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November 2002, Vol. 4, No. 11 ISSN 1542-7080

Coming in the December issue of The Vocabula Review: "Holy Wars" by Julian Burnside

Julian Burnside is an Australian barrister with a keen interest in the English language. His Obscene Words appeared in the July issue of The Vocabula Review.

The December issue of The Vocabula Review is due online December 16.

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Back  The Secret Nature of Nicknames Darren Crovitz

Not long ago, in conversation with a colleague, the topic of nicknames came up. We reflected briefly on the people we knew who had them, and what they might represent.

"Well, we'll have to think of one for you," I proposed.
"No. No way," said my friend, whose name is Suzy. "Besides, I already have a nickname."
"You do? What is it?"

Thus began a heated discussion of what exactly constitutes a solid, credible nickname, and what forces must come together to create one. I maintained that "Suzy" was not a nickname at all (at least not for her) but a diminutive of Susan, ... and it was her chosen professional name, no less. She refused to accept this argument, but did offer a counterproposal. More ... 

Back  Like, He Said David Isaacson

I am intrigued by two relatively new uses for the word like in American English. I think there must be a logical relationship between these new and older meanings of the word. We still hear lots of people say they like something, meaning that something pleases them. We also still recognize this word as a way of making comparisons between similar things. But in the last few years, many young people have acquired the habit of saying like as a filler word between other words, where the word seems to have no denotative meaning at all, but seems to serve about the same function as uh. More ... 

Back  Rendering unto Caesar Even That Which Is Not His Robert McHenry

Among the less useful contributions to the public debate over U.S. policy toward Iraq has been the following "quotation," attributed to Julius Caesar and widely disseminated over the Internet and, in one embarrassingly public instance, by Barbra Streisand: More ... 

Back  A Teddy Bearish Centennial Richard Lederer

Stuffed bears were popular before Theodore Roosevelt came along, but no one called them teddy bears. More ... 

Back  Sound Off  
On the Incomprehensibility of Privacy Notices
Mark Hochhauser

I don't expect legislators to write like Ernest Hemingway. My Ph.D. (in psychology) doesn't help when I see phrases like "sensitive personally identifiable information" and "nonsensitive personally identifiable information" in Senator Fritz Hollings's proposed online privacy legislation, or "nonpublic personal public information" in several privacy notices mailed last year. This writing style is incomprehensible when I couldn't tell if the last phrase has a real meaning, is a typographical error, is logically inconsistent, or something else entirely. I thought it had to be a typographical error, but since it showed up in several privacy notices, perhaps it was intentional. I have no idea what it means. More ... 

Back  The Elder Statesman  
Crash of the Titans
Clark Elder Morrow

I was fortunate enough last week to be in attendance at the Second International Conference of Rhetorical Superheroes, held this year at the Jersey City Holiday Inn, New Jersey. I missed the Keynote Speaker at the plenary session (Mimesis Man, whose costume includes a large Mirror of Nature on his chest), but I did catch the last day's roundtable discussion during lunch (rosemary chicken, I recall, with vegetarian lasagna the obligatory alternative). More ... 

Back  The Critical Reader  
The Meaning of Objectivity
Mark Halpern

The death of God, although widely noted and generally lamented, has brought with it one problem whose severity seems not to be fully appreciated. Although most agree that His death may well have been a mercy — He was very old, and visibly suffering — it is not yet clear to all that when He died, He took with Him absolute certainty, and in doing so left us in difficulties. This concomitant of His death is proving troublesome to us mortals because we have been accustomed since our own creation to plan and justify our actions by reference to Divine commands and teachings; denied that sanction now, we find ourselves no longer able to plead, when we can bring ourselves to act, that we are just following orders. 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.

bathotic Solecistic for bathetic. • Originally, I had planned some scathing comments on the death of the much-beloved-by-the-media John-John. But I've decided to leave the bathotic commemoration to just the title of this issue and be done with it. USE bathetic. [The Libertarian Enterprise] • Here's my hypothesis: no one expected (certainly not the likes of a Galileo, or Marx, or Darwin, or Freud) that the Human Project would end, or end on such a bathotic note. USE bathetic. [University of St. Thomas] • From its hyperbolic style and bathotic self-importance many might conclude that the piece in question is a spoof of the kind familiar to readers of this paper. USE bathetic. [Trushare]

The adjective of bathos is bathetic, not bathotic. 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.

"Well, so-long!" she cried as the train began to move. "When you see 'em let 'em have it."

Last autumn I followed the Bavarian army down the Isar valley and near the foot of the Alps. Then I could see what war would be like — an affair entirely of machines, with men attached to the machines as the subordinate part thereof, as the butt is the part of a rifle.

I remember standing on a little round hill one August afternoon. There was a beautiful blue sky, and white clouds from the mountains. Away on the right, amid woods and corn-clad hills, lay the big Starnberg lake. This is just a year ago, but it seems to belong to some period outside of time. 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) must (miss) Like all badly made terms, (a) must (miss) is no sooner said than it sounds stale, no sooner read than it sours. In all its variations — a must have, a must read, a must see, and so on — this phrase is altogether too musty.

• A good soundtrack, but a dull story, bad acting and weak special effects make this a must-miss. • Phone interviewing skills are a must for most human resource professionals spend a good portion of their day on the phone. • Over 200 must-do summer events are listed. • Aux Delices is a must stop for chowhounds. • If ever the Lightning faced a must-win game, this was 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.

endorse on the back (of) endorse.Endorse on the back of the certificate by signing your name(s) exactly as it appears on the face of the certificate. Endorse the certificate by signing your name(s) exactly as it appears on the face of the certificate. • These are calculated on forms that resemble actual paychecks, which the students and their parents must endorse on the back. These are calculated on forms that resemble actual paychecks, which the students and their parents must endorse. 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.

cenotaph (SEN-ah-taf) n. a monument honoring a dead person whose remains lie elsewhere. 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:

An adverb, not an adjective, modifies a verb. 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.

Samuel Beckett: Murphy More ... 


The Secret Nature of Nicknames — Darren Crovitz

Like, He Said — David Isaacson

Rendering unto Caesar Even That Which Is Not His — Robert McHenry

A Teddy Bearish Centennial — Richard Lederer

Sound Off: On the Incomprehensibility of Privacy Notices — Mark Hochhauser


Clark Elder Morrow: The Elder Statesman — Crash of the Titans

Mark Halpern: The Critical Reader — The Meaning of Objectivity


Grumbling About Grammar

Elegant English

On Dimwitticisms

Clues to Concise Writing

Scarcely Used Words

Oddments and Miscellanea

On the Bookshelf

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Student Bloopers — Michael J. Sheehan

The Art of Conversation — Tim Buck

Memo to Reviewers — David Carkeet

Snobs and Slobs — David R. Williams

Writing: The Democratization of American Letters — Christopher Lord

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