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Thursday, August 21, 2014   Calendar Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher
July 2014, Vol. 16, No. 7 There are now   95   people reading Vocabula. ISSN 1542-7080
 Discuss This Article

As a writer and a retired teacher of composition I whole-heartedly agree with what you say. The summary paragraph beginning "Yet to neglect those papers ... is particularly fine. Thanks for stating so clearly the case for helping sutdents learn through practice the essentials of essay writing. — What do you say?

Three cheers for this excellent peroration to what has been a very stimulating and worthwhile debate, revealing, on both sides, intellectual swordsmanship of a high order. I have previously read Mark Halpern's book with profit and pleasure, and look forward to getting to Lane Greene's. Any readers of my own TVR offerings (i.e., both of you guys) will know that I incline more toward Halpern's position than Greene's. With that by way of caveat, and with no illusion that I will be settling anything, three quick points on Greene's argument here: 1) The WSJ evidence for a new meaning of "beg the question" is very impressive up to a point. Many readers will be fully convinced that the new meaning has permanently obliterated and replaced the old. But two other possibilities have not been fully considered: a) the current prevalence of the new meaning is a fad, overwhelming for the moment, but destined to die out in time; or b) the new meaning now coexists with the old, as happens with countless other words and expressions, and the meaning that applies in a particular instance will be determined by context and the speaker's evident intention. 2) Greene declares that "I know the language has not gone downhill" because "no language ever has or will." That statement in itself seems worth another 3-part debate perhaps, as there is so much to be said on both sides. It is in its way an admirable statement of principle, comparable to "All Men are Created Equal." But it flies in the face of much everday experience that teaches us that language is an extremely fragile body of convention, demanding constant cultural work (education, editing, style guides, the writing of dictionaries, debates like this one) if it is to go on functioning optimally. To the Ds, only what Steven Pinker calls "The Language Instinct" matters, and it will always set things to rights: we will find ways to communicate no matter what gabble we happen to be speaking. But Ps feel that the language ITSELF is a precious resource and achievement that can never easily be replaced, so that change, up to a point, is worth resisting: a project comparable to conservationism in regard to the natural world, perhaps. Standing at our great historical remove, it makes sense to observe, happily, that Latin never died out but just changed into a gaggle of successor languages. But such a perspective is perfectly useless if you are a Latin editor in 300 AD, struggling to come to terms with a host of ominous neologisms. Nor is it helpful if you are a third grade teacher in 2014, trying to decide what language habits you should encourage in your students early on in their long lives. (Pure Descriptivism could give no answer but "It doesn't matter.") 3) It is not just upper-class snobs who get annoyed by others' errors and want to correct them. Debates over usage arise quite spontaneously at every level of usage and education, and cry out for resolution somehow. Lane's observations about needlessly wounding rhetoric are for the most part well taken I think. But a good Prescriptivist (e.g., Garner) is no arbitrary aggressor, but a helpful judge and guide to difficulties he or she did not invent. — What do you say?

Yes! I frown with you upon all your examples. Only a few days ago I found myself frowning on "advocate for" and wondering if I was the only one who found the "for" unidiomatic and semi-redundant so I am glad for the company. And I have never quite become used to the transitive "grow" applied to things other than plants. I would like to add "wait on" as a substitute for "wait for." I think you struck just the right tone here. Languages drift. The drift consists of ebbs and flows, of out and back experimental excursions. On the other side, I smile upon some of the newer slang idioms and coinages that add vibrancy to the language -- like "selfie" -- but may or may not survive. — What do you say?

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?

Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English
A compendium of mistakes in grammar, usage, and spelling with commentary on lexicographers and linguists

Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English

However curmudgeonly, Mr. Fiske betrays a bluff humanitarian spirit. ... Fiske wants to save the English language. And he knows that he can count on little help. "Dictionaries have virtually no standards, offer scant guidance, and advance only misunderstanding." His own flogging of Merriam-Webster's is one of the many pleasures of this lovely, sour, virtuous book. — Wall Street Journal

You can order Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English from Simon & Schuster or Amazon or Vocabula or elsewhere.

