Vocabula Bound: Outbursts, Insights, Explanations, and Oddities

Robert Hartwell Fiske Vocabula at AOL.COM
Sun Jan 9 18:28:56 UTC 2005

Vocabula Bound: Outbursts, Insights, Explanations, and Oddities -- twenty-
five of the best essays and twenty-six of the best poems published in The
Vocabula Review (www.vocabula.com) over the last few years.

304 pages

Here is the table of contents:



Kelly Cannon: Lawyers vs. Language

While riding her bicycle, two dogs attacked my client.

Early in my ten years as a legal secretary, I mailed a letter containing
the preceding sentence. It wasn't my letter, thank heaven, and I didn't
sign it. It was dictated and signed by a brand new lawyer - a "baby
attorney" we call them in the field - who apparently thought his law degree
and subsequent passage of the bar exam made him an ex officio English

Steve Cook: Writing Down to Readers

Very few modern writers dare tread into inkhorn terminology; schools of
journalism no longer teach it and editors disdain it. If the reader happens
on an unfamiliar word and must run to the dictionary, say they, the style
is presumptively affected and consequently not relatable. The linguistic
bar is therefore set to the lowest common denominator, ostensibly to appeal
to the largest possible readership. The target for the young journalist
appears to be writing that challenges no one. Few people would argue that
modern journalism has admirably hit the bull's-eye.

Susan Elkin: Children Deserve Poetry

Why are teachers so terrified of poetry? And I mean real poetry - by Keats,
Tennyson, Blake and Browning, and the like - not the desultory, trite
little ditties that worm their way into modern English textbooks
masquerading as poems. Is it because - heaven forbid - that they no longer
know any?

David Isaacson: Kvetching About Literary Criticism

Something ironic happens to many English professors when they write for
scholarly publication: they forget how to write. The same professors who
try to teach students how to write clear expository prose themselves write
a clotted mush unfit for human consumption. The very same professors who
may be subtle interpreters of irony in literary works don't see the vast
gulf separating their professional writing not just from common sense but
good taste. Academic criticism not only smells of the musty lamp; it makes
the reader's eyes smart.

John Kilgore: Why Teachers Can't Read Poetry

It tells us that poetry - good poetry, I mean - is threatening. Students
and teachers alike are made uneasy by its complexity of form, and still
more by its complexity of outlook. On the first score, it is hard to blame
anyone. English poetry reports in from every point of the compass and from
eight different centuries, and it is simply to be expected that any given
reader will have trouble making basic sense of much of it. Johnny performs
dismally as a reader of sonnets, but how would Shakespeare fare with a rap
CD or a Nintendo game? The good news about difficulty of this order -
archaic language and special conventions and so forth - is that it yields
to honest effort. Given time, patience, common sense, a dictionary, and a
reasonably well-educated teacher, what was unclear grows clear. Much the
same can be said for the special difficulties of compressed and highly
metaphorical speech, in poetry of one's own place and time. You discuss it,
you practice, you get the hang of it; and the experience can be, for some
students anyway, as stimulating and rewarding as any they have in the

Mark L. Levinson: The Ribbon

Mark L. Levinson: Shark Never

Pen Pearson: One Day Desultorily Reading the American Heritage Dictionary
at F I Stumble Upon Farkleberry and ...

Pen Pearson: Sister Margaret's

Brian Taylor: Essential Theatre

Brian Taylor: L'Art Poetique


Marylaine Block: Grammar Matters

Not surprisingly, that passive construction is the usage favored by
government and big business. "Toxic wastes were accidentally discharged
into the river." "Confidential grand jury testimony was illegally leaked to
reporters." The sentences leave unanswered the question "By whom?"

Tim Buck: The Art of Conversation

There are various ways of defining conversation. For my purpose, I will
approach it from five directions: idle talk, casual speech, verbal tyranny,
data exchange, genuine dialogue.

Joseph Epstein: Upsizing

The word downsizing, both an excuse and not a very happy euphemism for
firing people, needs, I have decided, a mate: upsizing. The country seems
to be in a serious upsizing phase. When and where and how it began, I don't
pretend to know, but I have a lurking - as opposed to a somersaulting -
suspicion that it may have begun with the naming of the size of cups at

David R. Williams: Snobs and Slobs

What we have, and have always had, in American English is a classic battle
between conservatives on one side who are afraid that the structures that
provide our security are in danger of collapse and radicals on the other
who seem willing to embrace any new fad that promises utopia. The
conservatives want to retain the rules of grammar and diction and
punctuation as handed down to them by their grandfathers. If it was good
enough for Jesus, then it's good enough for them. Any change appears to
them like the Hun at the gate about to pillage the city. These language
snobs can be found in the letters-to-the-editor pages of all our major
newspapers bewailing the fate of the republic if people don't follow every
jot and tittle of the classic rules.

