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July 2003, Vol. 5, No. 7 ISSN 1542-7080

Coming in the August issue of The Vocabula Review: "Sayonara, Mr. Fowler: On the Use and Abuse of Foreign Words and Phrases" by John Nelson


The August issue of The Vocabula Review is due online August 17.

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The new slang-filled 11th edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary does as much as, if not more than, Webster's Third to discourage people from taking lexicographers seriously.

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TVR Forum

I am wondering what historical, sociological, psychological, linguistic, moral, ethical, or other type of evidence you might cite to support the slogan: A society is generally as lax as its language. — What do you say?
Perhaps my television habits aren't full enough, because I am left out of conversations using the verbs "to dis" and "to vet." Where did they come from? — What do you say?
I use "an" with "historic". Fowler backs this up, but friends have said it's sounds stuffy, and that "a historic" is preferable. Who's right? — What do you say?
I enjoy reading the Worst Words segment if only to see what poor innocent word is being pilloried today. — What do you say?

Join the discussion.

The Elder Statesman
by Clark Elder Morrow
TVR Columnist

The Critical Reader
by Mark Halpern
TVR Columnist

The Last Word
by Christopher Orlet
TVR Columnist

Love Your English
by Valerie Collins
TVR Columnist

Two by Fiske The Dictionary of Concise Writing (with a foreword by Richard Lederer) and The Dimwit's Dictionary (with a foreword by Joseph Epstein) are now for sale.

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The Dictionary of Concise Writing with a foreword by Richard Lederer

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The Dimwit's Dictionary with a foreword by Joseph Epstein

Book reviews

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Back  To Hell with Language: The Language of Comedy Francis Blessington

Language is a system of thought that we impose on the chaos of experience in order to screen ourselves from the incomprehensible, the inarticulate, the indifferent, and the hostile. It is supposed to "make sense," that is, be consistent with itself, like a dictionary, and be consistent with the outside world, whatever that may actually be. Language is the material we use to construct our model of reality, which enables us, in turn, to construct memory, experience, behavior, morality, identity, and consciousness. More ... 

Back  Pornographorhea Robert McHenry

I've been looking at a lot of online pornography. By "a lot" I mean sometimes as many as a thousand porn sites in a day.

("Dear Mr. Fiske: Please cancel my subscription forthwith.") More ... 

Back  No Opinion Joseph Epstein

During a question-and-answer period following one of his lectures, the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott was asked what he thought about England's place in the European Union. "I don't," Oakeshott replied, "see that I am required to have an opinion on that."

I found that response very helpful, for more and more things crop up on which I, too, feel having an opinion unnecessary. Especially has this become so in the realm of popular culture. On the movie The Matrix and its sequels, for example, I have no need to weigh in with a penetrating, or even banal, insight. This is a subject best left to those pop culture punditi who specialize in being ten minutes ahead of the With-It Express, which departs the station at five-minute intervals. More ... 

Back  A Declaration of Linguistic Independence Richard Lederer

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a people to improvise new words to catch and crystallize the new realities of a new land; to give birth to a new vocabulary endowed with its creators' irrepressible shapes and textures and flavors; to tell tales taller and funnier than anyone else had ever thought to before; to establish a body of literature in a national grain; and to harmonize a raucous chorus of immigrant voices and regional lingoes — then this truth becomes self-evident: that a nation possesses the unalienable right to declare its linguistic independence and to spend its life and liberty in the pursuit of a voice to sing of itself in its own words. More ... 

Back  Opposing Views on That and Which Frank E. Keyes, Jr.

Descriptivists believe that language has no usage rules. They maintain that we can only describe the way people use words and not criticize their usage as substandard. Descriptivists take a democratic approach and perceive prescriptivists, their opposite, as elitist. Prescriptivists say we can criticize some word usage as substandard and perceive descriptivists as anarchistic, not democratic. Each group is not as right and the other not as wrong as each believes, often with passion. Follett describes these two in the following: More ... 

