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Wednesday, July 30, 2014   Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
October 2013, Vol. 15, No. 10 There are now   151   people reading Vocabula. ISSN 1542-7080
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I agree with Mr. Morrow on the historical roots and significance of the word. As I understand it, the workings of the brain support his explanation as well. It appears that our neurons provide a home for each object or category that we learn, and as we see more and more examples, we incorporate them into the existing "image" in a way that builds up to an "average" or, yes, a "norm" for that category. So the examples we see most often have the greatest influence on our norm. This has been demonstrated with faces — researchers created an array of pictures of faces, one of which was the statistical average of all the others, feature by feature. The average face was the one selected most often as the most attractive or beautiful. Furthermore, to some extent, the most attractive average for a category varies culturally or by race, in other words, by what we have seen most commonly over our lifetimes. Research has also shown, for example, that people who do not study birds for a living make clear distinctions about what looks like "a bird" (most often, it's quite robin-like) and what looks less "like a bird" (a penguin, for example, or an ostrich). However, I suspect that those who object to the word "normal" are at least to some extent objecting more to the idea that what is *not* normal is somehow inferior. You may wish to address this underlying issue more directly in your future encounters, by noting that your use of normal simply refers to the most commonly encountered examples in your experience and does not necessarily imply any judgment of subjective quality. — What do you say?

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?


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

However curmudgeonly, Mr. Fiske betrays a bluff humanitarian spirit. ... Fiske wants to save the English language. And he knows that he can count on little help. "Dictionaries have virtually no standards, offer scant guidance, and advance only misunderstanding." His own flogging of Merriam-Webster's is one of the many pleasures of this lovely, sour, virtuous book. — Wall Street Journal

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 October 2013 Vocabula
 The November 2013 issue is due online November 24.

by Clark Elder Morrow

Back in 1987 I had a nineteen-year-old girlfriend. I bring this up not to brag (though I am a bit proud of it), but to point out both the date and the fact that it was a young person from whom I first heard the word I'm about to mention. One day she said a restaurant I was in the habit of visiting was "scary" (apparently it wasn't up to her high standards of hygiene). And I recall thinking at the time that I had never heard the word used in that context before. Furthermore, I remember thinking that the word sounded like the kind of word a very young child would use. No one else (other than babes in arms) was saying "scary." It was a first. It was an amusing and girlish usage, and I thought no more of it.

Do you ever muse about how famous "terms of art" struck you when you first heard them? I remember the first time I ever heard the term politically correct. A friend of mine who was attending Harvard in the early 1970s told me in a phone conversation that something (I can't recall what) wouldn't go over well with his classmates because it wouldn't be considered "politically correct." He put the words very much into quotation marks in order to emphasize how odd and pretentious the phrase sounded. We smiled over the usage, little suspecting how common it would become in the following years. We had no idea that something that sounded so smug and contrived would achieve such widespread popularity. More ... 

by David Isaacson

"Now Gol Darn it to heck; I fudged up again!" These words just don't have the same force as "God damn it to hell; I fucked up again." As the linguist Ruth Wajnryb notes in her book, Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language,1 swear words usually have two functions: they are used cathartically to express negative emotions like anger, pain, or dismay, or they are used to irritate or offend. The cathartic use does not require an audience, but the intention to harm someone obviously does. You are not likely to euphemize, or substitute soft words for hard ones, if you are alone; but you might use euphemisms for four-letter words if you think your audience would blanch at the raw words. The very term "four-letter words" is a euphemism for cursing. Euphemisms, depending on your point of view, are either prudent or cowardly. They are prudent if you think your audience will be offended by the cuss words, but cowardly if the euphemism calls more attention to itself than the original cuss word.

My purpose in this essay is to explore the many uses and abuses of cuss words and to make some distinctions among some closely related types of offensive words, such as cursing, swearing, oath-taking, calumny, castigation, profanity, obscenity, blasphemy, scatology, vulgarity, invective, vituperation, taboo words, and insults. Let's understand cussing to mean the expression of negative feelings through profanity or, more informally, the use of so-called bad words to injure, harm, blame, or denounce someone. I think it will be easier to understand what cussing is by distinguishing it from other related forms of offensive language. More ... 

The world is doing its best to make you everybody else. — Paraphrase of e e cummings

i was you baby
i was you too long — Dory Previn

On the first day of a senior English class, a friend teaching at an Alaskan high school was calling the roll when he stumbled on "Guy Vasilyev" [not his real surname].

A student in the back row said, "I'm here, sir, but it's 'Gooey.'"

"Say what? Is there a typo on the roll — it says 'G-u-y' here."

"No, that's correct, but I pronounce it 'Gooey.'"

"And how, might I ask, did you get 'Gooey' from 'Guy'?"

"My mother found it in a book when she was pregnant in a place where no one knew any different. You don't have to go very far from here to find such places. So if you please, I prefer 'Gooey.'"

I'm impressed by the gentlemanly spirit and patient courage of this young man whose identity is already well developed. Guy, also known as "Gooey," may have a lot to learn, but he has stuck the difficult landing of his self-image while many of his peers are still searching for the glue pot. More ... 

