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June 2003, Vol. 5, No. 6 ISSN 1542-7080

Coming in the July issue of The Vocabula Review: "To Hell with Language: The Language of Comedy" by Francis Blessington

Francis Blessington is a literary critic, translator, poet, and novelist. His most recent novel is The Last Witch of Dogtown. This is his first article for The Vocabula Review.


The July issue of The Vocabula Review is due online July 20.

Language News
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More than incorrect grammar and an infelicitous style, the deliberate misuse of words — euphemism, circumlocution, lying — is an assault on language and society.

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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?
Does anyone know the reason behind the English/Canadian usage where the word "the" is dropped before nouns which seem to conotate a place? — 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?

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The Elder Statesman
by Clark Elder Morrow
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The Critical Reader
by Mark Halpern
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The Last Word
by Christopher Orlet
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Love Your English
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Back  Who Owns English Orin Hargraves
For God's sake, do not speak of British English! The English of Britain is the Queen's English, otherwise known as English — of which there are many variants commonly denominated to the area in which they are spoken or perhaps misspoken!

There is no such thing as the Queen's English. The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company, and we own the bulk of the shares.

Anyone reading these two quotes might guess that they are entries in a contemporary debate about the tensions between American English and British English — the two leading dialects of what is now the world's first language. In fact these two statements were made about 100 years apart. The first is from a Briton's response to a 2001 New York Times article that noted, with amusement, that the Briticism bespoke was gaining currency in American English. The second observation was made by Mark Twain just before the turn of the twentieth century, in his book of travel essays, Following the Equator. The wide separation in time and the contradiction between these two observations by champions of their respective dialects, one a Briton and one an American, attest to the longevity and the entrenched views that characterize the debate about who owns English. More ... 

Back  United Through Proverbs Brenda Townsend Hall

In a world that appears to be torn by irreconcilable differences, it is refreshing to find that humanity everywhere is united by the collective homespun wisdom expressed in proverbs. I often used proverbs as lesson material when teaching English to speakers of other languages because they provide a unifying basis for a multinational class. As soon as I produced my list of proverbs in English, the different nationalities represented in the group would seize on a few of them with a reassuring sense of recognition. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, many hands make light work, or, conversely, too many cooks spoil the broth: such saws seem to crop up everywhere. More ... 

Back  Depopulating Sentences and Writing in the Non-Person Ken Bresler

As a graduate-level instructor of ethics, I regularly assign students to write about the system of ethical thought they adhere to. One of my students turned in a paper describing Christian ethics. When I reproached him for writing about what Christians believe, not what he believes, he said that his other professors told him not to write in the first person. When teacher after teacher, grade after grade, and level after level try to beat the first person out of us, we're no longer sure how to write about our individual beliefs and experiences. More ... 

Back  Food for Thought Keith Hall

It is surprising that we are normally unaware of the striking — and often amusing — connection between food and language. In case you have not noticed this odd connection, here is an intriguing test that you can try.

Ask someone to say ten words in a foreign language, Italian or Japanese, for example. You will find that most of the words he offers are directly related to food. Ten words of Italian would typically include vino, cappuccino, pizza, and several types of pasta. Japanese words might very well include sake, sushi, sukiyaki, and yakitori. Why don't we know the Japanese words for car, cat, or capital punishment? This observation suggests a stronger connection between food and language than we generally realize. More ... 

Back  Sound Off  
The Absence Note
jjoan taber alteri

"Dear Skool, Tony is reel shamed of hisself," began my mother's carefully misspelled letter regarding my brother's unexcused absence from school the previous day, "an he wont do nuttin like dis aggen." More ... 

Back  The Elder Statesman  
Three Studies in Style
Clark Elder Morrow

Say kids, did you know etymology can be fun? That's right! Being a good citizen and getting to know where our all-important words come from is a swell way to spend a few hours around the old Victrola, listening to Captain Hijinks while enjoying a slambang, jim-dandy fire.

