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The Worst Words
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A society is generally as lax as its language.

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April 2002, Vol. 4, No. 4

Coming in the May issue of The Vocabula Review: "The Melancholy of Anatomy" by Richard Burnett Carter

Richard Burnett Carter has written a screenplay, a cookbook, and seven novels, including Naturally Bad Manners. His The Grammar of Anthony Burgess's The Eve of Saint Venus appeared in the January issue of The Vocabula Review.

The May issue of The Vocabula Review is due online May 19.

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Coming Soon! The Dictionary of Concise Writing (with a foreword by Richard Lederer) and The Dimwit's Dictionary (with a foreword by Joseph Epstein) will be published later this year by Marion Street Press. To order either book, click here.

TVR Audio   TVR Audio  Hear Fred Moramarco reading Takes on Shakes — 13 and Takes on Shakes — 17; Sarah Skwire reading The Thing with Feathers and Church-Going. And more.

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 TVR Forum

A co-worker of mine, who is approximately the same age as I am, uses some terms that I can only describe as anachronistic, the prime example being "icebox" to refer to an electric refrigerator. Now, if my grandmother were to use that term when she was alive, I would have ascribed it to her growing up in the days that iceboxes were really in use, and therefore a common term for the early refrigerators. This, however, is a well-traveled man in his 40s who certainly grew up in the age of electric refrigerators, not iceboxes. He claims that it's the term his parents always used. Well, my mother has got to be from the same era as his, and mine never uses the term icebox. Granted, they grew up in different areas (North Carolina, mine; Missouri, his) but could the different regional dialects account for this disparity? — What do you say?

I recently obtained a copy of The Standard of Usage in English by Thomas R. Lounsbury, published in 1908. In light of the recent discussion of the "Worst Words" page I was interested to read the following, from the preface: "The aim throughout [this book] has been to make as clear as possible what seems to me the only rational and safe grounds upon which to base any trustworthy conclusions as to the propriety of impropriety of words and phrases and constructions, independent of the presonal likes and dislikes in which all of us share. This means, above all, the substitution of the authority of the great writers of our speech for the confident assertions of the more or less imperfectly trained and even more imperfectly informed persons who profess to show us what we are to do and what we are to refrain from doing. It further involves the acceptance of the doctrine that rules of grammar are of no value save as they are based upon the practice of these great writers, and that the grammarian who does not make such practice his guide proclaims by that one fact his own incompetence and the worthlessness of the results he reaches." — What do you say?

Maybe it's merely my problem, but I take umbrage at using "gift" as a verb. Yes, yes, I know it's in the dictionary as a transitive verb, but it just seems bumptious to hear it used as such. After all, how would it sound if said users of "gift" as a verb were to present this immortal phrase for our approval: For God so loved the world that he GIFTED us his only begotten Son. — What do you say?

People, in general, do not ponder the little chink filling words that they use wondering whether someone is going to make rash assumptions about them on the basis of these words, nor should they. The words "most definitely" carry a meaning that the speaker intends; if another person decides that the speaker is silly and semiconscious for saying "most definitely" or prissy and anal for using the words "just so" in a given context then that is the problem of the person making that decision and says nothing about the speaker. — What do you say?

My point was exactly that all words have connotations (yes, including the word woman [wife-man] as well as wymyn [angry feminist women]). The reaction you have to wymyn is probably similar to the reaction some people have to the word chairman. And we get nowhere by pretending that these reactions do not exist, or by proclaiming that they are misguided and should not exist, or by cooking up some etymological explanation that no one ever thinks of (you see, it's manus, not man) to try to explain them away. — What do you say?

I don't think the motto of the journal is necessarily about dotting every "i", etc.; rather, it announces a general philosophy of moral striving through heightened attention to our written or spoken words. Far from being an empty slogan, I think the motto of The Vocabula Review is profound. A care with words — a concern with the integrity of their usage — reflects a principled approach to human relations. Precision in stating what you *mean* secures the ethical moorings of a society. — What do you say?

The command to "speak English" is more easily written than obeyed. What separates a dialect from a language? The prescribed English of 1800 would not be considered standard today; who has the authority to draw an inviolable line? Call my speech vague and jargony, and I can just as easily regard yours as stiff, pretentious and outdated. Language is a natural, constantly evolving phenomenon. To decide that using "I" instead of "me" is wrong, is as irrelevent as deciding that men shouldn't have nipples. If it's happening, it's part of the language — if you define language as what people actually say and not the rules we learned in grammar school. As for the potency of non-standard language, Burgess, Kesey and Joyce are all the argument I need. — What do you say?

