Category Archives: language (vocabulary, usage); language in the abstract as it pertains to writing

the ABUSE of bad words

 

 

 

Pee.

Shit.

Fart.

Fuck.

I recently went to a doctor for a checkup. He asked me how frequently I urinated. He cautioned me, “Don’t drink water in the evening and before you go to bed. If you don’t drink water, you won’t wake up so often during the night because you need to pee.”

He’s a professional, an MD. Couldn’t he have said urinate?

I used to see a therapist who was from an older generation. He was careful about language. He wrote a book about Charles Darwin’s medical history and an illness the latter suffered from most of his life that was never diagnosed and may have been psychosomatic. He noted that Darwin often suffered from flatulence. That was the right word to use for the context.

Now we have the “pee tape.”

As discussed in an op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times.

 

“Lordy, Is There a Tape?”

By Michelle Goldberg

Op-Ed

The New York Times

April 16, 2018

 

Whatever you think of the former F.B.I. director James Comey, he has started a long overdue national conversation about whether the pee tape is real.

“I don’t know whether the current president of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013,” Comey said in his hotly anticipated interview with George Stephanopoulos on Sunday night. “It’s possible, but I don’t know.”

Comey was referring, of course, to a claim in the dossier about Donald Trump’s ties to Russia compiled by the British ex-spy Christopher Steele. While in Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant in 2013, Trump reserved the Ritz-Carlton’s presidential suite, where Barack and Michelle Obama had stayed previously. Citing multiple anonymous sources, Steele reported that Trump had prostitutes defile the bed where the Obamas slept by urinating on it, and that the Kremlin had recordings. …

Like Comey, none of us know what really happened at the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow, and we may never find out. As outlandish as the rumor is, however, the idea that Trump would shy away from good press out of principle is far more so. To seriously discuss this presidency, you have to open your mind to the truly obscene.

And so on.

 

 

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The whole discussion makes me feel uncomfortable. I am not interested in what happened in a hotel room in Moscow.

So does the use of words such as pee in connection with the President or, generally, in formal discourse.

The pungent Anglo-Saxon words we have in our language are an essential part of it. In private conversation, in situations that call for explicitness or frankness, sometimes (if not often) in literature, occasionally in public, such words are not inappropriate and are called for. They certainly shouldn’t be banned, any more than one should, say, try to pretend that parts of the human body do not exist.

Such words can be effective in private or in public when used sometimes for emphasis or shock value. They can liven up a conversation. (At other times, they can deaden it.) Using pee or shit, say, in conversation where there is a familiar relationship already and politeness or restraint is not required; using fuck for emphasis at times. Salty sailor’s talk is not necessarily out of bounds.

But such words often become overused, or are used inappropriately in public or in the wrong contexts and situations when they are more likely than not to cause embarrassment or discomfort, and where a more polite (usually Latinate) alternative exists. And, their overuse can cheapen discourse, or deaden the impact of a potentially powerful word such as fuck, which one sometimes hears repeated over and over again to the point where it becomes annoying to the ear, just as a too loud, monotonous, second rate punk rock band can.

And some words — such as fart — can sometimes make you squirm, make one feel downright uncomfortable.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   April 18, 2018

vocabulary redux

 

 

 

People have told me over the years, many times, that I have an excellent vocabulary.

I never stop looking up words.

Here are some ones I have recently looked up. They are all from my reading. Some I more or less knew or could guess the meaning of from context. Others I had encountered before, but did not know the exact meaning.

 

 

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prosy

adjective

showing no imagination; commonplace or dull (said especially of speech or writing)

I love this word for how it can be used to apply in this particular sense; it was used by Charles Dickens.

 

 

demotic

denoting or relating to the kind of language used by ordinary people

synonyms: popular, vernacular, colloquial, idiomatic, vulgar, common

 

 

revenant

noun

a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead

 

 

midden

a dunghill or refuse heap; a term more commonly used in earlier times (e.g., the nineteenth century) when waste disposal methods were more primitive (I came across it in a Dickens work)

 

 

parataxis

The stringing of simple clauses together in rapid, spontaneous talk. Example:

Look, having nuclear – my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at M.I.T.; good genes, very good genes, O.K., very smart, the Wharton School of finance, very good, very smart – you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, okay, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world – it’s true! – but when you’re a conservative Republican they try – oh, they do a number – that’s why I always start off: “Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune”– you know I have to give my life credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged – but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me.

 

 

miry

adjective

very muddy or boggy

“the roads were miry in winter”

used by Dickens

 

 

Brummagem

cheap, showy, or counterfeit

“a vile Brummagem substitute for the genuine article”

 

 

pule

verb; literary

gerund or present participle: puling

cry querulously or weakly

 

 

periphrasis

the use of indirect and circumlocutory speech or writing

example: “not a shadow of a shade of doubt”

 

 

anaphora; anaphoric

a rhetorical term for when a writer or speaker repeats the same beginning of a sentence several times. Writers and speakers use anaphora to add emphasis to the repeated element, but also to add rhythm, cadence, and style to the text or speech.

example: “The wrong person was selected for the wrong job, at the wrong time, for the wrong purpose.”

 

 

alembic

something that refines or transmutes as if by distillation

“filtered through the alembic of Plato’s mind”

 

 

exordium

the beginning or introductory part, especially of a discourse or treatise

 

 

repine

verb; literary

to feel or express discontent; fret

used by Mary Shelly in Frankenstein

 

 

slough

1. a swamp.

2. a situation characterized by lack of progress or activity

 

 

chamois

1. an agile goat-antelope with short hooked horns, found in mountainous areas of Europe

2. a type of soft pliable leather now made from sheepskin or lambskin.

 

 

 

keeping (term used in the arts)

“It is true that I have thought more and that my daydreams are more extended and magnificent, but they want (as painters call it) keeping …” — Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Keeping, in painting, signifies the representation of objects in the same manner that they appear to the eye at different distances from it, which is only to be done with accuracy by attending to the rules of perspective.

 

 

flagitious

marked by scandalous crime or vice: villainous

 

 

ungenial

rather than uncongenial

used by Mary Shelley; author’s introduction to Frankenstein; “a wet, ungenial summer”

 

 

lubricity

1. capacity to lubricate: “the wonderful lubricity of this new oil”

2. instability; shiftiness; fleeting nature: “the lubricity of fame and fortune”

3. (formal or literary) lewdness; lustfulness: lasciviousness; salaciousness

4. something that arouses lasciviousness, especially pornography.

from Old French lubricité, from Medieval Latin lubricitis, from Latin lubricus (slippery)

 

 

flapdoodle

noun; informal

nonsense

can also mean a fool

 

 

mumblespeak

an attempt to cover something up by giving information that says absolutely nothing

“Devin Nunes used mumblespeak to try and divert the public’s attention from the investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia.”

 

 

dottle

noun

a remnant of tobacco left in a pipe after smoking

 

 

fetor

a strong, foul smell

“the fetor of decay”

used by Walt Whitman in his poem “This Compost”

 

 

tarn

noun

a small mountain lake

used by Theodore Dreiser in his Dawn

 

 

pinchbeck

an alloy of copper and zinc resembling gold, used in watchmaking and costume jewelry

as an adjective: appearing valuable, but actually cheap or tawdry

 

 

lowery; also spelled (more commonly) loury

adjective: ““A lowery sky, and from it flecks of silvery light dropping lightly, like mirrored feathers.”

lour (English word) is a verb; it has the meaning of look angry or sullen; scowl (“The lofty statue lours at patients in the infirmary.”)

Used as a noun, lour can mean the dark and gloomy, or threatening, appearance of the sky or a landscape.