To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing
The essential guide to writing succinctly

To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing

To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing is the perfect reference book for anyone who wants to communicate more effectively through clear and beautiful prose. In this freshly updated edition that features hundreds of new entries, Robert Hartwell Fiske lays out multiple lines of attack against verbiage. He starts by training writers, new or experienced, to tackle wordy trends in their work. His "Dictionary of Concise Writing" helps them identify and correct — or delete — thousands of specific redundant phrases. In addition, writers can turn to the new "Guide to Obfuscation: A Reverse Dictionary" to build a more pithy vocabulary. Filled with real-world examples that provide clarity and context for Fiske's rules of concision, this is a writer's sharpest weapon against verbosity.

You can order To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing from Amazon or Vocabula or W. W. Norton.

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Elegant English
Elegant English is exhilarating; it stirs our thoughts and feelings as ably as everyday English blurs them.
Elegant English

As the superfluity of uninspired, careless, grammatically incorrect, slang-ridden English makes plain, elegant English is English rarely heard, English seldom seen.

The point of this book is to show that the language can, indeed, be spoken or written with grace and polish — qualities that much contemporary English is bereft of and could benefit from.

You can order Elegant English from Vocabula.

 In the July 2014 Vocabula
 The August 2014 issue is due online August 24.

To Aristotle, Rhetoric is principally about everything except rhetorical terms and techniques. He takes a very open and expansive view of the ancient discipline: he thinks it deals with everything else. Oh sure, he'll cannonade words like "enthymeme" and "elenchus" at you when the fit is on, but his heart's not really into waxing sesquipedalian. He's much more interested in examining the hidden, underlying moral organs of the human animal. By which I mean this. If rhetoric is the art of persuading people to agree with you on the truth of a proposition, the sage surmises, then it is paramount to understand the nature of truth itself, and to be able to recognize it when you see it. Then you will be in a position to help others see and understand it as well. So Aristotle spends the bulk of his treatise laying out for us what he perceives to be the great truths of The Archetypal Human Being — the truth of all those conflicting and complementary feelings, instincts, and faculties that make up each one of us. If we are going to influence and persuade people, we need to know people — not in order to practice on and exploit their emotions ("It is just as absurd to try to win a judge by anger, pity or jealousy as to make the ruler crooked you're about to use"), but to apprehend the essentials of their human condition both collectively and individually; once we do that, sharing our insights with others will help bring them along to our viewpoint.

Consequently, Aristotle maps out for himself a free-fire zone — or a playground without rules — in which he can indulge himself in endless speculation on the nature of Man. What is shame, and how does it affect individuals? How does anger influence our perceptions? What are the differences between punishment and revenge? Many times it seems that Aristotle is studying Ethics rather than Rhetoric. But that's what makes his book so much fun: it reads like a collection of aphorisms on morality in all of morality's lurid and lustrous dimensions. The Stagarite is not afraid to lift a few rocks to see what crawls out, but his view of his fellow creatures is generally benign and balanced. And — it should be said — remarkably trenchant. No doubt his real-world experience in the halls of Macedonian power, where the purest form of Realpolitik was practiced, had taught him much about human nature (the father of his princely student was assassinated). And one of the conclusions he arrived at was this: "Men in general are depraved." In that he agrees with the Judeo-Christian outlook. Aristotle can sound, occasionally, as cynical as anyone else: having in mind an unnamed priestess who tried to dissuade her son from becoming a public speaker, he quotes her as saying: "If on the one hand you speak what is just, men will hate you; if what is unjust, the gods." "Public speakers" in ancient Greece were primarily politicians and lawyers, and Aristotle shares the opinion of many people today regarding them: "… when in public, they praise beyond all things what is just and honorable; but within themselves they prefer what is expedient." More ... 

