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Friday, April 25, 2014   Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
April 2014, Vol. 16, No. 4 There are now   79   people reading Vocabula. ISSN 1542-7080
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Mr. Morrow's excellent article seems to me rather oddly to neglect George Orwell, to me the most passionate chronicler of penury, at least in English and in the last century. Orwell avoids Sinclair Lewis' cynicism and universal scorn (quickly boring, as Mr. Morrow accurately says). But where else (certainly not in Dickens, surely not in Thackeray, not even Balzac that I know) do you get the dismal experience of having a bug fall in the milk that was all your supper? That is Down and Out in Paris and London (a sort of grand Guignol of poverty, let us not forget the restaurant kitchen where the food was stored on the dirt floor and eaten by rats). But poverty runs all through Orwell. There is the representative lower-upper-middle-class fellow who (I don't have Orwell to hand and can't quote) theoretically knows how to order in French at a good restaurant or a suit from Savile Row, but can never, ever hope to afford either. Or the class-consciousness of growing up in a house with a maid-of-all-work and one bathroom. One could go on all too easily. It lacks the poetry that somehow hangs over Dickens or Balzac and Frenchness (which may incude his romanticism). But it is powerful stuff. Not boring, but depressing as hell. — What do you say?

Scholarly etymology is always is a pleasure. Mr Casselman's errudition is admirable, and his subject unusally interesting in itself. I neither knew nor had guessed anything of it of it, though I read old French and Old English sources (the latter always in translation, I regret), and, having an Austrian wife I am quite aware of German. It was pleasant to be reminded of Mr. Casselman's French "trash." We encountered that very parade going to luncheon on a dreary day in Paris. Our hearts sank at the thought of another ghastly French mob of Socialists and antinomians. It was a great relief to find ourselves among such pleasant and well-conducted people. — What do you say?

The point about role terms is spot on I think, and deeply relevant in these days of constant questing after nomenclature that is more progressive and p.c. and fair than what tradition affords. The quest sometimes succeeds, but too often the only result is nomenclature that is gaseous, canting, inane, unwieldy, or in some other way beset by unforeseen problems far worse than the one it solved. "Consumer" for "patient" would be such a case, surely. "Patient" has a very long history in English, as both noun and adjective, and an attempt to displace it, based only on some PR department's vague sense that it is not sufficiently complimentary and effusive, will likely fail. If not, its success will come at the expense of clear speaking, clear thinking, and honest dealing. The term comes from the present participle of the Latin "pati," to undergo, suffer, bear, experience. The core sense is "one who undergoes" — or "one who suffers" — but Ms. Anderson is surely right that in older usage this idea was more honorific than it is, at least in some quarters, today. In Latin the participle was often joined into a doublet, "agens et patiens," that was translated into English as "doing and suffering" to make a slogan that was very popular and common at least up to the end of the eighteenth century. The idea was that the two things, acting and being acted upon, neatly summed up life, and the part of wisdom was to recognize the necessity and inevitability of both. Acceptance of suffering was a key aspect of a life well lived. Only a fool would think he could be always agens and never patiens, captain of his fate and master of his soul in every circumstance, even on the way into surgery no doubt. These days, though, there seem to be plenty of fools who want to be told just that about themselves. Or perhaps the point is more that the Folks In Charge are always ready to tell us such flattering fibs in the process of manipulating and hoodwinking us. At all events, thanks to Janet Anderson for an insightful, illuminating discussion. — What do you say?

Jean Mallinson's essay on prepositions is instructive, deeply felt, and beautifully written. It leads me to think that the opposite of the old pedant's rule is the truth: sentences not just may, but must, end with a preposition, since that which determines structure, hence meaning, is conclusive. — What do you say?

Right ho for Mr. Morrow, and for his sentiments, which are spiffy in my view! I think he's dead on about the techie influence, but I would like to suggest another, more eldritch one, the speech of the British Upper Classes, already elevated to the voice of angels by Mr. Wodehouse before it became the dialect of my own youth. — What do you say?