Lour comes from the Middle English lour (“sad or frowning countenance”), louren (“to frown or scowl; to be dark or overcast; look askant, mistrust; wither, fade, droop; lurk, skulk”); and from the Old English lowren, luren. Compare Dutch loeren, German lauern (“lurk, be on the watch”), and English leer and lurk.

 

 

synesthesia

the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body

 

 

afflatus

a divine creative impulse or inspiration

 

 

noisome

adjective, literary

1. having an extremely offensive smell

“noisome vapors from the smoldering waste”

2. disagreeable; unpleasant

“noisome scandals”

 

 

metonymy

a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated (such as “crown” in “lands belonging to the crown”)

A place is often used as a metonym for a government or other official institutions, for example, Brussels for the institutions of the European Union, The Hague for the International Court of Justice or International Criminal Court, Washington for the U.S. government (as well as capitol), the White House and Capitol Hill for the executive and legislative branches, respectively, of the United States federal government. A place can represent an entire industry: for instance, Wall Street is often used metonymically to describe the entire U.S. financial and corporate banking sector. Common nouns and phrases can also be metonyms: red tape can stand for bureaucracy, whether or not that bureaucracy actually uses red tape to bind documents. In Commonwealth realms, The Crown is a metonym for the state in all its aspects.

 

 

pathetic fallacy

the attribution of human feelings and responses to inanimate things or animals, especially in art and literature

 

 

humblebrag

noun: an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement whose actual purpose is to draw attention to something of which one is proud; used as a verb: to make an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement with the actual intention of drawing attention to something of which one is proud

“She humblebragged about how ‘awful’ she looks without any makeup.”

“At times, Brown seems capable of writing in only two registers: brag and humblebrag. I prefer the straightforward brag — at least all the brass horns are playing in the same key — though I do admire how she twice manages to reveal, by Page 10, that she was quite shapely in her youth, both times under the guise of a complaint.” — review by Jennifer Senior of The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992 by Tina Brown, The New York Times

 

 

asyndeton

noun

the omission or absence of a conjunction between parts of a sentence

 

 

declension

1: noun, adjective, or pronoun inflection especially in some prescribed order of the forms; a class of nouns or adjectives having the same type of inflectional forms

2: a falling off or away: deterioration

3: descent, slope

“Schlesinger kept writing books he hoped would ‘serve the liberal cause,’ as he had intended for his past works. But they were jeremiads about America’s declension rather than heralds of its rendezvous with a destiny of progress.” — Michael Kazin review of Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian by Richard Aldous

 

 

ferity

archaic

the quality or state of being feral; also, barbarity

used by Thoreau in one of his essays

 

 

glossed (past tense, participle)

1. apply a cosmetic gloss to (synonyms: shine, glaze, polish, burnish)

2. try to conceal or disguise (something embarrassing or unfavorable) by treating it briefly or representing it misleadingly: “the social costs of this growth are glossed over” (synonyms: conceal, cover up, hide, disguise, mask, veil, shrug off)

used by Theodore Dreiser as a verb:” He would talk to me by the hour … of the French Revolution and the great figures in it, of Napoleon, Wellington, Tsar Alexander, Also of Peter the Great and Catharine of Russia, Frederick the Great and Voltaire, whom he admired enormously. But not the silly, GLOSSED, emasculated data of the school histories with which I had been made familiar, but with the harsh, jagged realities and savageries of the too real world in which all of them moved.”

 

 

tussock

1. a small area of grass that is thicker or longer than the grass growing around it.

2. a woodland moth whose adults and brightly colored caterpillars both bear tufts of irritant hairs. The caterpillars can be a pest of trees, damaging fruit and stripping leaves.

 

 

emprise

an adventurous, daring, or chivalric enterprise: “He always seems to be having the sort of high emprise that most of us experience only in our dreams.”

synonyms: adventure, experience, exploit, gest (or geste), happening, time

 

 

gad, gadding

go around from one place to another, in the pursuit of pleasure or entertainment: “help out around the house and not be gadding about the countryside”

used by Thoreau in one of his essays: “the gadding town”

 

 

clamber

to climb, move, or get in or out of something in an awkward and laborious way, typically using both hands and feet: “He clambered out of the trench.”

The meaning is not unfamiliar, but it was used interestingly in the following sentence: “[Ulysses S. Grant] armored himself with simplicity. Grant’s style is strikingly modern in its economy. It stood out in that age of clambering, winding prose, with shameless sentences like lines of thieves in a marketplace, grabbing everything in reach and stuffing it all into their sacks.” — T. J. Stiles, essay in The New York Times

 

 

perspicacious

having a ready insight into and understanding of things.

a well-known word, BUT NOTE:

perspicuous

plain to the understanding especially because of clarity and precision of presentation: “a perspicuous argument”

 

 

skirl

verb

(of bagpipes) make a shrill, wailing sound

 

 

phatic

adjective

denoting or relating to language used for general purposes of social interaction, rather than to convey information or ask questions. Utterances such as hello, how are you? and nice morning, isn’t it? are phatic.

 

 

granular

1. consisting of or appearing to consist of granules; grainy

2. finely detailed: “granular reports”

“Ms. Cummings was called to testify for two days during the trial, speaking in sometimes GRANULAR detail about her work for Mr. Skelos, as well as the inner workings of Senate campaigns and the Republican conference.” — “More Corruption Trials? Possible Reprise Makes Albany Groan”, The New York Times, October 4, 2017

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

  February 2018

the effervescent (sometimes typographically challenged) pedant

 

 

I am blessed to come from a family that is very verbal, that delights in oral and written exchanges and expression and in word play. It seems as if they always put things just right, and often they amuse or provide a pleasant surprise with verbal ingenuity.

When I was in college, my brother and his wife gave me a book as a Christmas gift: Samuel Eliot Morison’s The Oxford History of the American People. On the flyleaf, my brother wrote an inscription: “To the effervescent pedant / With love”

I thought of this because of an email exchange I had with my brother this morning.

In the email to my brother, I quoted from my post

 

“her” instead of “him”; Ms.; and what else?

https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/12/20/her-instead-of-him-ms-and-what-else/

 

as follows: “The PC types are all for conversation (of the wilderness and the natural environment). Why do they want to tear asunder our language? Like nature, it should be conserved, which does mean embalmed or ossified.”

 

and, in the email, said:

See any problem with this?

The PC crowd does tend to be loquacious.

 

 

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My brother responded as follows:

Cute typo.

Reminds me when you confused “martial relations” with “marital relations,” an apt malaprop that sent Mom into gales of laughter — loving laughter because in part she was enjoying your early advanced vocabulary.

 

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I wrote back:

All very true, Pete.

Aptly described.

Your memory is impressive.

I had forgotten how I used to get “martial” and “marital” mixed up.

Sometimes, I would make words up, which amused Mom … I used to say, “It’s just the INTRACITIES of life.”

Once I wrote Mom a letter using several big words I had just learned. I said that if she had no objection, I would DESCANT upon a few things. (To descant means to talk tediously or at length.)

She wrote back a letter beginning with, “So, cant me no descants.” She loved word play.

 

 

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This was brilliant usage by my mother. The intransitive verb cant (the meaning of which I did not know) is defined thusly:

1: to talk or beg in a whining or singsong manner

2: to speak in cant or jargon

3: to talk hypocritically

I’m trying to remember in which work of literature I first encountered the word descant.  I usually don’t forget such things.

It will come to me.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 22, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

“her” instead of “him”; Ms.; and what else?

 

 

The reflections of mine which follow concern a point of grammar that bothers me. The usage which I object to occurred in the following article which I was reading on Monday.

