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The Vocabula Review

A society is generally as lax as its language.

Even today — subjected as we are to the apotheosis of popular culture — using the English language respectfully helps us maintain a sense of ourselves and our values. To do otherwise, to disregard the ways of our words, is to forsake our humanity and, perhaps, even forfeit our future. A society is generally as lax as its language. And in a society of this sort, easiness and mediocrity are much esteemed.

Coming in the November issue of The Vocabula Review: "You Got Attitude?" by Joseph Epstein

In November, TVR will publish "You Got Attitude?" a new essay by Joseph Epstein, the author of a good number of books, including Ambition, the Secret Passion; A Line Out for a Walk; Life Sentences; and, most recently, Narcissus Leaves the Pool. Joseph Epstein writes for Commentary, The New Yorker, The New Criterion, and The Weekly Standard.

Although there are no subscription fees to The Vocabula Review, voluntary contributions would be gratefully accepted and used to support the continuation of this journal (generosity).

Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, professor of English at the University of Texas and the author of Ask a Policeman: A Rafe Buenrostro Mystery, sent a contribution, as did A. David Wunsch, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Massachusetts and the author of Complex Variables with Applications.

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The Vocabula Review (TVR) is published on the third Tuesday of each month. To read the journal archives, click on any of the following dates:

October 2000, Vol. 2, No. 10 Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor, editor@vocabula.com

Politicians Incorrect Richard Lederer

Many mean things have been said about politicians. They have even been skewered by a fanciful etymology for the word politics: poly, as in polygon, polygamy, polyglot, and polytheistic, means many — and tics, well, tics are blood-sucking parasites! More ...

Arabic Influences in the English Language Habeeb Salloum

Visitors from Britain or North America strolling through an Arab city and listening to the Arabic conversations of passersby are usually unaware that the English language includes a good number of words derived from that strange tongue. Yet, if they are not students of linguistics, they cannot be blamed. Many of the Arabic words borrowed by English are so anglicized that, for the layperson, it is difficult to identify their true origin. More ...

No Greater Misfortune: Debating with American Academics Mark Halpern

For about half a century now, I have been involved, one way and another, in debates with academic experts in a number of disciplines. Sometimes my involvement has been very superficial, barely more than that of a spectator; more often, it has been quite intensive, with lengthy messages passing between my opponents and me, or appearing publicly in print or on the web. The controversy I am currently engaged in has caused me to reflect on this lifetime of intellectual debate, and to formulate some general notions about debating with North American academics. (I limit myself to North Americans — citizens of Canada and the United States — because I want to be able to support my assertions with personal experience.) More ...

Two Poems Elana Wolff

Bone & Jay

By the Mozart, by the topaz
moon in the month of
chrysanthemums —

those faraway words, those deep-
reaching words like woad
seep silently in — More ...

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.

decimate Misused for destroy (or similar words). • A trial enabled the company to decimate the workforce at its Taupo mill this year — 100 more jobs are at risk next year. USE reduce. [World Socialist Web Site] • Bulldogs decimate Cougars. USE thrash. [The Times-News] • Inexperience and injury may decimate some wrestling teams, but the Bears have held their ground through a difficult start to the season despite some new faces. USE defeat. [The Bear Facts] • As the slick spread out, it threatened to decimate the internationally important bird sanctuaries of Skomer, Skokholm and Lundy, and to destroy the fisheries and tourist industry of the beautiful Pembrokeshire coast. USE ruin. [BBC Online] • If he doesn't go for the deal, we'll just decimate him. Flat out just decimate him. USE crush. [Senator Joseph Biden on CBS News Face the Nation]

Originally, decimate meant to kill one person in ten. Today, the word has come to mean to kill or destroy a large part of. One cannot correctly, as in these illustrations, use decimate to mean, simply, kill or destroy, or (even more absurdly), damage or defeat. More ...

The Grumbling About Grammar Awards (GAGAs)

Under some circumstances, that might be a good idea, but being as they have not yet been willing to recognize Kostunica as the lawful winner of the election, I'm not sure that it's right for us to invite the president of Russia to mediate the dispute there because we might not like the result. — Al Gore, U.S. presidential candidate

Being as, being as how, being as that (like seeing as, seeing as how, seeing as that) are all, according to some commentators, illiteracies, and according to others, quaint and rural sounding; they are hardly presidential sounding. More ...

