expressivist writing and, in particular, personal narratives, the preferred mode of discourse in Rhet/Comp. My objections to such an approach issue from my belief that a university is a house of argument and that training in narrative (1) repeats what the students have already been taught in K–12, (2) emphasizes descriptive papers, (3) invites diffusion, and all too often, (4) invades student privacy. 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 ... 

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