All posts by Lucy Ferriss


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 …


Approaching Partial Zero



When I first heard of a partial zero-emissions vehicle (or PZEV, a fun acronym to say), I wondered if it was a line from a joke. But no. It is a line from a vehicle category designed to circumvent requirements like California’s demand that zero-emissions vehicles be produced by a certain date. There are technical specifications for a PZEV that have to do with exhaust emissions and fuel-system emissions. For a language columnist, however, the interest lies in the modified absolute.

Sticklers l…


Professorial Parlance

Thomas_Nagel_teaching_EthicsLike my colleague Ben Yagoda, I was intrigued by Teddy Wayne’s recent New York Times article on modes of speaking, but for a different reason. Toward the end of the article, Wayne observes that, unlike social-media writers or radio hosts,

In disciplines like academics, technology and finance, many speakers pepper long speeches with “right.” Their pitch does not rise on the word, which comes in the middle of a series of statements — “analytics are most valuable over long periods, right, t…



71ZjwgbXMAL._SL1500_I write this not long after New England’s first frost, when the temperatures have suddenly rebounded into the 70s. Everyone I know calls this Indian summer. Everyone I know loves it. And every year I wonder what to do about the potential racism.

Very few people say Indian giver; most preschool teachers now tell their 3-year-olds to sit cross-legged, not Indian style. These terms have been effectively identified as racist: a so-called Indian giver has purportedly given something only to snatch it…


Midwifing Emojis

1-s1P3JIBwuxsbq2lAD8SOOAI ignore a lot of messages on my computer. Life is easier that way. Recently I ignored an update about texting on my phone that had to do with emojis. For years, I’ve been ignoring the little note when I’m replying to certain emails: “This message must be sent as Unicode.” Go ahead, I tell the computer. Send it that way. Whoever wrote me must have done something in Unicode; it’s not my fault.

But now a connection arises between the emoji-related messages and the Unicode-related messages, and the…


Morphing the Skeuo

BuggyIs there any frisson more delicious than the learning of a crown wagongreat new word? OK, don’t answer that. But a great new word is a gift, and I received one last week only to find that it had been passed around certain circles for years.

I refer to skeuomorphism, which I heard as skiomorphism on NPR’s All Things Considered in a discussion of action-movie audio features. We are surrounded, it seems, by skeuomorphism, and a heavy debate continues as to its usefulness. Every time you save your work on the …


Responding to Deafness

deaf-500x152A colleague came to me yesterday with a question about a student paper on hearing loss. Should the student, he wanted to know, have capitalized the word deaf?

Simply by writing the word as lowercase, above, I have apparently made a political choice. We have reached agreement, albeit with complications, on the upper- or lowercasing of purely ideological or political terms. AP Style, for instance, supplies helpful sentences like ”The conservative Republican senator and his Conservative Party col…


Amid the Amidsts

dont-you-just-hate-the-word-whilstFirst-year undergraduate writing leaves so much to be desired that it seems silly to get stuck on two letters. But as I grade my first set of papers, I’m struck by the sudden ubiquity of –st:

  • It is interesting to note that whilst the character is dreaming …
  • The true nature of his actions is unbeknownst to the reader.
  • Amongst his peers, Melville was the best at this.
  • Whilst we should not overly concern ourselves with that here …

What’s going on? Most language mavens see the –st forms of these w…


A Lesson in ‘Lessen’

quote-no-distance-of-place-or-lapse-of-time-can-lessen-the-friendship-of-those-who-are-thoroughly-robert-southey-174988A few months ago we at Lingua Franca received an email from a suffering reader. His eyes are hurting and his ears are subject to a terrible sound. That sound is the verb lessen. Whatever happened to decrease? our discomfited reader would like to know. And couldn’t we simply ban lessen?

As plenty of other readers remind us, there are more urgent problems in the world. But a complaint like this pushes my curiosity button. Contrary to our writer’s impression, the usage of lessen rather than decreas…



freshman_first_year_school_ornament_roundThis year, for the first time, I am teaching a freshman — oops, first-year — seminar. Right there is the problem. As readers of this blog know, I like to be on top of the latest gender-neutral neologism. For many years, the term freshman has belonged to a class of designations (fireman, policeman, mailman) for which our culture has tried to find gender-neutral alternatives. As my Lingua Franca colleague Anne Curzan noted in 2013, within colleges — arguably one of the most progressive institut…