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.

And the enemy it is out to destroy is every obstinate vestige of linguistic punctilio, every surviving influence that makes for the upholding of standards, every criterion for distinguishing between better usages and worse. In other words, it has gone over bodily to the school that construes traditions as enslaving, the rudimentary principles of syntax as crippling, and taste as irrelevant. — Wilson Follett, Sabotage in Springfield, Webster's Third Edition More ...

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.

popular prescriptions Powerless to repeat an author's epigram, unfit to recite a poet's verse, more than many of us are utterly able to echo a society's slogans and clichés: absence makes the heart grow fonder; actions speak louder than words; beauty is in the eye of the beholder; better late than never; do as I say, not as I do; forgive and forget; hope for the best but expect the worst; it takes two; keep (your) nose to the grindstone; live and learn; misery loves company; money isn't everything; neither a borrower nor a lender be; take it one day (step) at a time; the best things in life are free; the sooner the better; time flies when you're having fun; two wrongs don't make a right; what goes around, comes around; you can't have everything. More ...

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 the way (of) delete. • This step requires that you research jobs to determine what they call for in the way of education, skills, and aptitudes. This step requires that you research jobs to determine what education, skills, and aptitudes they call for. • There is little motivation for long periods of foolishness, and there is much in the way of market discipline to prevent it. There is little motivation for long periods of foolishness, and there is much market discipline to prevent it. • A sentence such as "It is 93 million miles to the sun" does not generate much in the way of questions; it is too specific. A sentence such as "It is 93 million miles to the sun" does not generate many questions; it is too specific. • As parents, we got little in the way of help, a good deal in the way of confusion, and an infinite amount in the way of worry. As parents, we got little help, a good deal of confusion, and an infinite amount of worry. More ...

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.

didymous (DID-ah-mes) adj. arranged, occurring, or growing in pairs; twin. More ...

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 use quotation marks following the phrase so-called. More ...

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.

F. L. Lucas: Style More ...

Letters to the Editor

Concerning Mark Halpern's "Why Linguists Are Not to Be Trusted on Language Usage" [Vol. 2, No. 9], I have time and energy to comment on only two points:

The number of asymmetric negatives in English is small and often, as Halpern shows, a subject of humor. And we will note in all of the examples that Halpern cites, the unnegated form does not exist. Disinterested on the other hand, is readily decomposed into "dis" plus "interested" although this does not yield the prescriptivists' favored meaning. It is difficult to understand how promoting the use of a word with a meaning that is not one based upon decomposition can promote accuracy or precision in the language.

Second, always try to make your opponent prove a negative. It is possible that using prescriptive language may lower the crime rate, just as it is possible that wearing blue buttons may and I dare you to prove otherwise. However, the positive of this argument would be stronger if there were the least bit of evidence that when we control for economic status, education, sex, and the like, those who use prescriptive grammar are more moral than those who don't.

Frank Anshen
fanshen@notes.cc.sunysb.edu More ...


Politicians Incorrect

Arabic Influences in the English Language

No Greater Misfortune: Debating with American Academics

Two Poems


Grumbling About Grammar

The Grumbling About Grammar Awards (GAGAs)

Elegant English

On Dimwitticisms

Clues to Concise Writing

Scarcely Used Words

Oddments and Miscellanea

On the Bookshelf

Letters to the Editor

TVR Editorials

On Dimwitticisms: An Introduction

The Imperfectibility of People

The Perfectibility of Words

The Remains of All Writing, the Spoils of All Speech

Other Business

Ads and Offers

English-Language Links

The Bookshelf

The Collected GAGAs

TVR Banner

A Word on Generosity


Mark Halpern

Richard Lederer

Habeeb Salloum

Elana Wolff

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September's TVR Poll results: Are you comfortable with "enormity" being used as a synonym for "enormousness"?

• Only imbeciles would use it to mean enormousness: 18%
• Use "enormity" only to mean excessively wicked: 45%
• Change is inevitable; there's nothing to be done: 15%
• Both words do, and ought to, mean the same thing: 14%
• Words should mean whatever we want them to mean: 8%

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