For instance, did you know that the words shark and circus come from the same root word? That's right young word detectives, both are derived from the Latin circo, meaning "to wander about, especially in circles." Now you might be scratching your head and asking, "Gosh, sir, how in the world do you get shark from that?" Well, young scholar, that's a mighty fine question. You see, back in the old days, many hundreds of years ago, sailors out on their sloops and dinghies used to spot sharks swimming around in the sea. Notice I said "around" in the sea? It appeared to the poor sailors (who were scratching their heads as you were a moment ago) that sharks swam in circles. It was only to be expected that they would call those circle-swimming fish circs (from circo) because back then most everybody spoke Latin, or a language that came from Latin. Over the years, the word would be pronounced a little differently every time someone new said it, and after a while people were saying shark instead of circ, and that name sort of stuck. More ... 

Back  The Critical Reader  
O, What a Noble Mind Is Here O'erthrown: Posner on Plagiarism
Mark Halpern

Just a few days ago I finished reading, or rather browsing in, Richard A. Posner's Public Intellectuals, and came away with respect for his analytical skills and his wide reading. But since then I've read two essays of his, one titled "On Plagiarism," the other "The Truth About Plagiarism" (apparently he was not as much concerned with the truth in the earlier piece), and have come away doubting not merely his analytical skills, but his sobriety, perhaps even his rationality. The first of these was published in The Atlantic Monthly for April 2002, the second in Newsday for May 30, 2003. The two pieces are the same in substance, and I will treat them as if they were one, except that direct quotations will be marked A (for Atlantic) or N (for Newsday) to help anyone who wants to check their accuracy. More ... 

Back  The Critical Reader Rebutted  
Trudgill Takes on Halpern

Converse Terms, Polysemy, and Respect for Nonstandard Dialects

Peter Trudgill

I am puzzled by Mark Halpern's piece [Myth-Bashing as a Substitute for Thought] attacking my chapter on lexical-semantic change in Language Myths, and by his motivation for writing it. He agrees with me that it is inevitable and natural that languages change through time, but he seems not to share my respect for individuals who happen to be in the vanguard of any particular change at any one time. More ... 

Back  The Last Word  
Purloined Letters
Christopher Orlet

No sooner had the tobacco stains dried on the Declaration of Independence than Richard Henry Lee, the Virginia congressman who'd proposed the independence resolution, accused Thomas Jefferson of appropriating its essence from John Locke's essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government. The main barb of contention centered on a long paragraph that — prefacing the colonials' long list of grievances — comprises the dramatic heart of Jefferson's 1,328-word manifesto. 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.

alterate Idiotic for alter (or similar words). • You must not alterate the button in any way. No changes to the graphics of the button or its size are allowed. USE alter. [In the Wings] • The only way of getting a glimpse of it is shutting down normal perception and entering alterate states of consciousness, when the sense of unity with Ultimate Reality can be experienced. USE alter. [Revelation and Knowledge in Christianity] • Accidentals are added to the numbers if you alterate them by appending -, ! and +. USE alter. [LilyPond] • In order to alterate this field, the user has to change a display setting for the composition window. USE alter. [News Readers]

Some people have a fondness for adding suffixes like -ate or -ity or -ster to words they either don't know the correct forms of or hope to add some small weight to. Alterate is not a word; alter is. 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.

Of Mr Bentham himself we shall endeavour, even while defending ourselves against his reproaches, to speak with the respect to which his venerable age, his genius, and his public services entitle him. If any harsh expression should escape us, we trust that he will attribute it to inadvertence, to the momentary warmth of controversy, — to anything, in short, rather than to a design of affronting him. Though we have nothing in common with the crew of Hurds and Boswells, who, either from interested motives, or from the habit of intellectual servility and dependence, pamper and vitiate his appetite with the noxious sweetness of their undiscerning praise, we are not perhaps less competent than they to appreciate his merit, or less sincerely disposed to acknowledge it. Though we may sometimes think his reasonings on moral and political questions feeble and sophistical — though we may sometimes smile at his extraordinary language — we can never be weary of admiring the amplitude of his comprehension, the keenness of his penetration, the exuberant fertility with which his mind pours forth arguments and illustrations. However sharply he may speak of us, we can never cease to revere in him the father of the philosophy of Jurisprudence. He has a full right to all the privileges of a great inventor: and, in our court of criticism, those privileges will never be pleaded in vain. But they are limited in the same manner in which, fortunately for the ends of justice, the privileges of the peerage are now limited. The advantage is personal and incommunicable. A nobleman can now no longer cover with his protection every lackey who follows his heels, or every bully who draws in his quarrel: and, highly as we respect the exalted rank which Mr Bentham holds among the writers of our time, yet when, for the due maintenance of literary police, we shall think it necessary to confute sophists, or to bring pretenders to shame, we shall not depart from the ordinary course of our proceedings because the offenders call themselves Benthamites. — Lord Macaulay, Westminster Reviewer's Defence of Mill 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.

