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Saturday, October 25, 2014   Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
March 2014, Vol. 16, No. 3 There are now   156   people reading Vocabula. ISSN 1542-7080
 Discuss This Article

Mr. Morrow's excellent article seems to me rather oddly to neglect George Orwell, to me the most passionate chronicler of penury, at least in English and in the last century. Orwell avoids Sinclair Lewis' cynicism and universal scorn (quickly boring, as Mr. Morrow accurately says). But where else (certainly not in Dickens, surely not in Thackeray, not even Balzac that I know) do you get the dismal experience of having a bug fall in the milk that was all your supper? That is Down and Out in Paris and London (a sort of grand Guignol of poverty, let us not forget the restaurant kitchen where the food was stored on the dirt floor and eaten by rats). But poverty runs all through Orwell. There is the representative lower-upper-middle-class fellow who (I don't have Orwell to hand and can't quote) theoretically knows how to order in French at a good restaurant or a suit from Savile Row, but can never, ever hope to afford either. Or the class-consciousness of growing up in a house with a maid-of-all-work and one bathroom. One could go on all too easily. It lacks the poetry that somehow hangs over Dickens or Balzac and Frenchness (which may incude his romanticism). But it is powerful stuff. Not boring, but depressing as hell. — What do you say?

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?


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

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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 March 2014 Vocabula
 The April 2014 issue is due online April 20.

Many years ago, I was heading north on I-85 toward Greenville, South Carolina, in some pre-Christmas traffic. I was in the right lane driving my usual respectful five miles over the speed limit. The carols on the radio were not much better than the roar and hum of the afternoon traffic. Suddenly, however, the tedium was relieved: a Cadillac El Dorado intently driven by a white-haired lady who might have been sitting on a fat phone book filled up my rear-view mirrors. As she breezed by on the left, I managed a sidelong look at her back seat, which was piled so high with wrapped packages and unwrapped toys that I hoped she was in no need of her own mirrors. As she passed, I glanced at her Florida license plate framed in rhinestones, which read GRAMMA 1. Later the same evening, I told my wife that that fifteen-second scenario was the best Christmas greeting from a stranger I'd ever received.

Neither my wife nor I have vanity plates, and the only bumper stickers we have are two German flags in honor of her birthplace. About a year ago, I added a SAIL sticker ("Smith Academy of International Languages") to my bumper to promote the school that one of our grandchildren attends. Most people who have commented, however, want to know how long my sailboat is. As a rule, I have forsworn bumper stickers because I once tried to remove one. SAIL and the two flags, I can assure you, will be on our bumpers when we sell those cars. More ... 

by Mark Halpern and Robert Lane Greene

Dear Lane,

In your response to my first installment, you made no explicit reply to one of the questions I'd asked there: why are descriptivists (D's) attacking prescriptivists (P's) at all, given the programs of the two parties? But you did answer the question indirectly when you replied to my second question, the one about whom you regard as P's. In that reply, you made it clear that you regard the people I referred to disparagingly as "high-school teachers" and "writers of letters to the editor" as typical of us P's. You assured me that such people really existed and that they weren't all stupid or uneducated — something I never supposed. But when I accused you of attacking strawmen, I didn't mean that you were attacking people who didn't exist, I meant you were attacking people not worth attacking when the issue is one of P principles versus D principles, because their usage beliefs are not based on principled doctrines, but just on random, isolated events in their own lives.

These people typically try to enforce two or three "rules" that they picked up from some admired teacher in their youth, or from some half-baked "authority" like Strunk & White, but are otherwise unconcerned with the P versus D debate, and therefore should be of little interest to either of us in this debate. You offered the term "folk prescriptivism" for the practice of such people, and I'm happy to adopt it. Folk Prescriptivists (FP's) are not card-carrying P's, any more than people who just want the minimum wage to be set higher, for example, are Marxists; apart from their handful of shibboleths, FPs may even be sympathetic to D. More ... 

by Richard Lederer

English speakers apparently take deeply to heart the biblical commandment not to take the Lord's name in vain and Christ's injunction to eschew all swearing, either by heaven or by earth. Have you ever noticed how many different ways we have come up with to avoid saying God and damnation: gosh, golly, goodness gracious, good grief, good gravy, by gar, by golly, by gum, dad gum, doggone, gol dang, gol darn, dear me (an approximation of the Italian Dio mio, "my God"), jumpin' Jehoshaphat ("jumping Jehovah"), begorrah, great Scott, gosh all fishhooks ("God almighty"), by gorey, by Godfrey, and W. C. Fields's Godfrey Daniels.

