Verbatim

Articles from Vol. 29, No. 3, Autumn

A Short Hike through Arroyo Lingo
Words are my hobby as well as the tools of my vocation, and there are so many of them to know about that it's a daunting enterprise. During my childhood, when the Western movie was in its ascendency, I saw hundreds and hundreds of mesas and buttes...
Cheers!
The chemical ethanol, aka alcohol, has been lubricating social interaction, generating conviviality, loosening tongues, morals, and much else since time immemorial. The consumption of this universal drug, whether straight, iced, watered, or concocted...
Classical Blather: Stuff and Nonsense
"Stuff and nonsense!" Thus Alice characterized Wonderland's novel notion of having a sentence first and a verdict afterward. (1) English has a rich inventory of synonyms for the nonsensical, from the recondite Buncombe (better known by its phonetic...
Do You Speak American?
Do You Speak American?, by Robert MacNeil and William Cran. (240 pp. Doubleday, 2005. ISBN 0385511981, US$23.95) How ironic is it that the author of a book of American language is Canadian by birth? Yet there is no person more qualified than Robert...
Email and Good Writing
If they were alive, I wonder what E. B. White and William Strunk Jr. would have to say about email. In the 1972 preface to the second revision of The Elements of Style White quotes Strunk: Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain...
Epistolae
In his enlightening Classical Blather article, "Whatsisnames and Thingamajigs" (VERBATIM, Vol. XXIX/2), Nick Humez cites the German slang expression, das Dingsda (literally, 'that thing there') as an example of an "indeterminate placename." English...
Hogamous, Higamous!
The first time the quatrain below appeared in the The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations was in its Fourth Edition (1992), and it is ascribed to the American philosopher William James. The sentiment is not expressed in the sonorous language of the Book...
Horribile Dictu
"You may be surprised," wrote famous British medical columnist Dr Miriam, "but your back begins to age at around 30--younger if you've had a back injury." I was surprised, I admit; if I'd ever thought about it at all, I'd have assumed that my back,...
(Not) Spelling It out for You
There is an anomaly in the language which is so flagrant that it escapes general notice only because it has always been right under our noses. The whole point of having words for things is that, when we refer to the things, we use the words for...
Of Clouds and Clootie Dumplings
On a road through the Howgill Fells in England's wet northwest is the little hamlet of Stennerskeugh. Look closely at the map and you will see marked high on the hillside above the village the words Stennerskeugh Clouds. From the foot of the hill you...
R. A. Acronyms
"If we're going to such an upscale lunch, I have to use the ATM machine first," said my friend the other day. Not "go to the bank," which is what people used to say when embarking on a costly enterprise. These days, you can avoid human contact by dealing...
The Elephants of Style: A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English
The Elephants of Style: A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English, by Bill Walsh. (McGraw-Hill, 2004. 238 pp. ISBN 0071422684, US$14.95). It was a tall order for Bill Walsh to improve on Lapsing into a...
The Joy of English
[This essay won the 2004 Simon Winchester Nonfiction Writing Award at San Jose State University.] English was not my first language. In fact, according to my mother, I created a language that was entirely my own. Between my Russian parents, who...
Turning Spam into Haiku
At the risk of offending true lovers of poetry, a new form of versification has arisen, a structure that performs a kind of jujitsu on email spam, turning the very rawness of its attack back onto itself. We are, in effect, "repurposing" meaningful...
Verlan: The French Pig Latin
Verlan, a French slang, began as a way for criminals and drug users to communicate in front of police and other authorities. It was a secret language that the everyday citizen did not know. Verlan now, though, continues to evolve, as it is incorporated...
Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends
Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends, by David Wilton. (Oxford University Press, 2004. 240 pp. ISBN 0195172841, US$21.95) Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds: Ingenious Tales of Words and Their Origins, by Michael Quinion. (Smithsonian Books,...
You Sucker! Participatory Humor
I have long been fascinated with a particular type of humor, a type that, as far as I can tell, has no name. I have settled on calling it participatory humor, since these are jokes in which the listener (or "victim") participates, whether she means...

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