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TVR Home > February 2002 TVR Today is

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

February 2002, Vol. 4, No. 2

Coming in the March issue of The Vocabula Review: "Words of a Feather" by Valerie Collins

Valerie Collins is a freelance writer and editor living in Barcelona, Spain. She writes movie guides for students of English and magazine features, and contributed to the Insight Guide to Barcelona. She has won several short story prizes and is now finishing her first novel.

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 TVR Forum

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?

Has anyway written or read a really penetrating article on this phenomenon ["between you and I"]? It has been widespread for years and years. It even appears in some standard pop tunes. It is used frequently by those who would refrain from the opposite: "Me and Mama went to town." — What do you say?

Even apart from this destruction of a beautiful theory by an ugly fact, the argument does not sustain Mr. Corey's assertion that "linguists misrepresent the history of humanistic grammar, claiming that it has sought to force English into a Latin framework." His support for this consists of showing ways in which this grammar differs from Latin. This would only refute the assertion that linguists claim that this grammar sought to make English grammar identical to that of Latin, but no such claim has been made. — What do you say?

John Simon is a cranky old fart, a supercilious snob, and why anyone takes him seriously is beyond me. (When Vietnam antiwar protests were at their most feverish pitch, John Simon was ranting against the use of "hopefully".) — What do you say?

Without question, certain foreign words have nuances in meaning that initially resist our attempt to articulate them elegantly in our native tongue. That does not imply, however, that speakers of that foreign language possess some privileged feeling, sensation, or knowledge that our own language prevents us from acquiring. — What do you say?

Where are we on this subject? Can we go back to saying "The user resets his password" or are we still mired in "Ask the user his/her mother's maiden name" to the point that we are allowing "Ask the user their mother's maiden name" just because we're so sick of the whole issue? — What do you say?

I disagree with Mr. Fiske's casual definition of "team player." His misunderstanding leads to an unfair representation of how the phrase is used. To me (and I think to many others) a team player is one who consciously subordinates what might be best for himself to what might be best for the organization, when the two are in opposition. — What do you say?

I work at a state university, and there are more "likes" punctuating the students' sentences to drive a person with even the least sensitivity to the language out of his mind. — What do you say?

In a private message, I apologised to a number of critics of my essay "The End of Linguistics..." for being unable to answer them individually, and promised that I would post a general reply on this Forum that would deal at least with their major points. This is it. — What do you say?

When you've never had consistent access to good education, to familial reading, to the countless small rules that govern clear expression, you crave someone to tell you: this is how this engine, the one that drives the entire culture, works. — What do you say?

Business operatives are almost competing with post-modernists in the quest for ever-greater pretension and obscurity. And, of course, the pedantic adviser, the word nazi, can quickly wear out his welcome. — What do you say?

Has anyone else noticed the maniacal insertion of hyphens when using the grammar check of Microsoft Word? Yes, I turn it off, but drafts from my coworkers come back to me with all of them reinserted. Who dreamt of such punctuation? — What do you say?

When did "absolutely" begin to become the way to respond positively to a question or statement, instead of simply "yes"? — What do you say?

I read Mark Halpern's piece with interest, as a person holding a strongly descriptivist point of view with regard to language evolution who somewhat disagreed with the author's argument. However, I must say it was nice to see the prescriptivist view being put forward in a clear, logical manner lacking in the hysterics and paranoid rambling often sadly associated with it (at least in the United Kingdom). — What do you say?

Our local TV "weathercaster" has taken recently to pronouncing temperatures such as -5, "negative 5" instead of the conventional "minus 5". — What do you say?

If "a society is as lax as its language," can freedom from an empirical society be defined as "poor grammar"? — What do you say?

