All posts by Lucy Ferriss


Word Pardons


Image by Jarrett Heather

Weird Al’s “Word Crimes” video now has close to nine million hits, with the thumbs-up outweighing the thumbs-down more than 100 to 1. For those who take debates over prescriptivism in language usage seriously, there’s plenty of material for hand-wringing in the video, as evidenced by Lauren Squires’s perceptive piece in Language Log. But since there probably aren’t nine million people who have heard of prescriptivism in language, I wonder if there isn’t something els…


The Pursuit of Happiness—?

dec-indep-topDebates about punctuation, for me, are like debates about rests and accidentals in musical scores. They go on and on; if the manuscript is old enough, they can be decided by a coin flip; and they force us, in the end, to consider the work as a whole—its shape, its construction and intent. Mozart’s scores, for instance, several of which were left in disarray on the composer’s death, come in for a fair share of controversy. In his Piano Concerto No. 13, is the complex figured bass in the tut…


The Goldfinch and the Stewardess

dv2073195The literary world has been engaged in a hearty dialogue over the merits and deficiencies of Donna Tartt’s massive novel The Goldfinch, which spent more than 30 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. Rave reviews of the book’s range and rich plot have confronted scathing condemnations of its cloying stock characters and overstuffed passages. We won’t rehearse the whole controversy. Let’s home in on a single word usage:

“I was asleep almost before the seat belt light went off—missing d…


Beware Hurricane Snooki

Big-BerthaI must love language more than I love truth. Example: The venerable Economist, along with several other publications, recently reported on a study whose tentative conclusion was that female-named hurricanes—or, more precisely, feminine-sounding hurricanes—cause more death than their masculine counterparts. The reason behind this apparent rise of the Valkyries is that those who hear of, say, Hurricane Tiffany fear her far less than those who hear of Hurricane Boris. They therefore take fewer …


A Victory Over Genericide

A September 1959 advertisement for the Xerox 914The New York Times has begun a strange new series titled “Verbatim,” mini-docudramas culled from transcripts of court documents. In its inaugural video, the punch line kicks in when the office worker being relentlessly grilled about the presence of a photocopy machine in his office is finally badgered into admitting that a machine exists from which he extracts copies of documents. What is that machine called? “Xerox,” he answers desperately.

To my students, the scene isn’t all that funny, exce…


An Epidemic of George

George WillThe fur has been flying the last couple of weeks over a  recent piece by the conservative pundit George Will. Given that Will’s subject is “the supposed campus epidemic of rape,” it may be impossible to discuss his column purely on the basis of language. But I’m game to try.

Will’s word and punctuation choices yield several different sorts of fodder. One might begin, for instance, with his appositive to rape, “a.k.a. ‘sexual assault,’” a term he keeps in quotes throughout his piece, as…


Sono Tornata!

Casa Dante in Perano: good wine, bad Wi-Fi

Having left my post at Lingua Franca four months ago to work on a book and (very incidentally) dabble in Italian, I thought I’d launch my return (Sono tornata = I have returned) with a report. Thanks to a Lingua Franca commenter, I spent about 10 minutes a day from February to late May on the website Duolingo, earning lingots and hearts and wondering why this website seemed so obsessed with cooking in the kitchen. (Where else would you cook?) When I was…


Arrivederci! A Dopo!

2417_do-you-want-to-learn-italian-628x366I’ll be taking a work-intensive book leave from Lingua Franca beginning next week. Just before I return, I’ll be relaxing for a week in Tuscany, where we chose a villa based on the reviews. The negative reviews, that is, the ones that said, “Wi-Fi here is really terrible.” Yes.

I’m uncomfortable in countries where I don’t speak the language. My short-term experiences in Italy, which include two Italians playing a joke by helping me onto a train going south rather than north at 2:00 a.m., sug…


Cannibal Commas

commaThe writer Bich Minh Nguyen posted a question on Facebook the other day that drew a swell of discussion:

Grammar dilemma over here. According to grammar sites we’re supposed to write “Hi, Jane” rather than “Hi Jane” (because “Hi” is different from “Dear”). But this just doesn’t sit right with me. I dislike the two commas involved: “Hi, Jane,” looks cluttered compared to “Hi Jane.” I’m starting to feel a little anxious whenever I start an email. Will the person I’m writing disapprove of my (lack …


Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Words

imagesA colleague sent me a contest offering from the venerable American Scholar, magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Titled “Lingua Americana,” it begins by setting out examples of “wonderfully expressive [English] words that defy translation,” including flaky, finagle, and hullaballoo. Remember those words; we’ll return to them.

The contest then proceeds to list untranslatable words that it considers “a bit of a mouthful,” like schadenfreude, or simply unacceptably non-English, like frisson, sim…