Vocabula Bound 1 and Vocabula Bound 2

edited by Robert Hartwell Fiske (Rockport, Massachusetts: Vocabula Books, nd): vol. 1 298pp, vol. 2 240pp, each vol. $24.95 + p&p (hbk) or $20.95 + p&p (pdf), ISBN 978 0 9774368 5 9 (vol. 1), ISBN 978 0 9774368 6 6 (vol. 2).

Reviewed by David Penfold

Vocabula is a monthly online publication that has been going for ten years now. Unlike much that is online, it isn't free, but costs $4.95 a month (among the various subscription options, which you can check out on their website). It deals with a topic that is close to SfEP members' hearts: the English language and how it is used (and misused) on both sides of the Atlantic.

What I'll be discussing here are two collected volumes of past contributions. Within in each volume are between 25 and 30 essays, plus about ten poems.

The first contribution in volume 1, for example, is about the misuse of language by lawyers and, perhaps more to the point, their unwillingness to learn from those whom they regard as their intellectual inferiors. Maybe our authors are not all lawyers, but doesn't this sound familiar? The article is not a rant, but well written and amusing. And this applies to all the articles I've dipped into.

Putting up with puns

You can see the complete tables of contents on the Vocabula website, so I'll not repeat them here, but simply talk about the essays that appealed to me. For example, In volume 1, I liked the essay by Tina Bennett-Kastor on 'Our Democratic Language', which discusses the mutual relative influences of UK and US usage – i.e. how US words get into UK usage and vice versa. This is also covered by Orin Hargraves in 'Who Owns English'.

The long article about linguists by Mark Halpern covers the controversy about how many words Eskimos have for snow and ice, but is essentially about the development of language. Then there is Valerie Collins on polysemous words and puns, which appealed to me as one whose children had to put up with many years of puns as they grew up.

My last favourite in volume 1 is 'Titanic Blunders' by David Carkeet, about all the anachronous use of language in the film Titanic.

Fascinating and worrying

In volume 2, we have Robert Hartwell Fiske's discussion of 'The Decline of the Dictionary', which is both fascinating and worrying, even if he is essentially discussing US dictionaries. Perhaps worrying from a different point of view is Donna Gorrell's 'Conversations with a Copy Editor', if only because it reminded me of a number of exchanges on SfEPLine!

And there's a lot more: 'Linguistic Strategies to Cure Illness' and 'Confessions of a Verbivore', plus discussions of the usage of f—k and c—t – you never know when those might come in handy. Finally, Anna Jean Mallinson's essay 'An The A' by, which I'm sure will appeal to SfEP members because it discusses the different uses of these articles.

I also liked most of the poems, but poetry is a very personal thing.

Worth considering

You may find a few things in these two volumes that are of direct application to your professional activities, but even if this were not the case, reading these essays will enrich your understanding of language and how it is used. And if you have an interest in language, as I'm sure most SfEP members do, then you'll also be much entertained. So, although they are quite expensive, I do feel that these books are worth considering.

A final word on pdfs: These two volumes are available either as hard copy or as pdfs. I took the latter (cheaper) option, but I can't make up my mind whether this is better for a book of essays that one can dip into or not. On the one hand, being able to pull up pages at will is good; on the other, it's harder to browse. Nevertheless, I don't feel the urge to replace the pdf with a hard copy.

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