Join the discussion.
Back  The Dangerous Pleasure of Reading Tim Buck

The cave mouth shoots straight down into a yawning abyss. Grasping the nylon rope, a lone caver plunges through the darkness, his helmet lamp casting a ghostly glow on the ancient hues of sleeping limestone. He descends fearlessly, rappelling into the oblivion until boots at last strike the solidity of a rock-strewn floor. Farther into the gloom, a natural tunnel leads downward at a manageable angle. The air is damp, almost cold. Yet, excitement produces a nervous perspiration. At first, he is thrown off-balance in this alien world, but after a while, the spelunker becomes accustomed to the new surroundings. Another corridor veers off from this main one, and he takes it. Discovery beckons. Soon, the passage reduces dramatically in size, and progress is made only by crawling, then by lying flat and elbowing the body forward. A flush of panic almost undermines the advance, but after a few moments, nerves are regained and the spell is shaken off. This tight space finally gives onto a chamber, where dark-green cavewater, its depth unplumbable, lies placidly on either side of a narrow pathway. One misstep would be calamitous. Carefully, the adventurer moves toward an opening in the far wall. Passing through it, he is now in a much larger "room." Splashed with lamplight, it reveals a grotesquerie of impish stalagmites in frozen eruption from the floor and eerie stalactites that drip from the vaulted ceiling. Pearlescent in color and streaked with iron oxides, these calcite formations decorate the chamber in surreal fashion. Time seems to pass geologically as the caver explores ever deeper into this honeycombed system's interconnected passageways. Some rooms are separated by treacherous chasms and are reached by tightly hugging the flowstone walls. One of these great halls contains giant columns formed by eons of riverflow. Yet now, only a few silent pools of mysterious water remain. Each of these rocky grottos or immense cavities holds a bewitchment of subterranean alchemy wrought by time, water, and stone. The pleasures of exploration are so keen that our intrepid one may become hopelessly lost. More ... 

Back  Spelling Christopher Lord

The effect of computers on spelling is to produce a curious divergence. On the one hand, the spell-checker tells people using word processing software when they have used a word that doesn't have an entry in the dictionary file so that almost anyone can produce a text free of nonexistent words (although the writer who can't spell will inevitably pick the wrong suggestion for a correction from time to time); whereas unspell-checked email, chat room contributions, and so on are desensitising online communities to spelling errors, indeed to the whole concept of standardised spelling, as they are corroding grammatical and stylistic standards generally. For many, spelling is evidently something that the machine does, like formatting paragraphs or setting a fount. More ... 

Back  No Problem? David Isaacson

Just when did "no problem" replace "you're welcome"? Might this be a linguistic symptom of significant cultural change? My latest encounter with this phrase distresses me a bit. One of my pleasing tasks as the Humanities Librarian at the university where I work is to select a few of our recently acquired books to display on the New Books shelves. I place yellow slips that have been stamped "New Books" in these books. Because our library is a large, complex bureaucracy, I don't stamp the slips myself. No, I'm not above such pedestrian work — it's just not part of my job description. A student assistant in Monographic Acquisitions has this as one of her less intellectually challenging assigned tasks. Recently, after thanking one of these students for stamping some of these slips, I was momentarily taken aback when she replied, "No problem." No, minor solecisms like this aren't as harmful as inhaled anthrax. I knew from the rest of this woman's demeanor that she meant "You're welcome." More ... 

Back  The Eskimo Snow Vocabulary Debate Mark Halpern

The Eskimo snow vocabulary (ESV) debate concerns the number of words Eskimo languages have for snow and ice in their various forms and situations, compared with other languages. The debate was set off a decade ago by an essay, "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax," by Geoffrey K. Pullum, professor of linguistics at the University of California Santa Cruz (Pullum 1989, 1990, 1991). Pullum there ridiculed the idea that the Eskimo languages used significantly more words for snow than did English, for example. He was motivated to do so, he explained, partly by a wish to correct a specific popular misconception, but much more by a wish to use this canard as a cautionary example of human gullibility, shoddy scholarship, and even latent racism. More ... 

Back  Two Poems Sarah Skwire

The Thing with Feathers

I hate you, Hope, you useless, bootless thing,
the last rag left inside a broken box,
The hollow lie to which we're meant to cling.

