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TVR Home > January 2002 TVR Today is

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

January 2002, Vol. 4, No. 1

Coming in the February issue of The Vocabula Review: "The Dangerous Pleasure of Reading" by Tim Buck

Tim Buck's The Art of Conversation appeared in the November 2001 issue of The Vocabula Review.

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 TVR Forum

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 Call my speech vague and jargony, and I can just as easily regard yours as stiff, pretentious and outdated.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  Upsizing Joseph Epstein

The word downsizing, both an excuse and not a very happy euphemism for firing people, needs, I have decided, a mate: upsizing. The country seems to be in a serious upsizing phase. When and where and how it began, I don't pretend to know, but I have a lurking — as opposed to a somersaulting — suspicion that it may have begun with the naming of the size of cups at Starbuck's. More ... 

Back  Happy Palindromic New Year Richard Lederer

Back in 1907, one A. C. Pearson asked readers to identify the word described in his little poem:

A turning point in every day,
Reversed I do not alter.
One half of me says haste away!
The other bids me falter.

The answer is noon. Half the word is on ("haste away!"), and half is no ("bids me falter"). Together they form a word that reads the same forward and backward. More ... 

Back  Dum & Dummer Michael J. Sheehan

Our parents taught us not to speak negatively of others, but what's a person to do when ignorance, the absence of knowledge, rears its empty head? Any thesaurus will provide us with substantives such as blockheadedness, denseness, doltishness, dumbness, dullness, stupidity, shallowness, incomprehension, unintelligence, and unenlightenment, but when we need heftier words or more striking language, where do we turn? More ... 

Back  "Different From" Not "Different Than" Peter Corey
different adj. 1. Unlike in form, quality, amount, or nature; dissimilar.

Usage Note: Different from and different than are both common in British and American English. The construction different to is chiefly British. Since the 18th century, language critics have singled out different than as incorrect, though it is well attested in the works of reputable writers. According to traditional guidelines, from is used when the comparison is between two persons or things: My book is different from (not than) yours. Different than is more acceptably used, particularly in American usage, where the object of comparison is expressed by a full clause: The campus is different than it was 20 years ago. Different from may be used with a clause if the clause starts with a conjunction and so functions as a noun: The campus is different from how it was 20 years ago.

Sometimes people interpret a simple noun phrase following different than as elliptical for a clause, which allows for a subtle distinction in meaning between the two constructions. How different this seems from Paris suggests that the object of comparison is the city of Paris itself, whereas How different this seems than Paris suggests that the object of comparison is something like "the way things were in Paris" or "what happened in Paris." — American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, 2000

This Usage Note by linguist Geoffrey Nunberg is a perfect example of the kind of bad grammatical advice that continues to get copied and recopied from one so-called authority to another, only to be passed on to unsuspecting students, who accept it as gospel because it supposedly came from an authority. More ... 

Back  Birdheart Greg McPeake

Like some building inspector, in a standard review of any poem or poetry collection, the writer is expected to test the strength of the foundation rhythms, assess the fit of the lines — like planks and boards secured by their enjambment — and measure the hang and the square of the doors and windows of the imagery. However, in this review, I will instead take a rather different approach. I will focus only on those key words that strike the eye and the ear with a certain resonance, which, if I may return to the building inspector role, give the poet's construct its unique character: the spiral staircase that vaults the reader to other levels, the archways leading through to new visions, and the sudden, unexpectedly deep alcoves of meaning. More ... 

Back  Two Poems Warren Jones

Tongue

With tongues in ballet,
gaunt, ribbed, emaciated,
tendons straining against skin,
we do not hear
but wait our turn to speak.

The man whose tongue
turns so far inward
tickling glottis
puking innards
can melt any 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.

amount Misused for number. • Prices are set at $10.00/month for a single board or $25/month for an unlimited amount of boards. USE number. [Hostboard] • Buy a qualifying amount of books and save 10% on all your subsequent purchases of non-discounted books. USE number. [San Diego Technical Books] • All these methods will get you a minuscule amount of terrorists and a maximum amount of drug dealers instead. USE number. [The Master's Underground] • The trends include aging of the population, a decrease in the amount of people who are available to work, an increase in the number of people who are willing to move to get a better paying position, and a change in the way that work is being done. USE number. [Business]

The word number is used with that which can be counted (or count nouns); the word amount with that which cannot easily be (or mass nouns). 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 Where is the graveyard of dead gods? What lingering mourner waters their mounds? There was a time when Jupiter was the king of the gods, and any man who doubted his puissance was ipso facto a barbarian and an ignoramus. But where in all the world is there a man who worships Jupiter today? And who of Huitzilopochtli? In one year — and it is no more than five hundred years ago — 50,000 youths and maidens were slain in sacrifice to him. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is only by some vagrant savage in the depths of the Mexican forest. Huitzilopochtli, like many other gods, had no human father; his mother was a virtuous widow; he was born of an apparently innocent flirtation that she carried out with the sun. When he frowned, his father, the sun, stood still. When he roared with rage, earthquakes engulfed whole cities. When he thirsted he was watered with 10,000 gallons of human blood. But today Huitzilopochtli is as magnificently forgotten as Marie Corelli. Once the peer of Allah, Buddha and Wotan, he is now the peer of Father Rasputin, J. B. Planché, Sadi Cornot, General Boulanger, Lottie Collins, and Little Tich. — H. L. Mencken, Funeral March 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.

basically People often use basically thinking it lends an intellectual air to the meaning of their words. Basically, in truth, only steals the sense from whatever words accompany it, for it proclaims their uncertainty and inexactitude. 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.

about the fact that because; for; in that; since; that; delete. • Management is also concerned about the fact that Walco has not developed brand identification within the market. Management is also concerned that Walco has not developed brand identification within the market. • Moscow is worried about the fact that the Israeli side has used heavy arms for the first time since the sides, in principle, approved of the ceasefire working plan. Moscow is worried because the Israeli side has used heavy arms for the first time since the sides, in principle, approved of the ceasefire working plan. • Are they proud about the fact that over 60% of these students didn't redesignate? Are they proud that over 60% of these students didn't redesignate? 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.

apivorous (a-PIV-er-es) adj. feeding on bees. 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 confuse who's (that is, who is) with whose. 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.

E. M. Forster: A Passage to India 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.

Is the purpose of your site to encourage the proper use of the English language or to circumscribe the English vocabulary to what you regard as legitimate? In reading your segment entitled "Grumbling About Grammar" [Vol. 3, No. 12], I was slightly alarmed to read the author's abrupt dismissal of the neologism "trepidacious." You may rightly frown over the term's lack of elegance, but if a term passes into common usage, then it becomes a bona fide word regardless of its questionable lineage. This is true even if that word is a mis-conjugation of an existing word; consider "edit," the false root of the word "editor." More ... 

 Features

Upsizing — Joseph Epstein

Happy Palindromic New Year — Richard Lederer

Dum & Dummer — Michael J. Sheehan

"Different From" Not "Different Than" — Peter Corey

Birdheart by Elana Wolff — Greg McPeake

Two Poems — Warren Jones

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Clues to Concise Writing

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Letters to the Editor

 TVR Revisited

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

The Like Virus — David Grambs

"Secrets" of the Pros — Richard Dowis

Words That Stab Like a Sword — Pamela Jones

Titanic Blunders — David Carkeet

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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.

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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.

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Once you've made your $25 donation, you must email us at info@vocabula.com so that we know who you are. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory by J. A. Cuddon

Donate $25 to The Vocabula Review and receive J. A. Cuddon's The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory.

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.

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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diaskeuast: an editor; someone who makes a revision