Bravo! Mr. Halpern, your writings on this subject are an unfailing source of insight and pleasure. Thanks so much for the wit, will, energy, and patience you bring to this oddly important controversy. Enlightening enough on its own turf, Linguistics seems to insist on jumping the fence into the traditional fields of rhetoric, editing, criticism, and of course humanistic grammar (which I like to think of as language criticism), where its highly abstract methods and principles grow clumsy, unhelpful, and sophomoric. You do a better job than anyone of leading the bull back out of the corn, over and over. — What do you say?

Actually, there really are some good reasons to Google oneself, as page rank and visibility can have considerable importance. Thanks for a great article. And the word, fantasts, too. I have never used that one, but will correct that problem. Much appreciated. — What do you say?

Well written, and I totally agree. I have never found it irritating or offensive to read "he" as a generic pronoun for both sexes. In fact, what I find more irritating is the use of the two words (he/she, his/her) when one will do. When an author goes so far as to make attempts at political correctness by changing words like mankind, postman, or even policeman, I start stewing over how much of an influence a petty minority has had on contemporary writers. And I find that really, really, sad. — What do you say?

Excellent. — What do you say?

Bravo! What a wonderful essay — I think it beautifully and elegantly captures a poignant moment of life. I found it very moving, and it reawakened old memories of the immigrant dreams of my parents. I also enjoyed the photos and learning about dirndles. — What do you say?

I thought at first that you were merely darkening counsel with a rather too-finespun casuitry, but I own now that your logic is irresistible. You stayed with your argument long enough to convince me (I'm ashamed to admit that if you had stopped your pen earlier I might have tossed the article aside with only a grimace, and an air of bemusement disguising my uncertainty). I am persuaded now that I have been guilty of using "or" as I do the word "and" when I have gone about negating; I had never noticed before the ambiguity involved. You have uncovered a very well hidden landmine in the language — one so well hidden that even when pointed out it remains difficult to see, camouflaged as it is under so many layers of accepted (though inexcusable) usage.

Your article is one more proof of the importance of The Vocabula Review. Thank you for it. — What do you say?


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 In the April 2014 Vocabula
 The May 2014 issue is due online May 18.

by Bill Casselman

We've all heard of incarnation, when an airy spirit or incorporeal deity assumes fleshly form. Incarnation is the literal embodiment of an entity not customarily provided with a perceptible body.

But excarnation, particularly in the sciences of archaeology and anthropology, names a common human burial practice: removing the flesh and organs from a corpse and burying or preserving only the bones. Ancient Egyptian mummification procedures involved partial excarnation. Various world peoples expose a new corpse on a high place and permit birds like buzzards to pick clean or even carry off the bones of the dead.

Excarnation may also be a natural process; for example, the flesh of a dead body exposed will rot away by natural putrefaction, from Latin puter, "rotten" + facere, "to make, to render." A cadaver or, in the charming euphemism of ambulance drivers, mortal remains that have VSA (vital signs absent), any corpse may find itself outside, subject to natural law, and thus subject to be torn or consumed by plundering predators, vulturine raptors, botfly larvae, and the entire hellish circus of saprotrophic fauna and flora evolved to devour our fragile and oh-so-temporary flesh. More ... 

by Clark Elder Morrow

Today we have naming of cocktails.

The task is not an easy one. It would be much easier to name a racehorse, because a thoroughbred racehorse can be called just about anything you like. Think of any combination of words, and there is no reason in the world why it could not be applied to your horse. Here, I'll give you a sample of what I mean: Gloverman. I just took two words that came to mind (glover and man) and put them together. A perfectly good horse's name. The same goes for sailboats: call them anything you like, and who's going to question you (unless, of course, you are being deliberately provocative — there would be nothing arbitrary or unobjectionable about using Slaverunner as your boat name).

