All posts by Lucy Ferriss

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A Person Who

am-a-simple-person-who-hides-a-thousand-feelings-behind-the-happiest-dGxksS-quoteI heard Barbra Streisand the other day, being interviewed on the radio, describe herself as “a person who likes to live in the moment.” The phrasing made me think of my students, whom I’ll see in two short weeks. We always start our small classes with introductions, and I can no longer count the times I’ve heard, “I’m a person who. … ” To my ear, there’s little difference in basic meaning between I’m a person who likes and I like. Rhetorically, though, the emphasis is different. I decided to dig…

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What Are We Drinking?

Kool-AidI ran across a Facebook thread recently lamenting the insensitivity of the ubiquitous phrase “drink the Kool-Aid.” The argument was that the phrase originated with the Jonestown massacre of November 18, 1978, when the cult leader Jim Jones called on (and in many cases forced) his followers to drink cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid, resulting in more than 900 deaths in a remote jungle outpost in Guyana. Given its tragic origins, many felt, we should not be using it to describe, say, the followers of Dona…

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We the Partisan People

war-is-peaceIn response to my recent post on pronunciation in political speech, one reader took me to his video on the subject, which led me in turn to an amazing bit of research underway by scholars at Stanford and Brown Universities, the University of Chicago, and the National Bureau of Economic Research. In their paper “Measuring Polarization in High-Dimensional Data: Method and Application to Congressional Speech,” Matthew Gentzkow, Jesse Shapiro, and Matt Taddy have combed through 126 years of cong…

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Antimetabole Season

tumblr_inline_mvjmslKfjw1qbolbn“We lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” That was Joe Biden (quoting Bill Clinton) at the Democratic National Convention, using perhaps a politician’s favorite rhetorical device: antimetabole. Great word, huh? It’s from the Greek, like so many literary terms of art, in this case a Greek word meaning “turning about.” This reversal of word order has been responsible for some of the most oft-quoted bits of political discourse in history, including:

“Ask not what…

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You Say Div-ISS-ive, I Say Div-EYE-sive

gop-demo-thinkstockNow that the Republican convention has popped its balloons and the Democratic one is inflating theirs, let’s pause for a moment to consider politics and pronunciation. I had very little stomach for the speeches in Cleveland, but I did tune in long enough to hear a few words whose distinctive pronunciation got me thinking. My sampling is anecdotal and perhaps arbitrary; I’m hoping others will expand and perhaps clarify this list.

Divisive. This one didn’t begin with President Obama’s pronunciatio…

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Babble, Brabbeln, Babiller, Balbettare

firstwordsI’ve spent the last month babbling. I like that word, babble. It’s what babies do before they “really” talk. It’s also the sound of water running over rocks. Apparently it is not related etymologically to Babel, the Hebrew word for Babylon, now known for the infamous tower whose builders were punished with the sudden eruption of mutually unintelligible languages.

I’ve been babbling because I have a purely fanciful desire to speak the major European languages, and my monthlong trip to Corsica a…

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An Ancient Poetic Device Called — ?

didomosaic3

Dido & Aeneas, in the cave.

As my final Stateside treat before leaving for Corsica this weekend, I’ve just finished my friend Ann Patty’s book Living With a Dead Language: My Romance With Latin. Ann will be subbing for me next week, so I want to introduce you to her — though probably the best introduction would be to read the book, which is just out in bookstores.

My affectionate response to Living With a Dead Language has to do with more than friendship, though. I’m in my third year of trying…

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Just Like a Woman

naked-cartwheelOn occasional Thursday evenings I participate in a figure-drawing circle. Artists of all abilities sit with their easels in front of them and a nude model in the center, who poses first in short stints, then in a “long pose” broken by five-minute breaks. A month or so ago, a new model, very young, intriguing-looking and flexible, posed for us. She had short hair tinged blue (as was her pubic hair), multiply pierced earlobes, a petite figure. There was something different about the way she he…

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Input, Output, and Literature

Timeline_0978_WordStar_2Generations pass so quickly these days, as my colleague William Germano noted, that the responsibility to record certain changes falls rather suddenly on those of us about to pass away. I am referring here, not to sports or to actual mortality, but to the modes of writing inflected by the advent and wide adoption of the personal computer.

I’ve just finished Matthew Kirschenbaum’s eye-opening Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, and it’s sent me down memory lane. I’m older th…

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Trying to Write the Mighty Line

sapphicFor years, now, I’ve taught a mixed-genre “Introduction to Creative Writing” course with a very specific poetry component. Each student in the class must choose a poetic form he or she loves; I suggest two dozen of them, and leave books explicating several dozen other choices on the shelf outside my office. Each student gives a short presentation on their chosen form — its provenance, history, development, parameters, and best-known practitioners. They recite from memory at least 12 lines of a…