All posts by Lucy Ferriss


(Your Name), Enabler

arianne-glitter-geek-little-miss-trouble-enablerIt’s hard to tell exactly when the verb enable spawned the noun enabler. An 1825 issue of the Annual Register, per the OED, provides some hint in suggesting that “the word Habilitador might, if there were such a word, be translated Enabler.” A habilitador, or habilitater, was one who endowed something or someone with ability or capacity. For at least some period of time, an enabler did likewise. As recently as 1978, in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare’s publication Stimulati…


How ’Bout That Ass?

donkeyteethSo I’m writing my historical novel, minding my own business, when some sort of semantic bug bites me and sends me off on a language tangent. Does this ever happen to you? Last week, I was describing the building of a gristmill on a tributary of the Hudson River around 1700. Given the rough terrain at the time and the need to haul a lot of heavy stuff around, I thought the mill builders might have donkeys handy, rather than horses. This supposition occasioned a bunch of research into when certa…


The Soul of Wit

twitter_140I am one of thousands of nontweeters on Twitter, people who signed up for one silly reason or another (mine: my publisher told me to) yet have never found much to tweet about. Trying to work up my enthusiasm for this medium of communication, I asked avid tweeters what they loved about it. Their most common answer? “The messages are only 140 characters long.”

Now that Twitter is moving to a higher limit for tweets, let’s pause on this feature, with a nod to poetic form. Why 140 characters? Appa…


How We Love Spelling

IMG_0138The illustration at left is from my local walk-in medical clinic, where I finally went after the New Year’s Cold persisted for two weeks. (I’m better now, thanks.) It interests me not only because of the continuing debate about doubled consonants, but also because of its implied narrative.

First, the debate (which isn’t much of a debate). Generally speaking, doubling or not doubling the consonant at the ended of a two-syllable word with the accent on the first syllable is regarded as one of th…


The New ‘Politically Correct’ Boondoggle

seinfeld-4eec3efa6f626e3502338fa4d9756e9cI suspect there isn’t a reader out there who doesn’t have a story about being on the wrong side of so-called political correctness. Mine goes this way. In graduate school, my well-meaning professor had attempted to demonstrate to the class that some opening paragraphs for essays were more effective than others, and to that end he had anonymously copied several of our opening paragraphs from our last set of papers. One paragraph went loftily on about a certain theoretical approach the writer …


A Skeptic’s Meditation on Doubt

climate20villains20_____When I used to think about the word skeptic, it was to wonder whether to spell it beginning sk or sc. No longer. Now that AP guidelines have recommended avoiding the term climate-change skeptic, I find myself pondering the differences among skeptic, doubter, and denier. The Associated Press Stylebook editors write, in part,

Our guidance is to use “climate change doubters” or “those who reject mainstream climate science” and to avoid the use of “skeptics” or “deniers.”

The reasoning here is twofo…


Sing We

carol_1541986cI grew up singing carols, and I am still singing them, these days in an interfaith chorus that gives an annual holiday concert with audience participation. Returning to the songs of one’s youth is always a sentimental experience. But with carols, particularly, I recall simultaneously relishing the rich language in these little ditties and feeling confused by what I came to understand as inverted syntax.

Poetry, and poetic language, often move the parts of a sentence into places different from or…


Writing in a New Language, Writing Anew

writing_systemMy admiration for the writer Jhumpa Lahiri went up a thousandfold after reading an excerpt from her new book, titled “Teach Yourself Italian,” in this week’s New Yorker. Having been trying to teach myself Italian for the past 18 months, I thought I would find a fellow voyager in Lahiri’s essay. As it turns out, Lahiri became so obsessed with the language that she moved to Italy with her family, something I’ve never contemplated doing. Wow, I thought. Then she began reading solely in Italian,…


‘Micro’ Meditation

d30oFor the record, I believe we have a problem on campuses with a persistent, low level, broadly shared, largely unconscious set of prejudices that places an unfair burden on minorities (and, often, women). I also think we have the wrong word for it. The word popping up everywhere — surely it will be a candidate for 2016’s Word of the Year — is microaggressions.

To get to what I think doesn’t work, here, I want to begin with the origin of the word itself. The Greek prefix micro stands in opposition…


Don’t Cuff Me

6357923692149811561460154598_new_cuffs.jpg_54b114b6542723fd2c6c2060536438b6.imgopt1000x70Happy start to cuffing season. Yes, folks, it officially begins today.

I just learned the term cuffing season four days ago, and already I know I cannot talk about it without showing my age. The phenomenon it refers to has been around, probably, for centuries: the tendency of humans to “cuddle up” as the weather turns colder and to seek freedom when the flowers come out in the spring. But its specific contemporary reference, and the advice that goes along with it, feels less anthropological …