But the name of a cocktail should have some connection — however remote — with what you find in the glass. If you're mixing scotch with rosewater (and God knows why you should be doing such a thing), you're going to find some impetus for the name of it in the "rose" portion of rosewater. So you might call your concoction an American Beauty, or a Primrose Pounder, or a Deflowerer (of course that last name could be used for any alcoholic drink). Or, if your libation contains something exotic, like cumin or hibiscus or jasmine, you might want to elaborate on the exoticism involved by naming your drink something like Mystic Scent, or Asian Ghost, or Timor Tea. You'd go for the romance and poetry of all the imagery associated with the colonial Spice Islands of, say, 1885. More ... 

by Richard Lederer

Fifty years ago, on April 5, 1964, General Douglas MacArthur passed away. When he retired from the military in 1951, he declaimed the famous line "Old soldiers never die — they just fade away." But five-star generals are not the only ones who never say die:

• Old librarians never die — they just check out, become overdue, and lose their circulation.

• Old crossword puzzlers never die — they just go across and up.

• Old milkmaids never die — they just kick the bucket and lose their whey.

• Old plumbers never die — they just get out of sink and go down the drain.

• Old teachers never die — they just grade away and lose their principals, their faculties, and their class. More ... 

by Skip Eisiminger

I suppose the empty nest had something to do with it, but after our daughter graduated from the University of South Carolina and moved to New York, I started feeling guilty about all the great advice I'd never given her. So I bought a collection of epigrams entitled As the Saying Goes and distilled a list of what I claimed were "Pop's Proverbs." The Chinese say, "The palest ink trumps the best memory," so I placed it first to encourage writing. Among other things, I advised her to plow around the stumps of Manhattan, to forgive herself over and over, and not to wait for people to love her. I reminded her that civility costs nothing, that there's an exception to most rules, that the end usually does not justify the means, and that pretty is as pretty does.

She wrote back in the palest ink saying thank you, but she'd assimilated most everything I'd collected long before she left home. Apparently "Pop" had conveyed the wisdom through his actions, making the precepts redundant. As Anja put it, "Pop had planted seeds rather than scattering pearls under foot." More ... 

"Bridge May Ice," the signs say, or sometimes, "Bridge Ices Before Road." I have noticed these especially on interstates, especially in the South and West, but also in the Midwest, and for all I know they exist in all fifty states. Clearly, this way of using the word "ice" is favored by massive precedent and high authority. So who am I to find it awkward?

I do, though, quite consistently and involuntarily. Every time I pass one of the signs, my eye catches on it, with a surge of restless annoyance that may last twenty or thirty whole nanoseconds. Shouldn't that be ...? Perhaps by writing this I will finally desensitize the reflex, and find myself able to drive right past the signs like a normal person, caring only about content, alert to the danger of ice on this next overpass, glinting in the August sun.

For now, though, I find the usage elliptical and ungainly. My problem is that ice, as a verb, wants to be transitive; it requires a direct object. Icing is usually not something you do by yourself, as you rise in the morning, but something you do to something or someone else, as you raise the blind for a peek outside. You can ice a cake, or a sprained ankle, or (unusually but comprehensibly) a soda or a just-caught fish, or a kicker or foul shooter (in sports slang, by calling time out). But if you say I'm going to ice now, people just stare. Bill ices with the best of them does not seem to be a meaningful proposition. Nor does the clock always ices in February. The biggest dictionary I own (Random House, 1987) does give an intransitive sense for the word, but far down the list, at number 23, and the example provided — the sherbet is icing in the freezer — sounds quite odd to me. More ... 

A hundred and seventy-five years ago, the most useful expression of universal communication ever devised first appeared in print. That word is OK, and it is recognizable and pronounceable in almost every language on earth.

The explanations for the origin of OK have been as imaginative as they have been various. But the late language maven Allen Walker Read, a Columbia University professor, proved that OK did not derive from okeh, an affirmative reply in Choctaw; nor from the name of chief Old Keokuk; nor from a fellow named Orrin Kendall, who manufactured a tasty brand of army biscuit for Union soldiers in the Civil War and stamped them OK; nor from the Haitian port Aux Cayes, which produced superior rum; nor from "open key," a telegraph term; nor from the Greek ola kalla, meaning "all good."

Rather, as Professor Read discovered, the truth is more political than any of these theories. He tracked down the first known published appearance of OK with its current meaning in the Boston Morning Post on March 23, 1839: "The 'Chairman of the Committee on Charity Lecture Balls' is one of the deputation, and perhaps if he should return to Boston, via Providence, he of the Journal, and his train-band, would have the 'contribution box,' et ceteras, o.k. — all correct — and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward." More ... 