You whine. You mewl. You fawn. You make us plead
and pander to the future. Make us fools
who dance the same damn dance til our feet bleed 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.

forego Misused for forgo. • NASA officials decided Friday to forego any extra inspections on shuttle Endeavour's twin orbital maneuvering engine pods, avoiding a potential delay in its planned late November launch on a space station crew rotation mission. USE forgo. [Space.com] • The researchers looked at the proportion of young people who reported foregoing medical care, their reasons for doing so, and their risk for health problems. USE forgoing. [Center for the Advancement of Health] • What better way to fund the government than to forego all those deductions and all that loophole lawyering? USE forgo. [The Holland Sentinel] • Lacking digital IDs, we forego the convenience of single sign-on — swiping your card rather than trying to remember names and passwords. And we forego the security of knowing, with some degree of assurance, who sent a message. USE forgo. [Byte.com]

Forego means to precede; to go before. Forgo means to do without; abstain from; renounce. Some dictionaries offer the spelling forego as a variant of forgo, but this is only because so many people have confused the words for so long. 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.

Listen Whatever were the impelling principles to the publication of the opium Confessions, whether motive that was distinctly contemplated or impulse that was obscurely felt, there will remain a perfectly separate question as to the practical result. For a conscientious man will grieve over those consequences from his acts which he never could have designed, and will charge upon himself those seductions which he had not even suspected.

Here, then, opens an admirable occasion for the extent of my power by laying bare the world of mischief which I have caused; and, secondly, the fairest excuse possible for resuming my enchanter's wand in order that I may exorcise the evil spirits which I have evoked. Listening to others, as Coleridge for instance, I ought first to be horror-struck at the havoc which my revelations have produced; and next, under the coercion of conscience, I ought to find the necessity for redressing this havoc by revelations still more appalling. There in 1822 is your bane; here in 1845 is your antidote. Oh, stratagems of vanity! but I reject both. I have neither done the evil in past times with which I am charged, nor am I at present seeking to repair it. The first is not a fact; the second is not a possibility. — Thomas De Quincey, defending himself against the charge that his Confessions had tempted others to become opium eaters 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.

hey As a substitute for hello or hi, hey is a cheerless one. Perhaps the best way to discourage people from using hey is to respond with a hearty diddle, diddle? 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.

of (a; the) ... nature delete. • This type of analysis is of recent origin and is primarily of a conceptual rather than analytical nature. This type of analysis is of recent origin and is primarily conceptual rather than analytical. • It was found that the material in his shoe was of an explosive nature. It was found that the material in his shoe was explosive. • First-level management deals with day-to-day operations of a repetitive nature. First-level management deals with repetitive day-to-day operations. 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.

epicene (EP-i-seen) adj. 1. having both male and female characteristics. 2. effeminate; unmanly. 3. sexless; neuter. 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:

Do not use where instead of that to introduce a noun clause. 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.

George Steiner: Language and Silence — Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman 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.

In Melbourne (Australia), Starbucks has encountered a deeply entrenched coffee culture where we measure espresso as "short" (equivalent to a single shot in the U.S. West Coast) or "long" (double shot) ["Upsizing," Vol. 4, No. 1].

Starbucks' menus have been changed slightly to accommodate Melburnians' quirks, replacing "tall" with "short" cup size.

Nevertheless, I'm always uneasy about ordering a "short long black," and can't even begin to utter the phrases "grande long black" and "venti long black" — they're just too, too redundant. More ... 

 Features

The Dangerous Pleasure of Reading — Tim Buck

Spelling — Christopher Lord

No Problem? — David Isaacson

The Eskimo Snow Vocabulary Debate — Mark Halpern

Two Poems — Sarah Skwire

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Grumbling About Grammar

Elegant English

On Dimwitticisms

Clues to Concise Writing

Scarcely Used Words

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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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Words That Stab Like a Sword — Pamela Jones

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Once you've made your $20 donation, you must email us at info@vocabula.com so that we know who you are. Sexicon: The Ultimate X-Rated Dictionary by Rod L. Evans, PhD

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Here is the ultimate A to Z collection of terms describing virtually every conceivable sexual attraction, position, and phobia — and some you might not have imagined. Even for those who have acedolognia (complete indifference to sexual matters), this complete reference guide offers fascinating discoveries in its precise and playful words for erotic subjects.