I am hardly a prescritivist, but I wince whenever I hear the word "proactive". ... I recently attended a seminar where the speaker made a conscious effort to avoid the word. The circumlocutions which resulted provided what little interest the session held. The problem is that this is a trendy word in business-speak, and the sort of people who favor trendy business-speak rarely have anything of interest to say. The odium which is properly bestowed on such speakers inevitably spreads to the words they use. — What do you say?

I see it all over the place now: "...the author of a treatise on spanking, one Karen Spall...," "..the podiatrist's secretary, one Ed Dinkums...." I've seen instances in the New Republic, the New York Review of Books, the Village Voice. You name it. Where does this "one" business come from? What is its purpose? To me it suggests an arch, ironic tone. But I could be wrong. Please, my God, someone, help me out here. — What do you say?

I wonder if there has been any discussion concerning the media's new favorite term "Ground Zero"? There has to be a better, more sensitive way to refer to the results of that terrorist act. Hearing talking heads using the term over and over trivializes the thing we are deeply concerned about. I bet (to question) it is too politically incorrect to rate a discussion. — What do you say?

"Portion" is one of those words to which I have a visceral reaction: disgust. "Portion" and its ilk (including "meal") are mean, stingy little words. They bring to mind slapped hands and lectures about "people starving in China," and also those scary, molded plastic trays with sections for individual foods (slop such as creamed corn and Jell-O and boiled fish). "Portion" is also insidious: a simple, concrete word, it is used constantly by people unaware of its niggardly nature. To me, "portion" is THE worst word. — What do you say?

I teach English to college freshmen, and regularly find linguistic bits from TVR a quick way to cover more ground with my students. For instance, the "like virus" was a topic we discussed yesterday. Or when I was chatting with a doctor friend recently, a TVR column fit his tirade over our society's inappropriate linguistic etiquette. If you think TVR isn't getting to those who need it, maybe you're an armchair grouch talking to the walls. Take part! — What do you say?

No one can deny that there are explicitly 'literary' e-journals now produced on the internet. Should these journals address the mass of (vanity?) self-produced/published writing appearing on internet home (and other) pages? Surely, the avalanche of 'autobiographical' poetry and prose on these internet pages is a phenomenon worthy of the interest of readers of literature. — What do you say?

The study of language naturally includes (and historically has almost always included) an evaluation of grammar and usage, as "good," "bad," and various steps in between. The main reason is obvious: language is the vehicle of moral thought; it is the means by which "good ideas" and "bad ideas" are expressed and passed on to others. — What do you say?

Language precedes linguistic study; linguistic study is predicated on the existence of language. Does this suggest to anyone besides myself that a prescriptionist point of view is fundamentally flawed where language study is concerned? — What do you say?

As every English graduate student knows from force-feedings of liberal, milquetoast course offerings and faculty arguments, most of the curmudgeons who read "The Vocabula Review" are aware of linguistic "communities" where a maddening variety (babble?) of usages and constructions are the mutually-understood methods of communication. — What do you say?

His opening line in "Empowering or Cowering" seems to pay tribute to Orwell's 1984. But he calls it "justifiably famous." That's like saying the novel's fame can be justified. Some reason (or excuse) can be found for it. Granted, as a freelance editor I can claim no fame whatsoever. Still, it seems to me Dr. Williams, if he were taking care, might better have called 1984 "justly famous." — What do you say?

LOOKIT! Not "Observe." Not "Look here." Not even "Seewattimean." Lookit, the man says. Cleverly pandering to the lowest common denominator, as almost every politican seems to do at one time or another. Am I the only one on Earth who is irritated by this? — What do you say?

I seen it. There it is. Not I saw it, or even I have seen it, but I seen it. The past tense of see, saw, has gone missing along with helping verbs. I hear it coming out of lips that should know better. Seen has become a standalone word with no present or past. — What do you say?

By the way, do you know what's wrong with this site? The people who really need to read articles like yours will never see them. — What do you say?

In your manifesto you seem to suggest that one of TVR's aims is to embrace the flexibility and creativity the English Language offers. However the articles I have read your contributors and your manifesto all maintain extremely prescriptionistic views. — What do you say?

Join the discussion.
Back  Situation Comedy Joseph Epstein

This morning, out for a walk in wintry weather, I discovered a young student from the Northwestern School of Music struggling on the icy sidewalk while carrying a double bass. "Excuse me," said I, as our paths crossed, "but have you ever considered taking up the harmonica?" He took it, as the Victorians say, in good part. My model here was Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the actor and older half-brother of Max Beerbohm, who once came upon a mover bent almost double because of the grandfather clock he was toting on his back. "My good sir," Beerbohm Tree is supposed to have said, "wouldn't it be much more convenient to own a wristwatch." More ... 