 

“Casualties of the Cashless Society: Those Who Get Seasonal Tips”

by Douglas Quenqua

The New York Times

December 18, 2017

 

It is not a unique occurrence or example. The passage in the Times article was as follows:

“It’s a peculiar quirk of modern city life. The stock market is on fire, unemployment is down, and the average price of a Manhattan apartment is now more than $2 million. Yet good luck finding anyone with paper money in her purse.”

 

 

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Note “HER purse.”

I have a problem with this.

The reporter, if he wanted to be politically correct, could have used the awkward locution “his or her” (i.e., “his or her purse”), which I don’t particularly care for. (Nevertheless, I myself use it when I feel called upon by context to do so. But, I don’t feel obligated to use it. It depends upon my writerly instincts. In my opinion, that’s the way it should be. My or anyone else’s writing should be based upon personal preferences in matters of style, not a ukase from a language czar.)

But, the Times writer wants to show off his PC credentials with his in your face “her.” It is meant to produce a frisson in male chauvinist types. But, it actually amounts to “incivility,” so to speak, when it comes to conventions of language and audience expectations. By “audience expectations,” I mean those of  the Times’s readers. If you think this is an extreme point of view, see discussions of how a writer should always keep his or her audience uppermost in mind as a “first principle” of composition in books such as June Casagrande’s It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences. The unexpected “she,” rather than “he,” or “he or she,” produces a sensation of disorientation — and temporary confusion — in the discriminating reader.

 

 

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“[G]ood luck finding anyone with paper money in her purse” annoys me. I quoted the passage to a friend of mine (a male) with an advanced degree who has very liberal views on politics, affirmative action, sexism, homophobia, and other issues and asked him what he thought. He agreed with me. He didn’t like the use of “her” in this instance and said it annoyed him too.

 

 

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Re pronouns indicating gender, such as Ms.

I consider Ms. to be an abomination.

The abbreviation Mrs. signifies a beautiful honorific pronounced as Missus, and the honorific Miss, which is not abbreviated, has a beautiful sound (unlike the atrocious and downright ugly Ms., which is unpronounceable, but who cares? — we shall not have sexism in the workplace!). We are talking about ancient words embedded in our glorious language.

The French have the abbreviations M., spelled out and pronounced as the elegant Monsieur; and Mme and Mlle, pronounced and spelled out, respectively, as the euphonious Madame and the even more euphonious Mademoiselle. What a beautiful word.

What about the Spanish Srta. for the beautiful sounding honorific Señorita? Have the language police come up with an ugly substitute (one that does not indicate marital status) yet? I fear that they have.

I wonder if “Mademoiselle,” the 1970’s hit by the rock band Styx, will have to be retitled in the name of political correctness.

And what about the hit song “Adios Senorita” by Ivory Joe Hunter, which is still played? Title change? It’s never too late to correct the past sins of a benighted, politically incorrect lyricist.

More ominously, what about the musical Miss Saigon? Should the title be allowed to stand? Should it be changed to “Ms. Saigon”?

 

 

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This is not nitpicking on my part, and it is not a trivial matter. Ask New Yorker copyeditor Mary Norris, author of the best seller Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. As she says, “Pronouns run deep.” The PC types are all for conservation (of the wilderness and the natural environment). Why do they want to tear asunder our language? Like nature, it should be conserved, which does mean embalmed or ossified.

If a reader of this blog disagrees with me, she is welcome to post a comment.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

  December 20, 2017

Mozart, Alexander L. Lipson, and Russian 1 with Professor Gribble

 

 

On Thursday, November 16, 2017, I heard a performance at Carnegie Hall of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 16 in E-flat major, K. 428 by the Tetzlaff Quartet. Mozart’s K. 428 is one of his Haydn Quartets, a set of six string quartets that he dedicated to Joseph Haydn.

It is a flawless work. It exemplifies Mozart’s genius. It also brought to mind a sentence in my first-year Russian textbook — written by a famed Slavicist and foreign language teacher, Alexander L. Lipson — which was as follows: “Как и Моцарт, Пушкин написал только шедевры” (Kak i Motsart, Pushkin napisal tol’ko shedevry. Like Mozart, Pushkin wrote only masterpieces.)

The Russian word for masterpieces, shedevry, is the same as and is derived from the French. (Makes me think of the French used by the aristocracy in War and Peace.)

The Mozart piece brought to mind the comparison between Mozart and Pushkin made in the textbook from my college Russian course, and the course itself.

 

 

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I was eager and thrilled to be able to take introductory Russian in my sophomore year at Brandeis University. The course was taught by Charles E. Gribble. Professor Gribble, who held a doctorate from Harvard, began his teaching career at Brandeis. When I took the course with him, he was in his late twenties. At that time, Professor Gribble was in the preliminary phase of founding an important publishing house for Slavicists: Slavica Publishers. He was the firm’s editor for thirty years.

I was motivated to study Russian for several reasons:

I had discovered the works of the Russian émigré scholar Pitirim A. Sorokin in my senior year in high school. I was totally engrossed in books of his such as Leaves from a Russian Diary. This led to a fascination on my part with Russian culture.

At the time, the Soviet Union was regarded with outright hostility, fear, and suspicion. Being by nature a contrarian, I tended to think differently. Politics aside, I saw, as did Sorokin (to quote from one of his works), “an essential similarity or congeniality in a number of important psychological, cultural, and social values” between the USA and the USSR: vast territories with all that implies (such as various climates, topography, and regional characteristics); rich natural and human resources; major cultural and urban centers; the fact that both countries were world powers; and so on. I was a sort of Slavophil without knowing it.

Russia as I imagined it was a country with vast expanses like us and a multiplicity of nationalities and ethnic groups and with a rich, continually growing culture, including Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (whom at this stage of my educational development I had not yet read) and composers such as Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich (whose works I had already become acquainted with and admired — in fact, Shostakovich’s fifth symphony almost in and of its itself made me a Slavophil). Just like America, Russia was huge, diverse, all encompassing, culturally fertile; and with a vibrant economy. And, I felt intuitively, a rich language.

 

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My previous language study had consisted of a year or two of French in junior high school (a complete waste); four years of high school French, on the basis of which I was placed into third year French at Brandeis University; and two years of high school Latin. Romance languages.

It was a thrill for me to be studying a Slavic language and one with a different alphabet.

Learning the Cyrillic alphabet, in both cursive and print form, was a stumbling block for me, a hurdle to be overcome. It often felt like I was back in the first grade learning my letters and being taught to sound out words phonetically.

Our professor, Charles Gribble, knew the author of the textbook we used, Alexander Lipson, personally. Lipson taught at either MIT or Harvard; I forget which.

Lipson’s first year Russian textbook was in developmental form; it hadn’t yet been published. It consisted of pages that had been copied and bound, but not in book form. Without covers.

It was a clever and entertaining text, besides being well conceived from a pedagogical standpoint.

I was fascinated to find that Russian had cases — six of them — like Latin. (I love studying grammar and cannot understand why modern day self-appointed language “experts,” as they style themselves, want to emend or simplify, essentially emasculate — in the name of political correctness or conforming to their misguided, benighted theories of how language and English composition should be taught — language instruction. See Addendum below.)

 

 

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The genitive case (possessive) in Russia was introduced early, as follows. There would be an entertaining reading with a lot of words ending in –ого (-ogo), indicating the Russian form for a noun such as doctor’s used in a phrase such as “the doctor’s office.” Even Russian proper nouns have a possessive form, so that “Tolstoy’s house” becomes “Дом Толстого” (dom Tolstogo).