A few years ago, there were so many pending foreclosure cases in Cuyahoga County, Ohio (Cleveland and its suburbs), that from the filing of the Complaint to the Confirmation of the Sale consumed two years. The situation made the front page of the Plain Dealer. To a lot of people, this was news; to a lot of others, those whose properties were being foreclosed, attorneys, bankers, it was not.

Foreclosure is a legal process in which the court takes control of troubled real estate, orders that the property be sold at a public sale, and distributes the money arising from the sale. Quite literally, it takes ownership of the land from one person ("person" includes entities such as corporations, partnerships, estates, and Real Estate Investment Trusts) and transfers it to another.

Foreclosure accomplishes two things: property is sold to pay the debts of the owner, and title to the property is cleared. Most parcels of real estate have at least one cloud on the title. "Cloud" is a metaphor; the legal terms are either "lien" or "encumbrance." The most common lien is a "purchase money mortgage." A mortgage is a voluntarily assumed lien; judgment liens and others are not. When owners of real estate run into financial problems, their creditors can reduce their claims to liens upon the debtors' land. These are involuntary liens that the owners would avoid if they could. More ... 

by Robert Hollander

Perhaps nothing in the fetid grammatical atmosphere we are all breathing is more disturbing than the frequent presence of so-called singular they. This should be seen as plain error but is tolerated by some, perhaps to avoid the stilted, awkward he or she construction. As an example, consider the following sentence: "If a writer does not wish to offend the female reader, they should avoid male-gendered general pronouns."

I confess it hurt to compose that sentence even as an example of what should never be uttered or written. Nonetheless, this ungrammatical practice has been gaining unofficial cachet in the past forty years — indeed, it has a long history as an alternative usage even in a few passages in Shakespeare and other British and American classics, when grammatical rules were looser than they became in the eighteenth century. Avoidance may be the best solution. For instance, we might recast that offensive example as follows: "If writers do not wish to offend the general reader, they should avoid use of singular they."

As the Italians say, c' sempre una terza via (there's always another way). Thus I deplore a willingness to deploy a solecism even if one can thereby "avoid sexism." Just last year, asked to write a recommendation for a student who wanted to enroll in a graduate program, I found myself reading the following from an admissions officer at one of the most respected universities in this country: More ... 

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Love a word? Tell us what it is and perhaps we'll add it to our list of Best Words. There need not be any well-reasoned analysis of your high regard for a word; emotional reactions to the sound or meaning of words are welcome. If a word you love is already listed, you are welcome to tell us why you, too, love the word. The Best Words have an aura of fun or majesty. More ... 

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Hate a word? Tell us what it is and perhaps we'll add it to our list of Worst Words. There need not be any well-reasoned analysis of your distaste for a word; visceral reactions to the sound or meaning of words are welcome. If a word you hate is already listed, you are welcome to tell us why you, too, hate the word. The Worst Words have an aura of foolishness or odium. More ... 

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Each ten-question Vocabula Quiz briefly discusses a specific topic, such as history, science, literature, or philosophy. Of course, you are quizzed not on content but on grammar or usage, vocabulary or spelling, punctuation or style. More ... 

 Featured Essays

Excarnation — Bill Casselman

Today We Have Naming of Cocktails — Clark Elder Morrow

Never Say Die — Richard Lederer

As Was Said of Old: Proverbs — Skip Eisiminger

Notes on the Secret History of English — John Kilgore

Happy 175th Birthday to Our Most Famous American Word — Richard Lederer

Legal Jargon — Part 8: On Forclosures — James Csank

Vocabula Revisited: Another Plea for Avoidance of "Singular They" — Robert Hollander

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The point of this collection is to show that the language can be written with grace and polish qualities that much contemporary writing is bereft of and could benefit from. Read these examples of elegant English, and from each you might glean some turn of phrase, some device of rhetoric, some clarity of expression, some novelty of thought that, in more contemporary writing, you seldom will have noticed.


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