Back  Christian Dogs and Politicians David R. Williams

For years now, I have been unable to get out of my head the memory of a simple classified ad that I once read in the local newspaper of my rural Virginia county. The ad, in the "Giveaway" section, was written in the hope of finding "a Christian home for our dog." More ... 

Back  Mark Twain and the English Language Richard Lederer

As a barefoot boy sitting on the banks of the Mississippi River, Samuel Langhorne Clemens watched stern-wheeler boats churning the muddy waters, and he heard the leadsmen sounding the depth of the river by calling out to the captains, "By the deep six ... by the mark five ... by the deep four ... by the mark three." When the river bottom was only two fathoms, or twelve feet, down, he would hear the lusty cry "by the mark twain." Long after he left the Mississippi, and after various careers as a riverboat pilot, prospector, and printer, Sam Clemens, now a journalist, contributed an article to the Nevada Territorial Enterprise on February 3, 1865, and signed it with a new name — Mark Twain. More ... 

Back  Spoonerisms and Malapropisms Marshall Dean

What is a spoonerism? A spoonerism is what happens when your tongue gets twisted and the sounds that come out are not what you tried to say. Spoonerisms are phrases, sentences, or words where the sounds get swapped. Usually this happens by accident, particularly if you're speaking fast. More ... 

Back  Two Poems Lauren Rile Smith

I don't remember that month so well.
It was summer, but very cold. I was living
in a room with blank walls: gray closeting me
every time I slept.

Streetlights and neon shone through me at night
and cars wailed past my window. I swam
in an underground pool and the blue smell of chlorine
rose off my body. More ... 

Back  Grumbling About Grammar

Although few people can complain of another's grammatical mistakes with impunity, that is, without revealing their own, we are hopeful that "Grumbling About Grammar" 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.

adopt Misused for adapt. • Maybe you'll need a little time to adopt to the Indian English, but that's all. Use adapt. [Welcome to India] • On the basis of this point, there is no reason why Western companies cannot successfully adopt to Japanese practices. USE adapt. [Management First] • Universities and other traditional institutions of education must therefore also change and adopt to new conditions and societal needs. USE adapt. [Suranaree University of Technology]

To adopt means to take into one's own family through legal means; to choose and follow a course of action; to take up and use as one's own; to take on or assume. To adapt means to make suitable or fit for a specific use. More ... 

Back  Elegant English

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 try to 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.

Love. We are early taught to say it. I love you. We are trained to the thought of it as if there were nothing else, or nothing else worth having without it, or nothing worth having which it could not bring with it. Love is taught, always by precept, sometimes by example. Then hate, which no one meant to teach us, comes of itself. It is true that if we say I love you, it may be received with doubt, for there are times when it is hard to believe. Say I hate you, and the one spoken to believes it instantly, once for all.

Say I love you a thousand times to that person afterward and mean it every time, and still it does not change the fact that once we said I hate you, and meant that too. It leaves a mark on that surface love had worn so smooth with its eternal caresses. Love must be learned, and learned again and again; there is no end to it. Hate needs no instruction, but waits only to be provoked ... hate, the unspoken word, the unacknowledged presence in the house, that faint smell of brimstone among the roses, that invisible tongue-tripper, that unkempt finger in every pie, that sudden oh-so-curiously chilling look — could it be boredom? — on your dear one's features, making them quite ugly. Be careful: love, perfect love, is in danger. — Katherine Anne Porter, The Necessary Enemy More ... 

Back  On Dimwitticisms

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.

(take) appropriate (corrective) action This ponderousness phrase will stem one person's drive while it saps another's desire. From such a phrase, only dull-minded deeds and uninspired acts may result, which is quite likely all that the user of it, bureaucrat he routinely is, either wishes for or can imagine. • If there's enough public pressure, they may rethink their defensiveness and begin to take corrective action. REPLACE WITH behave differently. • The bus driver was not exercising caution in this instance, and corrective action has been taken. REPLACE WITH he was fired. • By the time someone decides to take corrective action, the customer may be in too deep. REPLACE WITH act. • The district will take appropriate action to ensure such occurrences do not continue. REPLACE WITH do what it must. More ... 

Back  Clues to Concise Writing

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.

is -ing delete. • What the kids are wanting is to be loved. What the kids want is to be loved. • We have gained a much better understanding of what providers are seeking from our networks, and we are looking forward to presenting our plan. We have gained a much better understanding of what providers seek from our networks, and we look forward to presenting our plan. • Today, millions of Americans with disabilities are engaging in productive, gratifying endeavors. Today, millions of Americans with disabilities engage in productive, gratifying endeavors. • Some are speculating that Apple's new device is a digital music product for its iTunes software, while others think Apple may unveil a PDA, a Web pad-or even a set top box. Some speculate that Apple's new device is a digital music product for its iTunes software, while others think Apple may unveil a PDA, a Web pad-or even a set top box. More ... 