"Para ti, Papá" reads the dedication for Sandra Cisneros's novel Caramelo. The message is clear that she wishes this to be a personal tribute to her Mexican-born father, Alfredo, who had recently died. American-born Cisneros is one of several bicultural authors who write in English but liberally code-switch back and forth between English and Spanish, usually without any attempt to translate the Spanish. Cisneros has often said that she does this unapologetically, because she does not write for a mono-lingual audience. She describes her ideal audience as "world readers," those with very high standards, who are modeled after her own favorite writers. Her reasons for code-switching are the same as those for most authors who code-switch. Sometimes it is done to add authenticity to the dialog of non-English-speaking characters; sometimes it is to add cultural color and beauty to the story that involves those of diverse cultures; sometimes it is to increase the number and variety of phrases and words that are available, thus adding depth to the diction. In other words, a bilingual author may simply choose the language that best expresses what he or she wishes to say.

Cisneros, unlike some Chicana writers, such as the late Gloria Anzalduá, does not incorporate long passages of Spanish. Cisneros uses Spanish words and phrases primarily for the effect, and one can usually discern their meaning from the surrounding context. An example of such code-switching can be found in Caramelo, as the protagonist, Lala, describes the scene that greets her family when they arrive at their grandparents' house in Mexico for their annual visit: "In the belly button of the house, the Awful Grandmother tossing her black rebozo de bolita crisscross across her breasts, like a soldadera's bandoleers. The big black X at the map's end" (26). Mireya Navarro, in reviewing Caramelo, asserts that Cisneros's writing is poetic yet accessible, "even when she springs it with Spanish words that go untranslated" (2). More ... 

William Shakespeare was a busy and prolific writer who, in twenty-five years, turned out thirty-seven long plays and co-authored several others, yet he still found time to provide titles for their books to generations of authors who return again and again to the well of his felicitous phrasing.

Take John Green's immensely popular teen novel The Fault in Our Stars, which has recently been transmogrified into an immensely profitable movie. The title echoes Cassius's speech in Julius Caesar to his co-conspirator: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

From that same play have been lifted the titles of Robert Stone's The Dogs of War, James Barrie's Dear Brutus, John Gunther's Taken at the Flood, Barry Sadler's Cry Havoc, R. Lance Hill's The Evil That Men Do, H. Hall's The Valiant, and David Halberstam's Noblest Roman. More ... 

Culture and Society
Back to Top  Reparations: Don't Go There
by John Kilgore
Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you. — Satchel Paige

History is more or less bunk. — Henry Ford


June's Atlantic Monthly cover story, "The Case For Reparations," by Ta-Nehisi Coates, impressively reopens a question that is as old as the country itself: whether African Americans should be compensated for centuries of racial injustice. Early on, the essay set records for hits at the Atlantic website, and print and online responses have been proliferating ever since. Some of these credit the piece with transformative, landmark significance.

Yet it is a little hard to say just what Coates has added to the topic. The article is not at all what it sounds like — a systematic proposal and rationale for a reparations program — but a long meditation on black history, rambling, passionate, anecdotal, often moving, but rather diffident and at worst simply unclear as to what it really intends. At one point the author tosses out a figure of $34 billion annually, in 1973 dollars, "for a decade or two," as a possible budget for a reparations program, but that kind of detail is mostly absent. What Coates really cares about, he says, is not such nitty-gritty, but the "conversation" he wants America to have about slavery and its sequelae; that, and the mere principle of having America try to undo the wrong done over the centuries. (Adding some substance, perhaps, to the official apologies made by the House and Senate, if anyone noticed, in 2008–2009.)

The essay makes a convincing case that slavery contributed far more powerfully to the early growth of the country than whites (at least) generally believe:

Nearly one-fourth of all white Southerners owned slaves, and upon their backs the economic basis of America — and much of the Atlantic world — was erected. In the seven cotton states, one-third of all white income was derived from slavery....