Older and more elegant stratagems for skirting the name of the Almighty include egad ("ye gods"), odds bodkins (a shortening of "God's body"), gadzooks ("God's hooks," the nails of the cross), drat ("God rot"), 'sblood ("God's blood"), and zounds ("God's wounds"). More ... 

The percipient logophile — you, dear reader — will not stroke out to learn that several technical terms in English geography naming kinds of deserts and desert features were borrowed chiefly from Arabic, words like erg, hammada, nabkha, and médano. Today, here in my word-tent, these obscure, legitimate, and delightsome wee vocables shall doff their crimson-felted fezzes, fling away hooded djellabas and reveal themselves unto you naked and aglow in the pristine dawn of their creation.

Hammada is the stony desert, common in parts of the Sahara, a boulder-strewn flatness from whose surface wind has blown away much sand and left rocks large and small.

From Arabic, hammada is the desert word closest to my heart, because it once exploded a front tire on a little Peugeot I was driving through what I may call the "foot-sands" of the Sahara south of Marrakech. I suffered a mild sunstroke and swerved the little French rental car off the road. It bumped and screamed as it jolted over the roadside hammada pebbles and stones. Two sharp little rocks then pierced one tire. It hissed and deflated — most tiresomely. The Peugeot and I came to a kidney-in-mouth halt. Dazed by heat and sun, I flung open the driver's door and collapsed, gasping like a docked carp, on the hot leather car seat. By luck a Berber truck driver was passing by. He stopped and offered to affix the spare tire. The Peugeot had no jack. The trucker pointed at a rock and told me to fetch it. I remember the Berber word for rock is azrou. Somehow he pried that rock under the front axle and was able to put the new tire on. I offered him the equivalent in Moroccan dirhams of thirty dollars. He would not take one Moroccan santim (from French centime, "penny"). The Berber truck driver said I might pass him fifty kilometers up the road beside his broken-down truck and he would expect me to stop and help him. I said in halting Arabic that I would help him, inch' Allah (God willing). At the mention of Allah, the Berber truck driver spat derisively. Berbers are animists. God is omnipresent, in everything, everywhere. It was a superintendent godlet of rocks who had helped that truck driver find the proper-size rock to put under my axle. Allah had nothing to do with it. More ... 

by Clark Elder Morrow

"Intellectual honesty" is a term that gets thrown around a bit (though not often enough) in the world of impassioned debate, whether political or theological or academic. If we find ourselves gratified that our opponent has conceded a point favoring our side, we'll commend her for her intellectual honesty. And if we graciously acknowledge the truth of one of our foe's contentions, we'll silently praise ourselves for the same mental quality. That, apparently, is what intellectual honesty means: recognizing and saluting the truth when we see it, whether the truth raises its beautiful (or inconvenient) head in our own camp, in the No Man's Land between me and my rival, or even in the very council chambers of my enemy's War Cabinet. The trait is distinguished by its rugged courage in acknowledging Truth wherever it is seen. Conversely, to be intellectually dishonest is to dissemble in the face of Dame Veritas, feigning obtuseness or — worse — denying her radiant offerings with a sneer.

But when you think the matter through a little more, you realize that the phrase is a strange one. Why "intellectual honesty"? Why don't we simply remark that our opponent is "honest" in conceding one of our cherished points? Because that would sound arrogant? Perhaps. We think we are softening the blow, or easing the pain of the other debater's conceding, by saying that it was an exertion of intellectual (that is to say, forensic) perceptiveness to see the truth of our contention, and mental toughness to say it out loud. But isn't it more insulting to use the term intellectually honest? What we're telling our sparring partner is "You might not be honest in any other chamber of life, but here in the land of argument you have demonstrated integrity of insight, as well as a corresponding valor in giving voice to that insight." More ... 

In a recent article in The New Yorker, art gallery owner Gavin Brown offered an intriguing reaction to a gaudy new exhibition space built in lower Manhattan by David Zwirner, his potent rival. "That building," remarked Brown, "is a real sign of the times. It's an industry that isn't supposed to have a place. David built a physical symptom of this bizarre late-capitalist moment."

