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Monday, May 2, 2016   Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
February 2014, Vol. 16, No. 2 There are now   5105   people reading Vocabula. ISSN 1542-7080
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Scholarly etymology is always is a pleasure. Mr Casselman's errudition is admirable, and his subject unusally interesting in itself. I neither knew nor had guessed anything of it of it, though I read old French and Old English sources (the latter always in translation, I regret), and, having an Austrian wife I am quite aware of German. It was pleasant to be reminded of Mr. Casselman's French "trash." We encountered that very parade going to luncheon on a dreary day in Paris. Our hearts sank at the thought of another ghastly French mob of Socialists and antinomians. It was a great relief to find ourselves among such pleasant and well-conducted people. — What do you say?

The point about role terms is spot on I think, and deeply relevant in these days of constant questing after nomenclature that is more progressive and p.c. and fair than what tradition affords. The quest sometimes succeeds, but too often the only result is nomenclature that is gaseous, canting, inane, unwieldy, or in some other way beset by unforeseen problems far worse than the one it solved. "Consumer" for "patient" would be such a case, surely. "Patient" has a very long history in English, as both noun and adjective, and an attempt to displace it, based only on some PR department's vague sense that it is not sufficiently complimentary and effusive, will likely fail. If not, its success will come at the expense of clear speaking, clear thinking, and honest dealing. The term comes from the present participle of the Latin "pati," to undergo, suffer, bear, experience. The core sense is "one who undergoes" — or "one who suffers" — but Ms. Anderson is surely right that in older usage this idea was more honorific than it is, at least in some quarters, today. In Latin the participle was often joined into a doublet, "agens et patiens," that was translated into English as "doing and suffering" to make a slogan that was very popular and common at least up to the end of the eighteenth century. The idea was that the two things, acting and being acted upon, neatly summed up life, and the part of wisdom was to recognize the necessity and inevitability of both. Acceptance of suffering was a key aspect of a life well lived. Only a fool would think he could be always agens and never patiens, captain of his fate and master of his soul in every circumstance, even on the way into surgery no doubt. These days, though, there seem to be plenty of fools who want to be told just that about themselves. Or perhaps the point is more that the Folks In Charge are always ready to tell us such flattering fibs in the process of manipulating and hoodwinking us. At all events, thanks to Janet Anderson for an insightful, illuminating discussion. — What do you say?

Jean Mallinson's essay on prepositions is instructive, deeply felt, and beautifully written. It leads me to think that the opposite of the old pedant's rule is the truth: sentences not just may, but must, end with a preposition, since that which determines structure, hence meaning, is conclusive. — What do you say?

Right ho for Mr. Morrow, and for his sentiments, which are spiffy in my view! I think he's dead on about the techie influence, but I would like to suggest another, more eldritch one, the speech of the British Upper Classes, already elevated to the voice of angels by Mr. Wodehouse before it became the dialect of my own youth. — 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?

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 Simon & Schuster or Amazon or Vocabula 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 order To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing from Amazon or Vocabula or W. W. Norton.

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 In the February 2014 Vocabula
 The March 2014 issue is due online March 23.

Today is for all the non-athletic persons who could not dribble a basketball in high school and who were consequently branded fags, weaklings, pussies, lisping sissies, milksops, titsucks, momma's-boys by the chest-thumping high-school jocks who rule the corridors and testosterone-damp changing rooms of North American secondary schools. Today we remember how competitive athletics in the West began in ancient Greece as homosexual obsessional sessions with young nude boys of graceful limb and plump buttock.

Consider first the short-form word gym and its ancestor Latin gymnasium from Greek γυμνάσιον, gumnasion, "nude place." Gymnos, γυμνός, is the Greek adjective for bare-naked.

The literal meaning of gymnast is "one who exercises in the nude." Gymnasion was the place where muscular young boys and lithe adolescents exercised in the nude while older men stood on the sidelines leering at the boys' genitals, salivating and becoming sexually aroused. More ... 

by John Kilgore

Do languages exist? You can make a case — a hard-headed, nominalist, existentialist sort of case — that they do not, especially, except in a vague descriptive sense. Partly in a spirit of devil's advocacy, here goes.

Ferdinand Saussure, the great Swiss linguist, elaborated a key distinction between langue (language itself, in a timeless snapshot) and parole (speech, unfolding in time). Clear enough; but which of these do we intend when we speak of "the English language"? Do we mean the sum of English speaking, or a very small body of abstract relationships distilled from all that evanescent performance? Language in action, or in the intervals when it seems to vanish into a realm of pure ideas? Apparently we mean both, but it is an odd sort of something that can exist in such different ways. Dodging in and out of time, appearing and vanishing, language seems to behave like one of those incomprehensible particles the physicists are always chasing. More ... 

Don't get the wrong idea, but I seem to be drawn to men with unisex names. One of these, named Claire, went for an MRI recently to see about some abdominal-area pain. A few days later, the doctor who'd read the scans called and said, "I'm sorry, Ma'am, but we have not been able to locate your uterus."