Back  Sound Off  
The Art of Shoddy Writing: Anthony Tommasini's New York Times Music Reviews
Mary C. Legg

Long rambling phrases, inexcusable in journalism and other prose, mark as well as mar New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini's writing. Filled with asides and cluttered with unessential parentheses, his sentences are much muddled and cloy like cold oatmeal. Not satisfied with stuffing sentences with verbiage, he also enjoys circumlocution. More ... 

Back  Two Poems Robert Bové

Of all the friends of the USA, none so utile as—


Of all the men who have squeezed into the glorious uniform of the fatherland—

Not quite.

Of all the men who have soared from abject poverty to the heights of power— More ... 

Back  The Elder Statesman  
Snarking the Wire Weenies
Clark Elder Morrow

Take heart and be of good cheer. I bring you tidings of great joy. Or at least tidings of good news for all of us who lament what we imagine to be the gradual disappearance of colorful slang from the American vocabulary. Americans — who in the twentieth century alone aggrandized slang to proportions never before imagined, and who, in my opinion, made practically a whole new language out of brilliantly funny patois — Americans are still at it, and not (as one might have thought) in the world of technospeak. More ... 

Back  The Critical Reader  
Professor Trudgill Is Puzzled
Mark Halpern

I must begin by complimenting Professor Trudgill on his willingness to deal with at least some of the criticisms I made of his work in my "Critical Reader" column of May 2002; unlike most of my targets, he is ready to make substantive replies to criticism rather than stand on some largely imaginary professional dignity. This raises him, in my estimation, well above the ruck of his colleagues, whose typical reaction to rigorous criticism is to suddenly remember a very important appointment for which they are already late, and, muttering "Bless my whiskers!" disappear down the nearest rabbit hole. But the wisest words of Trudgill's rebuttal are the first three: "I am puzzled...." Indeed he is, and more than he knows; most of this column will consist of pointing out issues on which Trudgill does not even realize he is puzzled, and of attempts to clear up his puzzlement. 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.

impactful Idiotic for influential (or similar words). • Positive and impactful progress requires confidence, strategic vision, and the energetic change agents who will lead the way to new paths of success. USE effective. [CDR Assessment Group] • Let Exclusive show you how our motivational, impactful, focused campaigns can translate into revenue growth and expanded opportunities. USE powerful. [Exclusive] • Since his arrival on the scene over 4 years ago, Dave has been an impactful, respected member of the USA team. USE influential. [Silicon Valley Biz Ink]

The verb impact is criticized, and rightly so, but the adjectival impactful, often used by businesspeople and marketers whose products or services are suspect, should be contemned. 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.

There exists, perhaps, no single circumstance which distinguishes our country more remarkably from all others, than the vast extent and perfection to which we have carried the contrivance of tools and machines for forming those conveniences of which so large a quantity is consumed by almost every class of the community. The amount of patient thought, of repeated experiment, of happy exertion of genius, by which our manufactures have been created and carried to their present excellence, is scarcely to be imagined. If we look around the rooms we inhabit, or through those storehouses of every convenience, of every luxury that man can desire, which deck the crowded streets of our larger cities, we shall find in the history of each article, of every fabric, a series of failures which have gradually led the way to excellence; and we shall notice, in the art of making even the most insignificant of them, processes calculated to excite our admiration by their simplicity, or to rivet our attention by their unlooked-for results. — Charles Babbage, Economy Of Machinery And Manufacture 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.

(it's) a nightmare How impoverished our imaginations are. Nightmares ought to be terrifying, but this metaphor — so popular has it become — is hopelessly tame. It was a nightmare instills in us as little compassion as it does interest; it makes us yawn rather than yell. No longer is there terror to it. 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.

(a; the) ... action delete. • Thai police increased patrols at international schools in Bangkok and around popular tourist resorts after receiving intelligence information about potential terrorist action. Thai police increased patrols at international schools in Bangkok and around popular tourist resorts after receiving intelligence information about potential terrorism. • Jailing Danilov was retaliatory action against the seizure of a Soviet agent in the United States. Jailing Danilov was retaliation against the seizure of a Soviet agent in the United States. • We are taking steps to revoke the security clearances of individuals who have been involved in illegal actions. We are taking steps to revoke the security clearances of individuals who have been involved in illegalities. • The innovative actions of the European Regional Development Fund are laboratories of ideas for disadvantaged regions. The innovations of the European Regional Development Fund are laboratories of ideas for disadvantaged regions. 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.

auspicate (AW-spi-kate) v. to begin or inaugurate with a ceremony for good luck. 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:

Use an apostrophe to show possession, not (except in a few specific instances) to show plurality. 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.