In the next or a subsequent chapter of Lipson’s textbook, the genitive case and its usage and endings would be formally introduced and explained. Since one already had a rudimentary familiarity with it in the previously encountered reading, one assimilated the grammar point with ease. This is sound pedagogy. It’s how we learn the grammar of our native language.

 

 

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Despite being motivated, I had difficulty with the course.

Some of the students had already taken Russian in high school, which, in the case of a language like Russian with a steep learning curve, put me at a competitive disadvantage, so to speak.

Nevertheless, I persisted. I tried very hard. I spent hours in the language lab, but — despite my best efforts — I always seemed to be a couple of lessons behind the rest of the class.

Professor Gribble said he would take into account class attendance and effort in grading. He kept his word. I got D on practically every quiz and exam. My final grade for the 6 credit course was C.

I have always had a very high aptitude for foreign languages. In French and Latin classes in high school, I was usually (but not always) the best student in the class. The same was the case when I took Spanish as a postgraduate student at Columbia University.

So how does one account of my struggles with introductory Russian? My former therapist, Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr., had an explanation. He regarded it as a case of what one might call “learning inhibition.” When a student feels uncomfortable with the classroom setting and the instructor. This was true of my experience with Professor Gribble. Strangely enough, he was actually a good guy. I went to a web site containing his obituary at

https://slavic.osu.edu/news/memoriam-charles-edward-gribble-1936-2016

and it was clear that this was the case. (The obituary mentions his concern for and rapport with students.) In the following year (I did not enroll for second year Russian), I would occasionally run into Professor Gribble in the snack bar. He was always pleasant and seemed interested in how I was doing.

 

 

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Alexander Lipson died in 1980 at the age of fifty-one. He was the author of a three part textbook, A Russian Course, which in its prototype/preliminary form, we had used as our text in Professor Gribble’s course.

In a review published in The Slavic and East European Journal of the book Alexander Lipson in Memoriam (1994), Catherine V. Chvany refers to Lipson as follows:

… language pedagogue extraordinaire, maverick entrepreneur, linguist’s linguist, travel tour designer, and enfant terrible. Though Lipson never completed his own Ph.D., members of his now gray-haired cohort have claimed in my hearing they learned more from Alex Lipson — about language, about Slavic, and about teaching — than from any of their professors.

She also notes “Lipson’s broad interests [which reflected] Lipson’s profound if irreverent knowledge of Russian literature and culture.” One could sense this in the text of his we used, which was much more fun and informative than most language textbooks. And, often, downright funny.

For instance, I will never forget how Chapter One began:

Хулиганы сидят в парке весь день и курят. (Khuligany sidyat v parke ves’ den’ i kuryat; Hooligans sit in the park all day and smoke.)

This was a mockery of Soviet attitudes towards deadbeats.

Another chapter had a reading devoted to the topic of навозные мухи (navoznyye mukhi): manure flies. This was a satire on life on the Soviet колхоз (kolkhoz; collective farm). After this chapter, the Russian word for fly, муха (muka), was permanently implanted in my mind.

Then, there was the aforementioned chapter with a reading on Pushkin. It included a short poem by Pushkin, “Ты и Вы” (“Thou and “You,” 1828) that was accessible to first year students and from which I got a feeling for the enchanting musicality and the sensuality and power of Pushkin’s verse.

 

Пустое вы сердечным ты
Она, обмолвясь, заменила
И все счастливые мечты
В душе влюбленной возбудила.
Пред ней задумчиво стою,
Свести очей с нее нет силы;
И говорю ей: как вы милы!
И мыслю: как тебя люблю!

 

Pustoye “Vy” serdechnym “Ty”
Ona, obmolvyas’, zamenila
I vse schastlivyye mechty
V dushe vlyublennoy vozbudila.
Pred ney zadumchivo stoyu,
Svesti ochey s neye net sily;
I govoryu yey: kak vy mily!
I myslyu: kak tebya lyublyu!

 

She substituted,
by a chance,
For empty “you” — the gentle “thou”;
And all my happy dreams, at once,
In loving heart again resound.
In bliss and silence do I stay,
Unable to maintain my role:
“Oh, how sweet you are!” I say —
“How I love thee!” says my soul.

 

Russian — as with the French tu and vous or Spanish tu and usted — has two forms (formal and familiar) of the second person pronoun.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 18, 2017

 

 

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Addendum :

 

The 1960’s, a learned friend of mine once opined, was the Golden Era of American education. I would not dispute this. I experienced it in English and history courses, in foreign language courses, and in mathematics instruction. To get an idea of how low conceptions of foreign language pedagogy have sunk since Alexander Lipson’s time, one might take a look at the following article:

“Toppling the Grammar Patriarchy,” by Carmel McCoubrey, op-ed, The New York Times, November 16, 2017

 

will “ladies and gentlemen” go the way of the dodo?

 

 

 

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is replacing the phrase “ladies and gentlemen” in announcements with gender-neutral words in an effort to be more inclusive.

Instead you’ll likely hear, “Good morning, everyone,” or, “Hello, passengers.”

It’s just one of the changes to the conductors’ script that started earlier this month.

… This morning you may hear the train conductor say something like: “Good morning, riders.”

 
— “New York Today: Subway Announcements Get a Human Touch,” by Jonathan Wolfe, The New York Times, November 13, 2017

 

 

 

 

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The language commissars are pernicious. Yes, pernicious. Defined as “having a harmful effect, especially in a gradual or subtle way.” They are gradually eroding and stripping of its vitality our precious English tongue.

What, in God’s name, is wrong with saying “ladies and gentlemen”? It’s a polite phrase. It needs to be replaced with something “gender-neutral”? Meaning, no words or phrases that indicate gender will henceforth be permitted?

Language is a living, breathing thing. It’s organic, just like nature. Don’t let the over the top, politically correct language czars ruin it. Not only are they totally wrong in their excessive zeal and fanaticism to eradicate words in the language as it is spoken, they are ignorant, and their stupidity is dangerous.

George Orwell was prescient in inventing a language, Newspeak, in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, that would replace English, getting rid of supposedly superfluous words, so that a word such as bad would be replaced with “ungood.”

I can just see it, an announcement or sign on the subway or in a subway station: “Be careful with perambulators carrying passengers under age five to avoid the possibility of their getting caught in an escalator or being too close to the edge of a subway platform.”

I thought baby was a gender-neutral world, but perhaps it will someday be deemed politically incorrect and will have to be replaced by an alternative such as “parentally supervised minor.”

God only knows.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 2017

Vocabulary: Building and Using One’s Own; The Delight of Same; Its Value to a Writer

 

 

 

Vocabulary: Building and Using One’s Own; The Delight of Same; Its Value to a Writer

By Roger W. Smith

 

 

The following are some exchanges about VOCABULARY (no less) that I have had recently, via email, with friends and relatives, with persons who share my interests, and with readers of my blog.

 

 

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Roger W. Smith, email to a relative (to whom I was writing about my habit of walking):

I just Googled peregrinations. It was absolutely right. I’m impressed with my own vocabulary! I rarely seem to use the wrong word. And you thought Muhammed Ali was boastful!

 

 

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Roger W. Smith, email to Thomas P. Riggio, a fellow Theodore Dreiser enthusiast and scholar:

I love to learn new words. There is one in the article you sent me: mite. [The article was about a late nineteenth century chaplain who used to solicit money for the homeless in New York City.] It usually means an arachnid (a small one). But it also has another connotation, and is just the right word for the context in the article you sent me — it’s the perfect word here. Among the meanings of the word mite are a very small contribution or amount of money. I love when words are used with such precision, and when a writer nails it. It demonstrates the power a good vocabulary can invest in a writer.

