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TVR Home > March 2002 TVR Today is

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

March 2002, Vol. 4, No. 3

Coming in the April issue of The Vocabula Review: "Situation Comedy" by Joseph Epstein

Joseph Epstein, former editor of The American Scholar, teaches writing and literature at Northwestern University and is the author of many books, including Narcissus Leaves the Pool; Ambition, the Secret Passion; Once More Around the Block; Partial Payments; A Line Out for a Walk; and Life Sentences. His Upsizing appeared in the January issue of The Vocabula Review.

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 TVR Forum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Join the discussion.
Back  Words of a Feather Valerie Collins

The wealth of polysemous words in English may be the bane of foreign learners, but the effortless ease with which they can be used to create humor and irony makes them the mainstay of subeditors, songwriters, ad people — everyone in fact who needs to think up attention-catching language. Puns, paragrams, and other forms of word play are pressed into service anywhere and everywhere — book titles and newspaper headlines, product and store names, billboards and T-shirts, stickers and badges. More ... 

Back  Heaven and Hello Heinz Insu Fenkl

"Hello" is such a characteristic American greeting that, back when I was a child in Korea, it was our name for Americans. It was, after all, the first sound out of the GIs' mouths when they saw anyone. Now that I am a professor with twenty years of academic inquiry behind me, I turn again to the question of why Americans say "Hello" and not "Good day" or its many counterparts — "Bon jour," "Guten Tag," "Buon giorno," "G'day" — to greet each other; and I do this because my inquiry into the origins of symbols and folk meanings seems constantly to skirt around the profound meanings of the utterly mundane. More ... 

Back  The Last Words Christopher Orlet

With few exceptions, the last words of history's great players have been about as interesting and uplifting as a phone book. We may expect pearls of profundity and motivational aphorism from our expiring artists, philosophers, and world leaders, but more often we are left with dry-as-dust clichés. But is it fair to expect deep insights into life's mysteries when the dying clearly have other things on their mind — hell, for instance, or unspeakable pain? More ... 

Back  King James Bible Susan Elkin

How many school children now read the most important book — or collection of books — ever published in English? Very few, I suspect. The King James Bible, like The Odyssey and The Iliad of Homer, is an astonishing and timeless account of a mythology that has touched, eased, and educated generation after generation for thousands of years. It underpins our literature, language, culture, and thought across the entire English-speaking world. More ... 

Back  Two Poems Fred Moramarco

Some men take pride in their family name,
Some boast of skills acquired years before,
Some bask in other's eyes, in new found fame,
Some flaunt their wealth, their fame and more,
And each according to his way takes pleasure
In what exalts him high above the crowd.
But these things for me are not a measure
Of my worth. What is I hardly say aloud: 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.

irrelevant Misused for irreverent. • It was full of irrelevant fun almost to the point of Marx Brothers-style of antics, with a small dose of the horrors of war thrown in. USE irreverent. [Cine-Rhama] • "Vancouver: Secrets of the City": An irrelevant look at the lesser-known side of British Columbia's largest city. USE irreverent. [Western Canada Travel] • Andy Armstrong takes an irrelevant look at motoring and motorsport. USE irreverent. [Wigton Motor Club] • His irrelevant style of humour is both witty and makes us think of how we see ourselves. USE irreverent. [The Farside Gallery]

Irrelevant means not relating to the subject; not pertinent. Irreverent means lacking reverence, disrespectful; critical of what is generally accepted; satirical. 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 The world is waiting for a new faith — especially the youth of the world is waiting for a new faith. The old institutions, the old parties, are dead at the roots; they receive no refreshment. The young men and women stand apart, indifferent, inactive. But do not let us mistake their indifference for apathy, their inactivity for laziness. Intellectually, they are very wide awake. But they have rejected our abstract slogans and the hollow institutions in which old men gibber about freedom, democracy and culture. They don't want freedom if it means the freedom to exploit their fellow men; they don't want democracy if it means the ridiculous bagmen of Westminster; they don't want culture if it means the intellectual dope of our academies and universities. They want to get rid of the profiteers, and the advertising men, the petty tyrannical bureaucrats and the screaming journalists, the clubmen and the still too numerous flock of rentiers, forever cackling over their threatened nest-eggs. They want a world that is morally clean and socially just, naturally productive and aesthetically beautiful. And they know they won't get it from any of the existing parties, from any of the existing political systems. They hate fascism, they recoil from communism, and they despise democracy. They are groping towards a new faith, a new order, a new world. They are not a party and never will be a party: they have no name and will perhaps never have a name. But they will act, and onto the ruins of war they will cast the tarnished baubles and stale furnishings of those parliaments which brought death and despair to two successive generations of young men. — Herbert Read, The Politics of the Unpolitical 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.

(a) piece of cake Evoking only the silliest of images, a piece of cake ought to tell us that those who use it have nothing serious to say, and perhaps little thoughtful to think. • Choosing the menu for the wedding reception isn't always a piece of cake. REPLACE WITH easy. • Setting up a Palm device to use GoType! is a piece of cake. REPLACE WITH simplicity itself. At my high school, preparing for college is not a piece of cake. REPLACE WITH effortless. 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.

in a (the) ... sense -(al)ly; delete. • In a broad sense, office automation is the incorporation of technology to help people manage information. Broadly, office automation is the incorporation of technology to help people manage information. • Although there is a significant relationship in a statistical sense, the association is not strong. Although there is a significant statistical relationship, the association is not strong. • I don't mean this in a pejorative sense. I don't mean this pejoratively. • There was really nothing which could be called communication in any genuine sense. There was really nothing which could be called genuine communication. 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.

minutia (mi-NOO-shee-ah) n. a small or minor detail. 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 the possessive pronoun, not the personal pronoun, before verbal nouns ending in ing. 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.

Jane Austen: Emma More ... 

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

I enjoy Mark Halpern's essays, including "The Eskimo Snow Vocabulary Debate," in The Vocabula Review [Vol. 4, No. 2].

A picky point:

Metic (Greek metoikos, meta+oikos "change dwelling") did indeed refer to a legal resident alien in Athens — and in other Greek poleis. More ... 


Words of a Feather — Valerie Collins

Heaven and Hello — Heinz Insu Fenkl

The Last Words — Christopher Orlet

King James Bible — Susan Elkin

Two Poems — Fred Moramarco


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 Wrong-Headedness of Linguistic Self-Righteousness — Alan Pagliere

Snobs and Slobs — David R. Williams

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

The Like Virus — David Grambs

"Secrets" of the Pros — Richard Dowis

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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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