Reading a pre-publication copy of Steven Pinker's Language, Cognition, and Human Nature (Oxford U.P., 2014), his forthcoming collection of what he considers his best essays — those with most permanent value — I found myself caught up in the first one in the book, "Formal models of language learning." (Its introductory paragraphs are reproduced in the Appendix that follows.) In that essay, whose importance is indicated by its leading position, the specific problem he uses in assessing the value of formal models is that of how children learn their mother tongue — a problem I will refer to, for reasons made clear later, as the Infant Language Acquisition Problem (ILAP). Pinker introduces his detailed study of the various conjectures and hypotheses that have been offered as steps toward a solution of ILAP by listing six criteria that such solutions would have to meet, and then assessing each of the proposals under review by those criteria. His study shows in detail that none of the research projects carried on to date has succeeded; indeed, Pinker concludes, "It should come as no surprise that no current theory of language learning satisfies, or even addresses itself to, all six conditions."

Pinker's view of ILAP as a central problem in theoretical linguistics is by no means unique to him; Noam Chomsky, too, has long been much concerned with the question of how an infant acquires language, and whatever Chomsky considered of importance would for that reason alone be so considered by theoretical linguists in general. And not only has Chomsky made ILAP one of the key problems — perhaps the very first among them — that linguistics must address and solve, he has also put forward what he sees as the alternatives between which investigators must choose as they confront the problem, and made his own choice between them quite clear. More ... 

This month, we mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of the man who, along with Richard Wagner, is considered the preeminent composer of nineteenth-century opera. His name is Giuseppe Verdi, and he entered the earthly stage in Le Roncole, Parma, on October 10, 1813. Among the twenty-five operas Giuseppe Verdi composed ring out the immensely popular and enduring Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, and Aida.

Why, you may be asking by now, is a language columnist writing about a great composer? Stay with me, gentle reader, and you'll soon find out.

Have you ever noticed that certain celebrities, historical personages, and other famous men and women occasionally share identical, or very similar, first and last names? Singer-songwriter Paul Simon and Illinois Senator Paul Simon. Garfield creator Jim Davis and North Carolina senator Jim Davis. Oscar winner Anne Hathaway and Renaissance woman Anne Hathaway, the wife of William Shakespeare. Actress Jane Seymour and Jane Seymour, a wife of Henry VIII. Get the idea? More ... 

by Bill Casselman
Oh Dear! That Word is Not in the Dictionary.
I May Swoon, Due to its Uncouth Newness.

Recently I heard anew the silvery music of controversy, to which I bend an ever attentive ear, for strife is my chanson de vie. I happened upon the adjective despective, never before encountered. I did know the obsolete noun that is the opposite of respect, namely, despect, "contempt, a looking down on." So it seemed from the context that despective when applied to a word meant that word was contemptuous or insulting in its uses. Yet despective does not appear in any authoritative dictionaries.

Thus, more than one word fascist on the Internet commands that the word despective cannot be used at all! Such injunctions, if followed, would stop all new words from entering English. Ridiculous! Such nonsense is based on a mistaken idea about the use of dictionaries. Therefore we must review here the uses of a dictionary, and differentiate between prescriptive and descriptive approaches to vocabulary. More ... 


The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

by James Csank

In this essay, part 2 of "Legal Jargon," I explain the Latin phrases "res ipsa loquitur" and "per stirpes" and "per capita."

I. Our first example of legal jargon is a phrase beloved by professors and students of the law: "res ipsa loquitur." (Latin for "The thing speaks for itself.") It is a principle of tort law;1 specifically, the law of negligence, and can be used to impose liability in certain situations in which the identity of the negligent party is not known.

A is walking along the street one fine spring day when, from a third-floor window of the building he is passing, a folding chair is thrown and lands on him, inflicting injuries. He hires an attorney who uncovers the following facts: the apartment is the residence of a middle-aged couple, both of whom were at work; their son was home from college on spring break; at the time of the incident, the son was hosting a poker party attended by four of his buddies. An unknown amount of beer drinking had led to much jocularity among the card players. None of the five has any recollection of any chair being thrown by anyone.

The attorney will sue all five students, and base his case on RIL. In order to recover a money judgment, he will have to show: More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Grammar Matters
by Marylaine Block

My generation may well have been the last one to be taught to diagram sentences in school. Some of you may not even know what diagramming a sentence is: a kind of exploratory surgery in which you open up a sentence to see how it works by finding out what grammatical function each word is serving. You identify the subject, the verb, and its object; then you put the adjectives with the nouns they are modifying, the prepositions with their objects. It was boring drudgery, and I never knew anybody who enjoyed doing it.

But those of us who learned diagramming do not go around writing headlines like these:

British Left Waffles on Falklands

Chester Morrill, 92, Was Fed Secretary

We expect sentences to follow normal English sentence structure: subject, verb, object. This means our initial reading of the first headline will be that British soldiers left their breakfast on the Falkland Islands — the writer also failed to take into account that left is a verb as well as noun, and waffles a noun as well as a verb. And since the Federal Reserve Board is not what first leaps to our minds when we see the word fed, we end up with the rather macabre vision of Chester Morrill as inadvertent cannibal. 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 ... 

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

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

The New Baby Talk — Clark Elder Morrow

On Cussing — David Isaacson

With Respect to the Name: Names and Identity — Skip Eisiminger

How Do Children Learn Their Mother Tongue? They Don't — Mark Halpern

The Same-Name Game of Fame Will Strain Your Brain — Richard Lederer

Despective: A New Adjective — Bill Casselman

Legal Jargon — Part 2 — James Csank

Vocabula Revisited: Grammar Matters — Marylaine Block

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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.


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