All posts by Lucy Ferriss


How ’Bout That As?

Logo_AsEnglish offers plenty of opportunities for repeating words. A perennial favorite, maxing out at five instances, is “I think that that that that that man used should have been a which.” The sentence cheats a bit, in my view, because like President Clinton’s famous utterance, “It depends what the meaning of is is,” one instance of the word must be set apart as word-qua-word. Still, that that is a common repetition, with is is not far behind. As my colleague Ben Yagoda has pointed out, the repetiti…


The Narratee and the Typo

enhanced-buzz-822-1378391228-4A long, earnest study has been knocking around at Lingua Franca regarding so-called grammos and typos in social media. As argued by a psychologist and a linguist at the University of Michigan, the response to “actual written errors” (as opposed to social-media conventions like elided punctuation or nonstandard abbreviations) depends on the personality of the reader more than any other criterion. I find this idea, in a word, weird.

For many years, a debate raged in the field of narratology over w…


Poetically Punctuating

stanleyquotepoetrypunctuationAt last, in the final four weeks of the semester, my “Introduction to Creative Writing” class has come to poetry. I both love and dread this section. I love it because I teach poetry taxonomically. That is, each student must delve deep into the well of poetry old and new until she finds a poetic form to embrace. She then reports to us all on the history and highlights of, say, the pantoum or the elegy; recites a poem in that form; and writes one in that form. The exercise reminds me of the fanta…


Never Underestimating

thumbMaybe George W. Bush’s neologism misunderestimate isn’t such a bad candidate for adoption into the lexicon. That’s what I decided shortly after reading the following passage in a New York Times article about the various adaptations of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho:

Mr. Bale’s role in Bateman’s liftoff is impossible to underestimate. You can trace the character’s ascent along the arc of the actor’s career. (Bateman, Batman, Bale, baleful — there’s a malevolent linguistic r…


Pentimento: the Saxon Genitive

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI spent part of spring break serendipitously immersed in language. We were on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica (the “Rich Coast,” as Puerto Rico is the “Rich Port,” neither of which description seems apt these days), among a group of international visitors. I resuscitated my flagging Spanish, interpreted for language-challenged French and German tourists, and tried out my toddler-level Italian with several restaurant proprietors who had relocated from Sicily. I’m not gifted at languag…


Good on Us

19th_century_slangLike others in this forum, I try to keep abreast of changes in idiom over time. We notice the emergence of vocal fry, the increasing acceptance of singular they, and so on. But for the most part, our observations are those of the disinterested listener. We may note, as I have, our tendency to cling to expressions now considered old-fashioned or stiff. But what of the ways in which we find the expressions of the zeitgeist coming out of our own mouths?

I can’t recall what my husband and I were t…


Making Categories, Breaking Categories

EDL-900x450Not long ago, I attended a conference at Radcliffe on “Ways With Words: Exploring Language and Gender.” The first, and perhaps most salient, thing to note is that this conference was packed. Cis men, cis women, trans men, trans women, gay people, straight people, old and young and in between — in between ages, genders, sexualities, you name it. Granted, this is academe, and we’re always eager to discuss the political dimensions of the new. But I was surprised at the breadth of interest in …


Sanders in the Ghetto

bigghettolodz2little_ghetto_boy_by_koukloI first heard the word in an Elvis Presley song, “In the Ghetto,” released not long after the Billy Joe Royal song “Down in the Boondocks.” I remember comparing the lyrics. “And his hunger burns,” Presley crooned of his “hungry little boy,”

so he starts to roam the streets at night
and he learns how to steal and he learns how to fight
In the ghetto

Billy Joe Royal’s boy was no less poor but more hopeful, counting on love and hard work to move him from the “boondocks” to a place “on the hill.”

I …


Nowheresville and Other Birthday Treats

OED-birthday-words-cartoon-1200x330Nineteen fifty-four, the year of my birth,* witnessed Brown v. Board of Education, Elvis Presley’s first successful  song, mass testing of the Salk polio vaccine, Hank Aaron’s first major league baseball game, and the coining of the word nowheresville. That last is according to the Oxford English Dictionary’s new Birthday Word Generator, linked to the date when OED researchers have been able to locate the first usage of a term. My sister’s word is oenophilic, which I would have thought went back…


Plotting Punctuation

Huck Finn

Adam Calhoun’s heat map of punctuation in Huckleberry Finn.

Anyone who writes seriously pays attention to punctuation; we know that. That devilish comma in the Second Amendment has spawned countless 21st-century opinion columns despite its obvious roots in 18th-century conventions. But only this past week did I discover a tiny branch of study devoted only to punctuation patterns.

Adam Calhoun, an eclectic neuroscientist at Princeton, found himself drawn to the artist Nicholas Rougeux’s series of…