With distinctive and humorous descriptions, Sexicon may inspire hereism (martial faithfulness), oxyrosis (sharpening of sexual appetite), or hemerotism (erotic daydreaming). So whether you're curious, or are simply into verbal acrobatics, this unique dictionary will turn on your vocabulary and give all word lovers a new kind of thrill.

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A masterful metaphor, like a picture, may be worth a thousand words. By comparing two unlike objects or ideas, it illuminates the similarities between them, accomplishing in a word or phrase what could otherwise be expressed only in many words, if at all. The Metaphors Dictionary is an expansive collection of 6,500 colorful classic and contemporary comparative phrases (with full annotations and a complete bibliography of sources). The Metaphors Dictionary revisits most of the great and respected names in the annals of cultural literacy while dipping into current literature and media sources.

Quickly accessed via the author and subject indexes as well as the table of thematic categories, the Metaphors Dictionary is an intoxicating stew of expert word play.

From Molière to Mailer to Mother Theresa, the Metaphors Dictionary provides quick access to some of the greatest minds that have ever compared one thing with another and arrived at a sum greater than the parts.

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The "Ebonics Debate" brought issues of language and education out of the classroom and into the public eye, but represents only a fraction of the embattled history of language attitudes in education. In The Skin That We Speak, McArthur Award-winner Lisa Delpit, bestselling author of Other People's Children, writes of her struggle for understanding when her daughter transfers to an African-American school and begins to use African-American English instead of Standard English. Building on these types of issues to form an honest dialogue, The Skin That We Speak explores the layers of politics, power, and identity that surround language, adding context to the furor around standardized English in the classroom.

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Ella Minnow Pea is an epistolary novel set in the fictional island of Nollop situated off the coast of South Carolina and home to the inventor of the pangram The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over The Lazy Dog. The islanders have erected a monument to honor their late hero, but one day a tile with the letter "z" falls from the statue. The leaders interpret the falling tile as a message from beyond the grave, and the letter is banned from use. On an island where the residents pride themselves on their love of language, this is seen as a tragedy. They are still reeling from the shock, when another tile falls and then another.

Mark Dunn takes us on a journey against time through the eyes of Ella Minnow Pea and her family as they race to find another phrase containing all the letters of the alphabet to save them from being unable to communicate. Eventually, the only letters remaining are LMNOP, when Ella finally discovers the phrase that will save their language.

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Much of dream image formation and, therefore, dream understanding is based on language. This mother’s dream made a picture of an idiom, and used a homonym: "I dreamt I was watching my teenage daughter in a pond, playing with koi fish." Playing coy is an idiom meaning pretending to be shy and innocent. Checking up, the mother found her daughter wasn't at the library studying all those evenings.

Dream-mind mostly chooses the images it uses on the basis of a similarity linking the image to a referent in the dreamer's memory banks. Baylis conjectures that dream-mind thinks of its message in language then finds associative ways to express the message in images.

Baylis first defines the major areas that dream-mind searches. Each subset, such as idiom and homonym, is also defined. To make it easy, Baylis supplies a comic-strip illustration of each process. For personification, comic-strip character SHOE looks under his car hood with a mechanic who asks, "How come you never buy a new car?" SHOE says, "Money talks you know and my paycheck needs speech therapy." Dream examples of each associative thinking process follow.

Once you've made your $25 donation, you must email us at info@vocabula.com so that we know who you are and what book you would like. Copies are limited.

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Once you've made your $20 donation, you must email us at info@vocabula.com so that we know who you are. America in So Many Words Words That Have Shaped America by Allan A. Metcalf and David K. Barnhart

Donate $20 to The Vocabula Review and receive Allan A. Metcalf and David K. Barnhart's America in So Many Words.

This book presents a unique historical view of American English. It chronicles year by year the contributions Americans have made to the vocabulary of English and the words Americans have embraced through the evolution of the nation. For important years from the settlement of Jamestown until 1750, and for every year from 1750 through 1998, a prominent word is analyzed and discussed in its historical context. The result is a fascinating survey of American linguistic culture through past centuries.

Once you've made your $20 donation, you must email us at info@vocabula.com so that we know who you are and what book you would like. Copies are limited.

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