By erecting a slave society, America created the economic foundation for its great experiment in democracy....

... white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it. ...

More ... 

A spluttering splorp of insult words, of hatred's projectile invective, exists to name shrewish, aggressive, or ugly women: amazon, battle-ax, bowwow, dirty bitch, hellcat, she-devil, bull dyke, dog, scrag, diesel dyke, and their less potent synonyms — not widely known because they are passé or literary — harpy, harridan, gorgon, Medusa, ogress, termagant, shrew, and virago.

But putdowns of swaggering, pushy males are rarer. Most synonyms, straight or gay, for a hot guy are laudatory: chick magnet, stud muffin, hunk, he-man, macho male, beefcake, fuck meat, stallion, dick dude, asshole buddy. English needs some vocabulary ripe with scorn to put these jockstrap-bursting Casanovas in their proper category: all dink, no brain. Pectoral parodies of the masculine chest lurk outside every gym now, popping their pumped pecs at passersby. Bah, c'est dégoûtant! Quite barf-inducing. Do women really want to date guys whose chests are bigger than theirs? More ... 

Personal Essay
Back to Top  Unweaving the Rainbow: Light
by Skip Eisiminger
Darkness ... makes dogs four times as disobedient. — Harper's Magazine

To light, the gods themselves kneel. — The Wordspinner

One of my favorite buildings on the Clemson University campus is Sikes Hall, which has a cornerstone I used to invite my humanities students to decipher. In part the inscription reads, "5904 A[nno] L[ucis]," which freely translated means that the building was begun 5,904 years after the light came on, or more conventionally, 1904 AD. Apparently, the local Masons rounded off 4004 BC, Bishop Ussher's date for Jehovah's creation, and added it to 1904. A century later, the Clemson physics department would surely deny that pitiful but quaint number because it's much more likely the stuff of combustion originated 13.8 billion years ago, give or take a few million. Yet as long as the light has been travelling, the vast majority of the universe is still waiting for its arrival.

In 2014, most of the myth and pseudoscience associated with light is behind us, though as late as 1915, light bulbs came in packages warning consumers not to light them with a match. We laugh, but we have not lit a hundred thousand fires, striking matches on our taut rumps the way our great grandparents did either. Regardless of whether light emanates from star fire, foxfire, or fireflies, the stuff that quivers on the rods and cones of our retinas is fascinating stuff, and I hope to see a lot more of it before facing Shelley's "white radiance of eternity."

In no particular order, consider the transparent quintessence that makes the pixels dance on your computer screen: More ... 

Vocabula Revisited
Back to Top  Enter the Universal Buttock
by Carey Harrison

In April 2009, hoping to improve on an average annual sales rate of 200,000 copies over a span of fifty years, Longman Publishers released a black faux leather-bound, gold-embossed anniversary edition of The Elements of Style.1 This handsome volume comes adorned with politically correct "gender-fair" language unknown to either of its credited authors and includes several pages of gushing approbation from various public figures past and present, from Dorothy Parker to Ben Affleck, all for $19.95.

Such a spectacle of prescriptivism is bound to draw fire from the academic left. Catherine Prendergast, a self-described "composition scholar," escalates the language war to an unprecedented level of vehemence in her fanciful essay, "The Fighting Style: Reading the Unabomber's Strunk and White,"2 in which she posits that the copy of the manual that "tells us most about [its] legacy" is the one found in Ted Kaczynski's Montana cabin.

Taking off on Andy White's fond memory of his Cornell English professor — "Sergeant Strunk snapping orders to his Platoon" — Prendergast solemnly warns us of the mortal danger that attends "Sergeant Strunk's warlike, exhortative style, his up-tempo apocalyptic railings against the paucities of modern life": More ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back to Top  Best Words

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 ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back to Top  Worst Words

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 ... 

Free in Vocabula
Back to Top  Vocabula Quizzes

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 ... 

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