 

 

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Roger W. Smith, email to Clare Bruyère, a scholar and friend who lives in France:

I have always been assiduous about vocabulary. People tell me I have an excellent one.

I was reading a 1971 article in The New York Times Book Review by Edward Dahlberg (d. 1977), an American novelist, essayist and autobiographer, the other day. He uses a slew of words unknown to me.

His vocabulary is impressive, to put it mildly. He used quite a few words I had never seen before, and others that I was only faintly acquainted with. And, he used them all absolutely correctly.

Words used by Dahlberg, all in the same article: “mulligrubs” (ill temper; colic; grumpiness); “slubbered” (performed in a slipshod fashion); “scatophagous” (said here of Rabelais; means habitually feeding on dung, e.g., a scatophagous beetle); musky (of or like musk, i.e., the odor of same; a musky perfume; connotation: pungent); “exsanguinous” (adjective; means destitute of blood or apparently so; synonym: bloodless); “the sherds in the Mount Sinai Desert” (a sherd, or more precisely, potsherd, is commonly a historic or prehistoric fragment of pottery, although the term is occasionally used to refer to fragments of stone and glass vessels, as well; occasionally, a piece of broken pottery may be referred to as a shard); “scribble addle words” (addle: adjective, archaic; means rotten; said of an egg); “scullion reviewers” (noun, archaic: a servant assigned the most menial kitchen tasks); “Shakespeare scholiasts” (a scholiast is a commentator on ancient or classical literature); “cully” (noun; British; archaic, informal: a man, friend); “our wormy, desiccated subway” (wormy: adjective; said of organic tissue; means infested with or eaten into by worms; or of wood or a wooden object, full of holes made by woodworm; when said of a person, means weak, abject, or revolting).

 

 

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Roger W. Smith, email to the Tim Robinson, editor of Penguin edition of J. M. Synge’s The Aran Islands:

Your introduction was so pithy and informative, so well researched and insightful. Your impressive vocabulary alone was worth the trip. I kept jotting down words and expressions such as immiserated, nucleate, impercipient, immiscible, detrital, excursus, “inanimate vastitude,” and so forth.

 

 

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email from a reader of this blog:

Frequently, the phrases you use make you sound pompous. A good example is the ironic “sans redundancy” comment in your email of yesterday. Is there something wrong with the word “without”?

 

my reply:

“Sans” was used playfully (as you realize). Using another word unexpectedly can sometimes enliven a piece, amuse the reader, perhaps help to keep the reader awake, and sometimes help to nail a point. Foreign words can often be used for effect, variation, to amuse the reader, or to keep him on his toes.

For example, “trottoir,” as you know, is the French word for sidewalk. Walt Whitman, who was not actually well versed in foreign languages, loved to use foreign words on occasion, mostly French ones. (“Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway” is a line from Whitman’s poem “Mannahatta”.) He has been faulted for this. Some people can’t realize that one is not required to always say “sidewalk” when another word might be substituted. For various reasons, including a delight in language. The other day in a blog post, I asked, “are big words verboten in writing?” Obviously, I could have used prohibited. I was using the German equivalent playfully, with irony.

 

 

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email from a reader of this blog:

As for vocabulary, I don’t question your accuracy and knowledge, but sometimes question your choice. Why not “indigenous” instead of “autochthonous” in your Dreiser post? The two words mean essentially the same thing and your readers would have more easily gotten your point with the more commonly used word.

my reply:

I see your point, but one often strains to find the mot juste. Autochthonous was the best choice. There’s nothing wrong with challenging the reader. I love it when writers such as Edward Dahlberg challenge me and increase my stockpile of words. Simplicity is a virtue, but simplification because many or most readers haven’t encountered a word before is not necessarily required. William F. Buckley, Jr. could be pedantic and a showoff, but I actually liked the way he used big, arcane words. He used them well (as did Samuel Johnson two centuries earlier). Big words and arcane or archaic ones should not, a priori, be avoided; it depends on the context. Autochthonous was the perfect word to describe Dreiser. It takes years of reading and of looking up words to know and be able to use such not commonly used words when appropriate.

 

 

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email from a reader of this blog:

You often try to use inflated vocabulary words in your quest to dazzle.

My hypothetical response (I didn’t actually send it):

I do have an impressive vocabulary, now that you mention it. I use it well: a big word when called for, often a simple one.

 

 

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Roger W. Smith, email to two close acquaintances:

 

I ran across the word “portentous” in a book this evening.

 

portentous

adjective

1. of or like a portent

“portentous signs”

synonyms: ominous, warning, premonitory, threatening, menacing, ill-omened, foreboding, inauspicious, unfavorable

2. done in a pompously or overly solemn manner so as to impress.

“portentous moralizings; portentous dialogue”

synonyms: pompous, bombastic, self-important, pontifical, solemn, sonorous, grandiloquent

 

pretentious

adjective

1. attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed.

“a pretentious literary device”

synonyms: affected, ostentatious, showy

 

Portentous is more or less a new word for me. It’s hard to keep the two (portentous vs. pretentious) straight.

 

 

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How I Built a Good Vocabulary

 

Any language expert or English teacher will tell you: A good vocabulary is developed only by reading, not from conversation.

There is another obvious factor, which certainly pertains in my case: I have always assiduously looked up words. I began to cultivate the habit early and have never stopped, so that if I don’t look up a word, I feel a sense of something being neglected. My high school English teacher used to repeat the mantra: look up a word three times and it’s yours.

I still look up words conscientiously, including ones of which I may have a prior idea as to their meaning and those whose meaning I may be able to guess from the context. I want to nail their meaning down, be precise. (For a writer, this is invaluable.) And, then, I am interested in etymologies. I like to learn the origins of words. Doing so can help one remember what they mean. An example is juggernaut, meaning a huge, powerful, and overwhelming force or institution — it’s a word I learned long ago. An example of its use might be “The Trump juggernaut swept him into office.” The origin of juggernaut is fascinating. From an online etymological dictionary:

juggernaut: An idea, custom, fashion, etc., that demands either blind devotion or merciless sacrifice. A figurative use of Juggernaut, “a huge wagon bearing an image of the god Krishna,” especially that at the town of Puri, drawn annually in procession during which (apocryphally) devotees allowed themselves to be crushed under its wheels in sacrifice. [The word comes from Sanskrit.]

 

 

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Argot and Foreign Words; the King’s English

 

An ear for slang helps when it comes to vocabulary acquisition — it helps, say, to know what wannabe or gladhandler means — as well as a readiness to converse with others from different backgrounds, cultures, and of different ethnicities (including foreigners). Foreign languages have their own words that don’t translate (ennui, bête noir). And, of course, there are the fabulous Yiddish words, which I never heard in my native New England, words such as klutz, kvetsh, mentsh, meshuga, shlep, shlemiel, tchotchke, and yenta.

Foreign language study and knowledge, of course, help greatly, especially a knowledge of Greek and Latin. It was a commonplace when I was in high school that Latin would provide a good foundation for learning English words and their meanings, as well as a basis for the study of other languages (and of grammar). I found this to be true. I have always wished that I could have learned Greek.

It goes without saying that being a native English speaker (born, as was my case, to native English speakers) is a huge advantage. I grew up imbibing the King’s English like my mother’s milk.

 

 

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Vocabulary as a Tool on the Writer’s Workbench

 

Having an excellent vocabulary increases — exponentially as more and more new words are acquired — one’s mastery as a writer.

Vocabulary gives a writer power. Words assist and go along with complexity of thought.