"Perhaps," said the patient, "my lawyer can explain that Mr. Claire Casson doesn't have one."

Then there's Col. Beverly Sterrit. Though he had the good sense to take "Ben" as a nickname, the army took slight notice of it. After his release from a Japanese POW camp in 1945, the army reassigned him to Ft. Benning. He reported to his new quarters and discovered to his delight that they were in the WAC billets. The female NCO in charge directed him to the bachelor officer's quarters, but Beverly pulled rank on the sergeant and stayed until the MPs escorted him away. More ... 

The tradition of sending Valentine's cards did not become widespread in the United States until the 1850s, when Esther A. Howland began mass-producing them. Since then, millions of Valentine's Day greetings cards have been exchanged, electronically and otherwise. Here's how various people, monsters, and animals wish their lovers a happy Valentine's Day:

a caveman: "Come to my man cave, where I can give you some uggs and kisses!"

a French chef: "Here's a hug and a quiche!"

a painter: "My art paints for you!"

a munchkin: "Be my valentiny!"

a confectioner: "I'm sweet on you!"

More ... 

The Vocabula Well-Written Writing Contest

A fiduciary is a person (this includes a corporate person such as a bank) who handles the affairs of another (the principal). Most commonly it is the other's business or financial affairs that are involved, but this authority can include personal matters involving health and well-being. The fiduciary is an agent who must put his principal's affairs, his benefit, his good, before his own. He owes his principal honesty, candor, and good faith. He is not a guarantor of success, but he must do his best in carrying out the principal's business. This is a high standard, imposed and enforced by law. If the fiduciary fails to carry out his duties, or if he violates the obligations of good faith, he is answerable in court and a judgment for damages may be entered against him or, if circumstances warrant, he may be found guilty of a crime. Judgments against a fiduciary arising from his breach of his fiduciary obligations are not dischargeable in bankruptcy.

There are several members of the fiduciary family. More ... 

by Clark Elder Morrow

When it comes to which writer of classic literature is the most insightful and perspicacious in regard to money matters, there is, in effect, a Trinity: Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, and Anthony Trollope. I think there can be little dispute that these three tower above all others — the only real point open to debate is which of them is the preeminent "money man." And what do I mean by that?

Each of these men came from backgrounds of humiliating poverty. Though Balzac's family was, eventually, more or less middle class, his father had had to work his way up from deprivation with great effort, and — determined the young Honore would learn the value of money — deliberately kept from giving his son any cash while the youngster was away at school. This had the predictable result of keeping Balzac in deep embarrassment. It was an experience he never forgot, and it colored his view of money in his later life and writings. The childhood horrors faced by the young Dickens in the blacking factory, and of his father's arrest for indebtedness, are too well known to detail here. These traumas left their inexorable scars, and — once again — shaped the young writer's attitude toward money, an attitude that crops up repeatedly in the novels. Trollope's father was a serial failure at various endeavors: he failed as a lawyer, failed at his investments, lost an expected inheritance, and failed as a farmer. Trollope's mother had to take up the career of writer in order to support the family. At Harrow and Winchester schools, Anthony felt humiliated by the state of his family's finances (and by the state of his clothes and appearance) among the hosts of aristocratic young men that surrounded him. Again, the scars went deep, and the never-subsiding echoes of that original degradation went on through a lifetime. More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  The Ultimate Legal Thriller
by Kevin Mims

While picking through a box full of books at a yard sale many years ago, I came across a 1951 edition of Black's Law Dictionary with a price I couldn't resist: free. Although I'm not a lawyer, my battered old Black's, with the green imitation-leather binding, has been one of my favorite reference books almost since the moment I first opened it all those years ago.

One of the joys of browsing through an old dictionary is the encounter with strange-sounding words and oddball definitions. Black's 1951 edition has plenty of both. But it has much more to offer than your ordinary half-century-old reference book. Black's contains a wealth of epigrams, historical facts, cultural revelations, word histories, sound advice, mystical observations, and more. It contains horrifying descriptions of torture devices that will give you more chills than all the legal thrillers ever penned by Grisham or Turow. With its myriad terms dedicated to defining the legal status of women through the centuries, the book provides an inadvertent history of sexism in Western Civilization. It also contains thousands of antique Latin expressions, many of which have applications that go well beyond their strict legal interpretations. Some of these expressions contain words of wisdom that wouldn't be out of place in the Book of Proverbs or a collection of pithy aphorisms. I've sometimes thought of compiling a book called Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Black's Law Dictionary. Here are just a few examples of the kind of advice for living to be found in Black's 1951 edition. 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  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 ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back to Top  Vocabula Quizzes

Each ten-question Vocabula Quiz briefly discusses a specific topic, such as history, science, literature, or philosophy. Of course, you are quizzed not on content but on grammar or usage, vocabulary or spelling, punctuation or style. More ... 

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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. In The Dictionary of Concise Writing, Fiske shows how to identify and correct wordiness.

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