Valerie Collins: Words of a Feather

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 editors, 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

Michael J. Sheehan: Nifty Neologisms

Need a word for the fine wood powder left by boring insects? Of course you
do; try frass. What about that indentation at the bottom of a wine bottle?
It's called a punt. Crossword puzzle fans all know that an aglet is the
plastic or metal sheath at the tip of a shoelace. And who would have
thought that the world needed a word like haw, a dog's inner eyelid.

Warren Jones: Tongue

Warren Jones: Quiet Fight

Elana Wolff: 1949 Santa Fe Lounge Car

Elana Wolff: Marmara

Barry Spacks: The Placing of a Comma

Barry Spacks: From the Skymind Café


Tina Bennett-Kastor: Our Democratic Language

Besides dissolving the boundaries between formal and informal varieties of
English, we have also eliminated from our dialects certain distinctions
kept alive by elaborate rules of etiquette designed to preserve the them-
and-us mentality. Take, for instance, the modal verb shall. When invited to
a party, the well-spoken Englishman assured his host, "I shall be there."
This was taken as a promise; the speaker was now under obligation to
attend. The American throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries might have said, "I'll be there." This was a statement of intent,
but not a promise by any means. At the end of the twentieth century, we are
saying, "I'll try to make it," often insincerely.

Mark Halpern: Why Linguists Are Not to Be Trusted on Language Usage - With
Some Afterthoughts

Of the many attempts that have been made to regulate language usage one way
or another, some have succeeded, some failed. And we do not know, even now,
why some succeeded and others did not; are we to take it on faith that the
ones that succeeded were somehow in accordance with language's inherent
nature, and the others were somehow not? Nunberg and his allies have no
scientific standing in their quarrel with a Simon or a Safire; if they
disagree with such prescriptivists, they do so not as scientists observing
from above the fray, distinguished by superior knowledge and
disinterestedness, but simply as fellow gladiators down in the arena, as
biased and opinionated as their adversaries.

Tracy Lee Simmons: Getting the Words Right

Hard work makes superior writing achievable; tenacity counts for more than
talent. The good news is that people exist who can do the teaching required
to bring it about. The bad news is that they're rarely to be found teaching
writing courses in schools, colleges, and universities.

Ken Bresler: Playing the Synonym Game

The Boston Globe published an article on October 1, 20, about a pumpkin-
growing contest. The writer and editors should have faced facts: if you're
going to write about a pumpkin-growing contest, you're going to use the
word pumpkin a lot. Pumpkin, pumpkin, pumpkin. Get used to it. But no. The
very first paragraph - before any reader could possibly be bored with the
word pumpkin - refers to "the huge, orange produce item." Do you think that
anyone goes home a few days before Halloween and calls out, "Honey! Kids!
Time to carve the orange produce item"?

Julian Burnside: Obscene Words

Fuck is an interesting word, linguistically speaking. It has the virtues of
brevity, adaptability, expressiveness, and is understood universally. It
has a huge number of synonyms, ranging from coy euphemisms to acceptable
jocular equivalents to coarse vulgarities.

Peter Corey: How Linguistics Killed Grammar

My claim in this essay is that linguistics has effectively killed
humanistic grammar, especially as a subject in the public schools, though
also as a topic worthy of serious discussion in public discourse. Linguists
perceive themselves (and are generally perceived by others)
as "scientists," whether or not they deserve that label. Humanist
grammarians are perceived as "language mavens," to borrow a phrase from
linguist Steven Pinker. Yet, if linguists really are scientists, they spend
an awful lot of time writing essays, books, and reviews that are hostile to
the positions of humanist grammar on various issues. Many books on
linguistics, from those meant for general readers to those meant for
serious students, contain disclaimers, often hostile, in which the authors
dissociate themselves from any taint of humanistic grammar.