It’s something akin to a composer mastering different modes and tonalities or scales, or, say, tone color, so that a piece can be scored for different instruments used for maximum effect at various places in the score. When is a particular chord appropriate? Which key? Considerations of timbre, pitch, tonality, resonance all require prior knowledge, familiarity. In the same manner, a writer has to be familiar with words beforehand and to have a store he or she can draw upon. It’s too late to start looking them up in a thesaurus; if one doesn’t already know them, one won’t feel comfortable using them.

As vocabulary increases, precision of thought increases. More subtle distinctions can be made. There are a zillion ways, for example, to say that someone is shifty and manipulative. Which is the right one? To repeat: vocabulary permits ever more subtle distinctions to be made. In describing people, situations, emotions, ideas, and so forth.

When writing, I don’t like to use words that I don’t already know. They have to already be in my quiver, my “word silo” (to mix metaphors). I do not make it a practice to seek, look up, a new (for me) word and then use it so as to (among other things) impress others with my vocabulary. But, I will admit that, lately, when I am searching for a word, I will look for synonyms on the internet. What’s the best way to say desperate? I may know that there’s a better word for my purposes, but I can’t think of it. It helps to see a list of alternative choices. But I won’t use a word that I don’t already know. I have to have a “comfort level” with the word in question.

In the case of autochthonous, which I used to describe Theodore Dreiser, the word came to mind, somehow. It was lodged in my brain. I wasn’t sure if I had used it correctly. I looked it up, and sure enough, it seemed like just the right word. Do you think before a composer sits down to write a piece, that, at that moment, he opens a music theory text or songbook to look for melodies, chords, or styles? Of course not. They’ve got to already be in his brain, so to speak. This requires extensive experience on the part of the composer with music as a listener (as a student, so to speak; as an active listener to the works of composers from various periods representing a wide variety of styles). The same thing is crucial in writing, namely, extensive reading on the part of the writer, and what goes with it: the assimilation not only of styles but also of words.

What I find is that, if the word is there somewhere, which is to say in my mental “word silo,” then fortuitous choices get made. You often chose words almost by instinct or gut feeling; you have the option of going back and checking later to (which I often do) to make sure you have used the word correctly. But, having words already there in your mental storehouse makes it a lot of fun to write, feeling very pleased with yourself when the right one pops into your head, and you, think, “Got it! That’s perfect.” It’s mentally pleasurable. It’s actually a matter of ear, just as is the case with composers. People think vocabulary is drudgery, something you have to learn by rote to get a good SAT score. Actually, words are very much part of the creative process — the writing process, that is — an essential ingredient.

We have all had the experience in conversation of sort of reaching for a word. It’s there somewhere; we want to grab it out of thin air. So we can nail a thought.

When one does so, there is a palpable sense of satisfaction; the opposite, frustration, is the case when the word eludes us. When it comes to colloquy, arguments, political debate, rejoinders, irony, sarcasm, and the like, vocabulary is a definite factor and can make or break the speaker or writer. If the expression rapier wit connotes sharpness, then a good vocabulary will sharpen the blade while a limited vocabulary will blunt it.

 

 

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Dictionaries

 

I have to have a dictionary at hand when I read. For years, I have kept replacing my dictionary due to its being battered, the spine broken and the cover torn from use. I would always buy the same one: Webster’s New World College Dictionary. It has clear, lucid, well written definitions and good etymologies. There are a lot of Americanisms. The dictionary provides sensitive guidance on usage, unlike the infamous Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1961).

My Webster’s New World contains entries for all the words I ever need to look up; there has hardly ever been an exception. I never cared for unabridged dictionaries or found them useful. I purchased one, The Random House Unabridged Dictionary, from a book club once and found that I almost never used it. It seemed to me that the dictionary’s bulk was a product of having all sorts of variant forms of the same word listed as separate entries and including entries for lots of technical and specialized vocabulary used in fields such as aeronautics or organic chemistry, say, that the ordinary reader would never need to look up. And, anyway, I much prefer the clear, well written definitions in Webster’s New World.

 

 

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Newspeak

 

Is a writer is obliged to always use the most common, simplest word?

No. Thank God such a rule isn’t enforced.

A point made by one of my readers to this effect — i.e., that the simpler, more common alternative should be chosen (see above) — has gotten me to think about the analogy with Newspeak. In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Newspeak is the official language of Oceania.

Syme, who is working on the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak dictionary, tells Winston Smith:

It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well–better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good’, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already. but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words–in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston?

(See fuller excerpt below.)

Note: I am not against the use of plain, simple, and common words a priori. The important thing, in my opinion, is that words be used correctly, and that they be used well. The key determinant is context. Variety, meaning that sometimes big words are used and at other times short, simple, and pithy ones, can enliven a piece of writing.

There’s another determinative factor here. What kind of writing are we talking about? An evocative piece about a walk in the woods? A prose poem? A piece of literary criticism? A philosophical tract? Vocabulary will vary accordingly. And, yes, a highfallutin word might spoil that descriptive piece about your nature walk.

 

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My New Words

 

For the past few months, as a sort of experiment, and for the purposes of writing this post, I have been keeping a record of all the words I have looked up. The experiment shows that, despite my good vocabulary, there is always room for improvement. Is not learning supposed to be a lifelong process?

Here goes. Don’t stop reading here. Words are fun.

 

 

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monad

a simple, single celled organism

 

 

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eidolon

1. an idealized person or thing; 2. a specter or phantom.

 

 

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vervain

a plant with and a history of use as a magical and medicinal herb

 

 

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cladding

a type of building material; a covering or coating on a structure or material

used in a newspaper article about the June 2017 Grenfell fire in London

 

 

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liminal

adjective

relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process; occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold

(great word; the kind I should have already known, but appreciate having in my personal word bank)

 

 

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tergiversation

This word came up during a conversation I had with emeritus professor Thomas Kranidas, a Milton scholar. I believe that what we were talking about was the 2016 presidential election and the more general question of being of a divided mind (you don’t want someone to win, but you want their opponent to lose); the word was essential to the conversation. Neither of us knew for sure what the word meant. I looked it up when I got home and emailed Professor Kranidas.

It means (1) evasion of straightforward action or clear-cut statement, i.e., equivocation; (2) desertion of a cause, position, party, or faith. Example: “Like most politicians, he has the gift of tergiversation.”

 

 

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minatory

adjective

of a menacing or threatening nature; expressing or conveying a threat (“he is unlikely to be deterred by minatory finger-wagging”)

 

 

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frenemy

noun, informal

a person with whom one is friendly despite a fundamental dislike or rivalry (origin: 1950’s; blend of friend and enemy)

 

 

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theurgy

the art or technique of compelling or persuading a god or beneficent or supernatural power to do or refrain from doing something; practiced by Egyptian Platonists

 

 

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hydroponics

a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, without soil

 

 

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opaline

used by Henry James; a variant form of opalescent

means translucent glass of a color other than white

 

 

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spicules

used by Theodore Dreiser, in a chapter of his “This Madness,” a serialized novel published in Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan magazine, in the following sentence: “Of what use are words, promises, dreams, desires even, in the face of Life? This driving, compelling thing of which we are but a function, of whose dreams and moods we are but minute spicules!”

The noun spicule means a minute sharp-pointed object or structure that is typically present in large numbers, such as a fine particle of ice.