A sign of the times: Brown seems to be suggesting that Zwirner's new gallery is at once a departure from the casual globalism of the contemporary artworld and, somehow, an emblem of the sustained boom in the high-end art market. The gallery is a concrete embodiment, that is, of a current tendency toward excess and the frictionless flow of capital. It's the architectural equivalent of the $142 million recently paid for a painting by Francis Bacon.

But that's not all that he said. In employing the term late-capitalist, Brown also invoked an entire band of economic commentary that postulates nothing less than the imminent demise of capitalism. Common in Marxist thought, the term commonly indicates a conviction that capitalism is about to give way: to implode, and to cede its place to a more equitable socioeconomic system. Brown's point, then, might be paraphrased in terms like this: The system, apparently, is doomed, and yet David Zwirner builds on, seemingly oblivious to the impending end. It's enough to strike a rival gallerist as downright remarkable. More ... 

by Susan Lear Weisgrau

The big news from the College Board is that there will be a new and improved SAT test starting in 2016. Supposedly, it will more accurately reflect what students learn in high school. While examples from the test have been revealed, no one has yet seen the new test in its entirety. Let's reserve judgment. In the meantime, let me tell you about the current SAT test, the Verbal sections of which I've been coaching students on for many years. During those years, the test has become longer in time (nearly four hours) and lesser in fairness.

The Verbal part of the test comprises two sections. The first section, Critical Reading, has two parts, Sentence Completion in which students have to choose the best words to fit into one or two blanks in a sentence, and a section on reading passages. Here's an example from the Sentence Completion, or vocabulary, section: More ... 

Everyone is familiar with statements such as "The property's tied up in probate" or "We'll be probating Mom's will" or the dreaded, "After probate taxes, we'll split (fill in an amount)." Many people fear probate because they don't understand it.

Probate is the legal process that transfers ownership of a decedent's property to his or her survivors. In the courts in which I practiced for almost forty years, "property" means "titled" property: real estate, motor vehicles, bank accounts, stocks, bonds, and the like. The term does not include furniture, clothing, or personal tools. Books? Well, maybe. If you have a first edition of a Hemingway title, signed by the author, it is valuable and theoretically should be probated. But a book is not registered in a public records office as is a car or a bank account or a parcel of real estate.

Transferring title to property has to be done by someone with the authority to do so, and it has to be done methodically. The law gives us a choice. Either we can leave written instructions concerning the transfer of our property (who gets what and, sometimes, when) or state law will decide who gets what. Our own set of instructions is called a Last Will and Testament; the state's set is called, in Ohio and elsewhere, the Statute of Descent and Distribution (the D&D). More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  What's in a Name?
by Marion DS Dreyfus

Names have an enduring and profound impact on our lives, and on the lives of those we meet. A chance misspelling, for instance, led to Oprah, which was supposed to be, as I recall, Orpah, the biblical name of a lesser wife of one of the Patriarchs.

Avocationally, I analyze names, since they reveal a rich trove of culture, religion, primogeniture, parentage, privilege, and wealth.

A new acquaintance, Cynthia, named her sons Kelin and Devon, thereby attaching herself, though long removed from Ireland, to her heritage. Her husband is not Irish. And should you see an American Manfred, such as a physician I know of uncommon brilliance, you know his parents were newcomers or born overseas, had hoch Deutsch germination, were proud people, were not readily assimilable to their surroundings, and were assigning him at birth to a difficult childhood but a stellar adulthood. And so it was.

Study of names brings a myriad of delights, not least of which is that people seem thrilled when you parse their names and tell them the obvious but veiled aspects of their histories. 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 ... 

 Featured Essays

Signs of the Apocalypse: Bumper Stickers — Skip Eisiminger

A Debate with Lane Greene on P. vs. D. — Second Installment — Mark Halpern and Robert Lane Greene

Taboo Euphemisms — Richard Lederer

Unusual Desert Words Like Hammada, Erg, and Médano — Bill Casselman

George Orwell and "Intellectual Honesty" — Clark Elder Morrow

Late Capitalism in the Artworld: The Arrival of a Cliché — Kerr Houston

SAT or Sad? — Susan Lear Weisgrau

Legal Jargon — Part 7: The Ohio D&D — James Csank

Vocabula Revisited: What's in a Name? — Marion DS Dreyfus

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