Vladimir Nabokov: Bend Sinister 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. If you'd rather, you may post, at any time, a message in TVR Forum.

I am writing to commend Mark Halpern for his response to Richard Posner's essay on plagiarism ["O, What a Noble Mind Is Here O'erthrown," Vol. 5, No. 6]. My enthusiasm for the piece is not in any way tempered by the fact that I am a practicing attorney! Please remember that not all lawyers are "obsessed" with only harms that can be cured with legal remedies.

I am not sure you are aware of this, but Posner is the leading proponent of the "Law and Economics" movement — a movement that can be described as turning Marx on his head. In Posner's Utilitarian world (and Utilitarian is the perfect name for it), all of our decisions are (or should be) based on economics. Posner literally stands for the proverb: Money talks and bullshit walks. If you doubt this fact, read a couple of Posner's other books: (1) Sex and Reason and (2) Law and Literature. For Posner, the best decisions (including legal decisions) are the decisions that are the best economic decisions. By "best," Posner follows the Utilitarian view of what is best for the greater number of people (Posner adores the British Utilitarian and jurist James Fitzjames Stephen and the American Utilitarian and jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes). For Posner, the moral dilemma faced by any individual is almost always outweighed by the "public good."

The problem with Posner's Utilitarianism is evidenced (no pun intended) by a hypothetical situation posed by the late philosopher Bernard Williams. As described in a recent obituary:

Williams attacked Utilitarianism on a number of grounds. In one example, a bandit chief tells you that if you kill one of his captives, he will allow the other prisoners to go free; but that if you don't, he will kill all of them. On Utilitarian grounds, the right thing to do would be to do what causes the fewest deaths and kill the captive. But Williams wanted us to see that it is not just what happens (or the consequences) of an action that matter, but who does it. To perform such an act would damage our integrity as a moral agent and, incidentally, our psychological identity.1

When Posner looks at how people choose mates, whether abortion should be legal, or any other issue, the bedrock question for him is: What makes the best economic sense? If you cannot quantify it economically, then it really cannot be quantified at all in Posner's world.

Posner's statement that: "I have no desire to respond to this intemperate piece" is really ironic when you consider it. He displays an affection for a mannered gentility in his case where he has "squandered" valuable verbal capital on inapplicable analogies and ridiculous examples! What a "waste" of time! Perhaps we can acquire a response by offering to pay him! Just a thought.

Kevin C. Calhoun
kevincalhounlaw@earthlink.net More ... 


To Hell with Language: The Language of Comedy — Francis Blessington

Pornographorhea — Robert McHenry

No Opinion — Joseph Epstein

A Declaration of Linguistic Independence — Richard Lederer

Opposing Views on That and Which — Frank E. Keyes, Jr.

Sound Off: The Art of Shoddy Writing: Anthony Tommasini's New York Times Music Reviews — Mary C. Legg

Two Poems — Robert Bové


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Snarking the Wire Weenies

Mark Halpern: The Critical Reader — Professor Trudgill Is Puzzled


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

The Myth of Gaps — Allan Metcalf

The Prepositionless Excremental — David R. Williams

You Got Attitude? — Joseph Epstein

The Grammar of Anthony Burgess's The Eve of Saint Venus — Richard Burnett Carter

Heaven and Hello — Heinz Insu Fenkl

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A distillation of Fiske's The Dimwit's Dictionary, this handy reference includes some of the most foolish phrases we speak and write. Incisive, sometimes acerbic, commentary accompanies each entry. 101 Foolish Phrases encourages you to speak and write more carefully and thoughtfully. Think critically: read a Vocabula Book.

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