 

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lowery

In his autobiographical work Dawn, Theodore Dreiser wrote: “one lowery Saturday night”

I have seen the word before, but wasn’t sure of its meaning; however, it can be guessed from context.

lowery is a British word (in origin) … it is also spelled (more commonly) loury

adjective: ““A lowery sky, and from it flecks of silvery light dropping lightly, like mirrored feathers.”

lour (English word) is a verb; it has the meaning of look angry or sullen; scowl (“The lofty statue lours at patients in the infirmary”) … or (of sky or landscape), look dark and threatening. I thought it meant a CLOUDY sky. It sort of does, but more precisely, it means a sky looking dark and threatening (the pathetic fallacy?).

Used as a noun, lour can mean a dark and gloomy appearance of the sky or landscape.

Lour comes from the Middle English lour (“sad or frowning countenance”), louren (“to frown or scowl; to be dark or overcast; look askant, mistrust; wither, fade, droop; lurk, skulk”); and from the Old English lowren, luren. Compare Dutch loeren, German lauern (“lurk, be on the watch”), and English leer and lurk.

 

 

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crater, verb

used as a gerund as follows by Maureen Down in a New York Times op ed column:

Administration officials have been trying to reassure journalists that James Mattis, John Kelly and Rex Tillerson have a pact designed to ensure that one of them is always in the country to watch over Trump in case he goes off the deep end.

It recalled the moment, recapped by Politico Magazine, when a Nixon defense secretary, James Schlesinger, got so worried about a cratering Nixon — who was drinking and telling congressmen, “I can go in my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead” — that he told military commanders to check with him or Henry Kissinger if the president ordered up nukes.

crater: to fail or fall suddenly and dramatically: collapse, crash (cratering stock prices)

 

 

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aborning

it means something occurring while something is being born or produced; example, “a resolution that died aborning”

 

 

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mullet

a fish, but can also mean a hairstyle

 

 

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“sand berm”

This term stumped me. It was used in a recent New York Tines article about New Jersey beachgoers.

I looked it up. A berm is flat strip of land, raised bank, or terrace bordering a river or canal, or a path or grass strip beside a road.

 

 

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divagation; a digression

 

 

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jurat

means a person who has taken an oath or who performs a duty on oath, e.g., a juror.

I came across this unfamiliar (to me) term in a book by Stefan Zweig about Michel de Montaigne.

 

 

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epiphanic

not a hard word, once you know it; it’s the adjectival form of epiphany

 

 

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vitiation

noun form of vitiate

 

 

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flagitious

means criminal, villainous; said of a person or their actions

 

 

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lustrous

used by a nineteenth century British author, Samuel Warren, in the following phrase: “a sense of lustrous confusion, slowly subsiding into directness”

means, as might be expected, having luster, shiny

 

 

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brag (noun)

used as a noun in a book about Walt Whitman: “… after considerable brag about the success of his [Whitman’s] first edition [of Leaves of Grass] and what he proposes for the future, he announces a new American literature totally different from the literatures of the past. …”

 

 

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supererogation

the act of performing more than is required by duty, obligation, or need

 

 

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marmoreal

of, relating to, or suggestive of marble or a marble statue, especially in coldness or aloofness

(This word provides a good example how connotation, as well as denotation, can be highly relevant.)

 

 

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aromal

from an article in the American Phrenological Journal, 1853, cited in a book about Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass

it means aromatic, fragrant

 

 

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immiserate

a transitive verb

to make miserable; impoverish.

 

 

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relict

1. a thing that has survived from an earlier period or in a primitive form; 2. an animal or plant that has survived while others of its group have become extinct, e.g., the coelacanth; 3. a species or community that formerly had a wider distribution but now survives in only a few localities such as refugia; 4. archaic: a widow

 

 

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vastitude

 

1. the quality of being vast; immensity; 2. a vast extent or space

 

 

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bilocation

the supposed phenomenon of being in two places simultaneously.

 

 

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immiscible

 

said of liquids; not forming a homogeneous mixture when added together (example: “water is immiscible with suntan oil”)

 

 

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detrital

adjectival form of detritus

 

 

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impercipient

adjective; means failing to perceive something

 

 

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I wish to note that I am not trying to emulate Noah Webster or compile a vocabulary primer. These are words that I personally had occasion to look up in the past few months, and in each case, the task (of looking up a word) was preordained by the matter at hand (my reading). The above words and expressions were all encountered in my recent reading. If you are inclined to say, that’s impressive, I would be inclined to respond by saying: proves my point: vocabulary is built by reading.

Can you see why it pays to look up words?

 

 

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Acquiring Vocab from the Greats

 

Different writers, ranging from Shakespeare to Charles Dickens and from Walt Whitman to Thomas Wolfe, have their favorite words — often arcane ones –which they will use repeatedly, and this will augment one’s vocabulary. (Plus, in the case of a great writer such as Shakespeare, their coinages.) It goes without saying that literature will broaden one’s vocabulary, from pithy, evocative words to high-flown abstract ones. Usually, these words will be used wisely and well, effectively.

And, then, different disciplines have their own vocabulary and buzzwords. An avid reader with wide ranging interests will pick up many words this way. This could include specialized words used in various professions and industries and in technical fields which often have a wider use. And, the reader who is not limited to deep reading in just one field (e.g., literature) but ranges far abroad (to, say, history or the social sciences, philosophy, the pure sciences, and so on) will acquire vocabulary which, needless to say, has a wide applicability and, in itself, can broaden knowledge.

Two writers whose word usage intrigues me are as follows.

 

 

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Walt Whitman

 

Whitman was an autodidact. His use of language, which would be impressive solely on account of his poetry, exhibits a love of words, including rarely used and antiquated ones, and inventiveness in choice of words and vocabulary. A few examples.

 

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scantling

 

Whitman used this word in a notation he made in the 1850’s on a newspaper clipping. Whitman wrote: “a good word ‘scantlings’.” Floyd Stovall, author of the monograph on Whitman in which I found this quote, writes: “The word ‘scantling’ is used in the review in the sense of ‘a small or scanty portion or amount’ ” a sense that … goes back to the sixteenth century. Presumably Whitman understood the meaning of the word as used by the reviewer, but in an unpublished poem [of Whitman’s] … he obviously used it in the carpenter’s sense of ‘a small beam of piece of word.’ ”

I looked up the definition of scantling and found: “a small or scanty portion or amount; also, a small beam or piece of wood.” Whitman had some experience doing carpentry with his father, who was a house builder.

 

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esurience

noun

The quality or state of being esurient, which means hungry or greedy; an archaic word, derived from Latin.

 

 

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lackbrains

plural of lackbrain (noun); derogatory; an idiot

 

 

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hobbledehoy

a clumsy or awkward youth

used as an adjective, can mean awkward or clumsy

 

 

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cartouche

a carved tablet or drawing representing a scroll with rolled up ends, used ornamentally or bearing an inscription.

used by Whitman in Leaves of Grass as follows: “This is the lexicographer—this the chemist—this made a grammar of the old cartouches; …”

 

 

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cumbrous

used by Whitman in the phrase ‘the far-back cumbrous old Hindu epics”

 

 

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excogitation

noun form of the verb to excogitate, which means to think out, plan, or devise (example: “scholars straining to excogitate upon subjects of which they know little”)

Used by Whitman in a marginal note he made in the 1850’s. He wrote: “The purposes of art are simple, and not speculative; its materials derive from nature and tradition, and not from excogitation and analysis.”

 

 

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Thomas Wolfe

 

Thomas Wolfe continually challenges the reader, as I have recently found, with linguistic inventiveness. He seemed to have had an affinity for (but not by any means exclusively for) words derived from fields such as biology, medicine, immunology, geology, and, more generally, from the natural sciences and natural phenomena. He continually challenges the reader with words that almost give one a sense of wonder because of their apparent newness and seeming strangeness.