lowest common denominator For some — copycat journalists, delicate marketing people, and feeble-minded social scientists perhaps — lowest common denominator is a long-winded, short-sighted way of avoiding more telling words. • Instead of disseminating the best in our culture, television too often panders to the lowest common denominator. REPLACE WITH worst. • If you fear making anyone mad, then you ultimately probe for the lowest common denominator of human achievement. REPLACE WITH nadir. • In that environment, each show tried to appeal to the lowest common denominator. REPLACE WITH masses. • So movies must imitate the familiar and be pitched to the lowest common denominator, causing most of them to be flat, stale and familiar. REPLACE WITH dull-minded. 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 suggestive of (the fact that) argues; attests to; bespeaks; betokens; indicates; reveals; shows; signals; signifies; suggests; testifies to; witnesses. • Any breast mass that is suggestive of malignancy by mammography or on physical examination should be biopsied. Any breast mass that suggests malignancy by mammography or on physical examination should be biopsied. • Obtaining pain relief is suggestive of the fact that the injected joint is, indeed, the pain generator. Obtaining pain relief reveals that the injected joint is, indeed, the pain generator. • This response is suggestive of the fact that there is more truth to what transpires in this book than either author knows. This response signals there is more truth to what transpires in this book than either author knows. 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.

adventitious (ad-ven-TISH-es) adj. 1. not inherent but added extrinsically. 2. of or belonging to a structure that develops in an unusual place. 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 ampersand (&) only in proper names — business names, book titles, and the like — that use it themselves; never use it in place of and. 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.

Edith Wharton: The House of Mirth 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.

Having caught myself addressing a group of women friends with a merry, "Hey you guys, what do you want on the pizzas?" I have paused momentarily to wonder at my choice of words. But until I read jjoan ttaber altieri's lyric, expressive and frequently humorous consideration of this ubiquitous phrase ["DisenYOUGUYSing American English," Vol. 5, No. 4], I admit to not giving it its due. Thankfully our language is not static — which of course means that some of those "fab" bits will not adhere to our collective self-conscious very long. What makes "you guys" important is that we haven't an egalitarian synonym; that it has evolved into an inclusive phrase — for guys and gals — that's almost nonsexist; that it has become acceptable to all but the most militant ... er ... I mean, vigilant among us. "Ladies," addressed to a group of [predominantly male] football players, hunched shoulders, is meant to be demeaning. Yet isn't that sad, when the word itself otherwise evokes an era of lace and long gloves and comfortable conversation?

I enjoyed altieri's paper and look forward to seeing further news from her in the Review. As I look forward to enjoying more copies of The Vocabula Review. It's good to know that others are tilting at windmills.

Gail Gavert
gavertg@aol.com More ... 


Who Owns English — Orin Hargraves

United Through Proverbs — Brenda Townsend Hall

Depopulating Sentences and Writing in the Non-Person — Ken Bresler

Food for Thought — Keith Hall

Sound Off: The Absence Note — jjoan ttaber altieri


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Three Studies in Style

Mark Halpern: The Critical Reader — O, What a Noble Mind Is Here O'erthrown: Posner on Plagiarism

Peter Trudgill: The Critical Reader Rebutted: Trudgill Takes on Halpern — Converse Terms, Polysemy, and Respect for Nonstandard Dialects

Christopher Orlet: The Last Word — Purloined Letters


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 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

Practicing Prescriptivism Now and Then — Edward Finegan

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