Orin Hargraves: Who Owns English

We are now only a few years away from the day when native speakers of
English are outnumbered by those for whom English is a second language.
Imagine a conversation between two such people: when a pronoun fails to
decline and there is no native speaker there to hear it, does it make a
difference? The days of prestige and dominance for all "branded" dialects
of English may be numbered, since the chief demand placed on English in
this century will be its ability to adapt to the needs of the millions of
speakers who use it, without regard to national boundaries and the
preferences of those who would assert ownership over the ways it develops.

jjoan ttaber: Singular They: The Pronoun That Came in from the Cold

During the late eighteenth century, people began to strive for better
living conditions; and one way to realize this goal was to become formally
educated, which meant the upwardly mobile were obliged to copy the language
of the moneyed classes. Since the grammarians of the day had succeeded in
convincing educators that Latinate English was preferable to the English
everyone was already speaking and writing, they felt it their duty to write
new grammar texts, and publishing houses were happy to churn them out. Huge
profits were realized each time a new text hit the bookstands, and so
grammarians had to raise the bar each time they sat down to write a new how-
to grammar book.

Bert Stern: A Little Poem

Bert Stern: Sail Away

Laura Cherry: Cab Ride to Logan

Laura Cherry: Settlement

Ernest Hilbert: A Writer's Life

Ernest Hilbert: Temptation of St. Anthony (Detail of Demons)


David Carkeet: Titanic Blunders

There is much else in Titanic that was unthinkable in 1912 - and
unspeakable: Rose tells the witty, socially versatile Jack Dawson that
after dinner the first-class male passengers retire to smoke cigars
and "congratulate each other on being masters of the universe." This
phrase, masters of the universe, derives from a toy and children's TV
series of the 1980s.

Darren Crovitz: The Secret Nature of Nicknames

Perhaps the first rule of nicknaming is the axiom that the person being
nicknamed has little choice in the matter. This might sound odd in today's
world of shameless image manipulation, where children mimic pop stars and
celebrities in redefining themselves at will, where what one appears to be
is more important than what one is. Music and sports stars in particular
have a singular authority in nicknaming themselves.

Richard Lederer: Politicians Incorrect

Politicians have been riddled by riddles: What's a politician? A man who
will double-cross that bridge when he comes to it. How can you tell when a
politician is lying? His lips are moving. What do politicians and diapers
have in common? They should both be changed regularly and for the same
reason. What's the difference between a centaur and a senator? One is half
man and half horse's ass - and the other is a creature in mythology.

Rohit Gupta: The Pen Is Mightier Than MSWord

Writing is an externalization of our thoughts; today, after the thoughts
appear in a writer's mind, "many things happen between the cup and the
lip." The interface between our thoughts and how they appear on paper is
changing fast. It should interest us whether this interface plays havoc
with our thoughts or inspires thoughts, whether it urges us to a flight of
imagination or binds us to the ground with its nonessential gadgetry.

Clark Elder Morrow: Mr. Goldentongue

This bewailing led me to imagine what it might be like if - against every
conceivable odd - somewhere in our great nation a politician arose who
harbored ambitions of a Longinian nature: a man who aspired to the
Augustan, to the well-rounded period, the balanced antithetical style of
Gibbon and Reynolds, as well as to the elevated but trenchant ton of Pitt
and Disraeli.

Christopher Orlet: The Last Words

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?

Fred Moramarco: Takes on Shakes - 6

Fred Moramarco: Takes on Shakes - 17

Sarah Skwire: Church-Going

Sarah Skwire: The Thing with Feathers

Matt Hart: Knock Knock Knock

Matt Hart: Interior Decoration Committee

Lauren Rile Smith: New York

Lauren Rile Smith: Shadow

Afterword: Ask Fiske


Biographical Notes

You can order Vocabula Bound from Vocabula:

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Robert Hartwell Fiske
Editor and Publisher
The Vocabula Review
The Vocabula Review
10 Grant Place
Lexington, MA 02420
Two Vocabula Books: 
The Dictionary of Disagreeable English
"However curmudgeonly, Mr. Fiske betrays a bluff humanitarian spirit. ... His 
own flogging of Merriam-Webster's is one of the many pleasures of this 
lovely, sour, virtuous book." — Wall Street Journal  
Vocabula Bound: Outbursts, Insights, Explanations, and Oddities
Twenty-five of the best essays and twenty-six of the best poems published in 
The Vocabula Review over the last few years

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