Back  Scarcely Used Words

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.

bibulous (BIB-yah-les) adj. 1. very absorbent. 2. addicted to or fond of alcoholic beverages. More ... 

Back  Oddments and Miscellanea

Each month, "Oddments and Miscellanea" will focus on a particular matter of faulty grammar, slipshod syntax, or improper punctuation. This month's admonition:

After the word more, do not use rather than when than alone is required. More ... 

Back  On the Bookshelf

Among the best written, if least read, books are those that we will be featuring each month in "On the Bookshelf." No book club selections, no best-selling authors are likely to be spoken of here. Best-selling authors, of course, are often responsible for the worst written books.

Lawrence Durrell: The Alexandria Quartet More ... 

Back  Letters to the Editor
The Vocabula Review welcomes letters to the editor. Please include your name, email address, and professional affiliation. Send your letters to letters@vocabula.com. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity.

I am surprised at the level of fact checking at your publication. As Publisher and Editor in Chief "On The Issues, the Progressive Woman's Quarterly," I am more than passingly aware of the importance of not passing on inaccurate or misleading information. And Mr. Orlet's remark that E1's dying words were "whiny" smacks of misogyny!! ["The Last Words," Vol. 4, No. 3].

This is not less important when the individual involved has been dead for over 400 years!! More ... 

 Features

Situation Comedy — Joseph Epstein

Christian Dogs and Politicians — David R. Williams

Mark Twain and the English Language — Richard Lederer

Spoonerisms and Malapropisms — Marshall Dean

Two Poems — Lauren Rile Smith

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Grumbling About Grammar

Elegant English

On Dimwitticisms

Clues to Concise Writing

Scarcely Used Words

Oddments and Miscellanea

On the Bookshelf

Letters to the Editor

 TVR Revisited

Like — Maggie Balistreri

The Wrong-Headedness of Linguistic Self-Righteousness — Alan Pagliere

Snobs and Slobs — David R. Williams

Why Linguists Are Not to Be Trusted on Language Usage — Mark Halpern

The Like Virus — David Grambs

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The latest installment of this trusted literary companion covers all aspects of literary theory, from definitions of technical terms to characterizations of literary movements. Geared toward students, teachers, readers, and writers alike, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory explains critical jargon (intertextuality, aporia), schools of literary theory (structuralism, feminist criticism), literary forms (sonnet, ottava rima), and genres (elegy, pastoral) and examines artifacts, historic locales, archetypes, origins of well-known phrases, and much more. Scholarly, straightforward, comprehensive, and even entertaining, this is a resource that no word lover should be without.

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This wide-ranging and erudite exploration of the topic of reading is suffused with the spirit of Manguel's fellow Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges. Manguel takes us through the history of reading as if leading us room by room through the infinite library Borges constructed in one of his famous stories. Manguel's approach is not chronological, but thematic. His chapter topics jump from attempts to censor reading to the physical surroundings favored by readers, from the limitations of translations to the esotericism of books written for a restricted readership. Throughout he moves easily through time and geography to quote anecdotes and examples from diverse sources.

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From accents to politics, this fascinating collection of essays from today's leading linguists uncovers the many misconceptions we hold about language. "The media are ruining English"; "Some languages are harder than others"; "Children can't speak or write properly anymore." Such pieces of "cultural wisdom" are often expressed in newspapers and on radio and television. Rarely is there a response from experts in the fields of language and language development. In this book, Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill have invited nineteen respected linguists from all over the world to address these "language myths" — showing that they vary from the misconceived to the downright wrong. With essays ranging from "Women Talk Too Much" and "In the Appalachians They Speak Like Shakespeare" to "Italian Is Beautiful, German Is Ugly" and "They Speak Really Bad English Down South and in New York City," Language Myths is a collection that is wide-ranging, entertaining, and authoritative.

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In his book, author Paul West shares his life-long obsession with words and their origins combined with a fascinating twist on etymology. Did you know that the word mascara originates from the Arabic term for a buffoon or clown? And the word companion comes from the meaning whom you share or break bread with. Over the centuries, thousands of our words have been so twisted, tangled, and misused that their original meanings have become extremely obscure. The Secret Lives of Words chronicles the travels of words across continents and through various cultures, giving each a life and identity of its own.

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