 

 

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“spatulate fingers” (You Can’t Go Home Again)

The adjective spatulate means broad with a rounded end; the term is derived from botany and biology.

 

 

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volutes

 

The motors roared by like projectiles, and people were passing along the pavement. … There were the three girl-friends who pass along the streets of life for ever. One had a cruel and sensual face, she wore glasses, and her mouth was hard and vulgar. Another had the great nose and the little bony features of a rat. The face of the third was full and loose, jeering with fat rouged lips and oily volutes of the nostrils. And when they laughed, there was no warmth or joy in the sound: high, shrill, ugly, and hysterical, their laughter only asked the earth to notice them. (You Can’t Go Home Again)

definition of volute: 1: a spiral or scroll-shaped form; 2: a spiral scroll-shaped ornament forming the chief feature of the Ionic capital; 3: any of various marine gastropod mollusks with a thick short-spired shell; the shell of a volute.

 

 

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vaporings

“he had tried not to think of it, convinced now that it was no good, that he himself was no good, and that all his hot ambitions and his vaporings were the dreams of a shoddy aesthete without talent.” (You Can’t Go Home Again)

vaporing: an idle, extravagant, or high-flown expression or speech —usually used in plural

vapor (verb): to talk in a vacuous, boasting, or pompous way

 

 

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indurated

“Out of his front windows George could see nothing except the somber bulk of the warehouse across the street. It was an old building, with a bleak and rusty front of rusty, indurated brown and a harsh webbing of fire escapes. …” (You Can’t Go Home Again)

indurated: hardened

 

 

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“throning traffic”

 

“Day by day, a throning traffic of life and business passed before him in the streets; day by day, the great vans came, the drivers, handlers, and packers swarmed before his eyes, filling the air with their oaths and cries, irritably intent upon their labor; but the man in the window never looked at them, never seemed to be aware of their existence- he just sat there and looked out, his eyes fixed in an abstracted stare.” (You Can’t Go Home Again)

Throne, verb, means to seat on a throne, to invest with kingly power.

So what did Wolfe mean here? Is this a typo for thronging? I doubt it.

 

 

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murmurous, moted

 

“The station, as he entered it, was murmurous with the immense and distant sound of time. Great; slant beams of moted light fell ponderously athwart the station’s floor, and the calm voice of time hovered along the walls and ceiling of that mighty room, distilled out of the voices and movements of the people who swarmed beneath. It had the murmur of a distant sea, the languorous lapse and flow of waters on a beach. It was elemental, detached, indifferent to the lives of men. They contributed to it as drops of rain contribute to a river that draws its flood and movement majestically from great depths, out of purple hills at evening.” (You Can’t Go Home Again)

murmurous; adjective: filled with or characterized by murmurs; low and indistinct; the kind of sound one could expect to hear in a train station, a kind of low hum

moted, adjective; said of light; means full of motes

mote: a tiny trace of a substance, a speck

 

 

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gouty

 

“The tall Englishman walked with a gouty shuffle. …” (Look Homeward Angel)

gouty: pertaining to or of the nature of gout

gout; a disease which causes arthritis, especially in the smaller bones of the feet, and episodes of acute pain.

 

 

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bohunk

“Yeah, an’ he was good, too! Only he wasn’t no Turk — he only called hisself one. The Ole Man told me he was some kind of Polack or Bohunk from the steel mills out in Pennsylvania, an’ that’s how he got so strong.” (You Can’t Go Home Again)

bohunk; noun; informal, derogatory

an immigrant from central or southeastern Europe, especially a laborer; a rough or uncivilized person

 

 

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alexin

“The seed of our destruction will blossom in the desert, the alexin of our cure grows by a mountain rock, and our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern, because a London cutpurse went unhung. Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years. The minute-winning days, like flies, buzz home to death, and every moment is a window on all time.” (Look Homeward, Angel)

alexin: a term from microbiology; specifically, immunology, with Greek roots, defined variously as: a group of proteins in the blood serum that, when activated by antibodies, causes destruction of alien cells, such as bacteria; a protective substance that exists in the serum or other bodily fluid and is capable of killing microorganisms; complement.

 

 

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“phthisic foot”

In Look Homeward Angel, Wolfe describes the stone statue of an angel, which stood for years on the porch of his father’s tombstone shop in Asheville, North Carolina.

“No one knew how fond he was of the angel. Publicly he called it his White Elephant. He cursed it and said he had been a fool to order it. For six years it had stood on the porch, weathering, in all the wind and the rain. It was now brown and fly-specked. But it came from Carrara in Italy, and it held a stone lily delicately in one hand. The other hand was lifted in benediction, it was poised clumsily upon the ball of one phthisic foot, and its stupid white face wore the look of some soft stone idiocy.””

phthisic: pertaining to phthisis; phthisis: a wasting disease of the lungs; asthma

 

 

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Concrete vs. Abstract

 

Note that many of the words I looked up denote very specific things that one can visualize, e.g., berm, cladding, scantling. These words, because they are so specific, I find harder to remember, if, as is often the case, they refer to some observation I would not be inclined to make, for example, carpentry, a beach, building materials, and the like. Yet, they still intrigue me, especially their etymologies.

Maureen Dowd in an op ed piece used, as was noted above, the word cratering to characterize Richard Nixon’s downfall. One would ordinarily think of crater, a concrete noun (a crater on the moon). But here she was using a verb which denotes a concept. I find it easier to remember the meaning of abstract words.

 

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   August 2017

 

 

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addendum: One just keeps on learning. It’s one of the joys of language learning and of reading.

In a blog post about the Russian author Gogol today (August 28, 2017), I came across the phrase avant la lettre in the following sentence: “Gogol doesn’t quite fit into a genre, his work has both romantic and realistic elements, and one could even say that he was a fantastic realist avant la lettre.”

It’s a familiar phrase to me, but I realized that I could not define it, despite having a sense of what it might mean from the context.

Definition of avant la lettre (from the French): before a specified word or concept existed.

Great to know.

 

 

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Appendix: George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four; an excerpt from Part One, Chapter 5

 

“How is the Dictionary getting on?” said Winston, raising his voice to overcome the noise.

“Slowly,” said Syme. “I’m on the adjectives. It’s fascinating.”

He had brightened up immediately at the mention of Newspeak. He pushed his pannikin aside, took up his hunk of bread in one delicate hand and his cheese in the other, and leaned across the table so as to be able to speak without shouting.

“The Eleventh Edition is the definitive edition,” he said. “We’re getting the language into its final shape–the shape it’s going to have when nobody speaks anything else. When we’ve finished with it, people like you will have to learn it all over again. You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words–scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. The Eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050.’

He bit hungrily into his bread and swallowed a couple of mouthfuls, then continued speaking, with a sort of pedant’s passion. His thin dark face had become animated, his eyes had lost their mocking expression and grown almost dreamy.

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well–better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good’, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already. but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words–in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston? It was B.B.’s idea originally, of course,” he added as an afterthought.

A sort of vapid eagerness flitted across Winston’s face at the mention of Big Brother. Nevertheless Syme immediately detected a certain lack of enthusiasm.

“You haven’t a real appreciation of Newspeak, Winston,” he said almost sadly. “Even when you write it you’re still thinking in Oldspeak. I’ve read some of those pieces that you write in ‘The Times’ occasionally. They’re good enough, but they’re translations. In your heart you’d prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and its useless shades of meaning. You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?”

Winston did know that, of course. He smiled, sympathetically he hoped, not trusting himself to speak. Syme bit off another fragment of the dark-coloured bread, chewed it briefly, and went on:

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we’re not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak,” he added with a sort of mystical satisfaction. ‘Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?”