All posts by Lucy Ferriss

by

‘Alt’ Alternatives

charlottesville-protests-9

What a world of difference lies between adopting your own moniker and having one thrust upon you. I had never heard the term alt-left before the president used it in his third iteration of comments on the horrific events in Charlottesville, Va. Figuring out what he meant wasn’t exactly rocket science: Just as the alt-right is not really some alternative to right-wing positions but rather an extreme, purist force on the right, so the alt-left would be considered an extreme and purist form of lef…

by

Why a Ham Sandwich?

Ham_sandwich

When my brother and I were teenagers, we liked to practice non sequiturs, irrelevant statements that seemed to beggar any attempt at response. One of our favorites was “My father drives with both feet.” (This happened to be true, to the detriment of our car’s brakes.) Another was “I had a ham sandwich for lunch.” For reasons that elude me now, we found it hilarious to lob these tiny verbal grenades into conversations, particularly with elders.

The ham sandwich has made a recent appearance, than…

by

A Three-Hundred-Year-Old Dilemma

Hyphenation

Recently The Economist’s “Johnson” column (named not for its author, but for the dictionary pioneer Samuel Johnson, who lived three centuries ago) ruminated on the frustrations and obscure consistencies of hyphenation. Apparently the magazine’s style book carries on about hyphens for eight pages, which to my mind leaves plenty to be said.

As they rightly point out, the path of hyphenation runs generally toward its disappearance: good-bye becomes goodbye, to-day becomes today, e-mail has widely …

by

Love Me, Don’t Grade Me

nicklutzapologyletter

When my sons were beginning elementary school, they liked to while away a rainy Saturday afternoon playing school. They wanted me to play the teacher, but apparently I didn’t do it right. “You have to be meaner,” they’d say. “You have to yell a lot.”

I always wondered if their teachers really were shrieking meanies who toned it down when a parent appeared, or if they’d gotten this notion of the harridan-as-schoolteacher elsewhere. I’ve had a similar response to the recent case of the “gra…

by

Good on All of Us

lrs4z

Often I pay attention to a shift in language only when I find it coming from my own mouth. That was the case the other day, when my husband and I were hiking in the Berkshire hills. He caught his toe in a tree root and started pitching down the hill, but managed to veer right and swing around a slender birch until he steadied himself. “That was clumsy of me,” he said.

“But you managed to right yourself like a ballet dancer,” I said. “Good—”

Right then I felt the new set of words, ready to come …

by

Hunting Witches

1cb71bc07a4e05ec792f8b53f84a8065When my kids were small, we used to recite a little ditty about going on a bear hunt. The hunt involved a belief that there was a bear out there, “a big one,” only we couldn’t see it; we had to get past the obstacles and find it. (And, I suppose, capture or kill it, only we never found the bear; the rhyme was entirely about the obstacles in our way.)

Bears exist; witches don’t. That is, they don’t exist in the fairy-tale or medieval sense of a person (generally female) with magical powers. T…

by

A Story of Grammar

Old_guitarist_chicago

Those of us — poets, fiction writers, literary essayists — who consider our work with language to amount to art often have a strange relationship with discussions of language. It’s hard to find a parallel in other forms of art. We who are not painters have little to offer on the subjects of paints and canvases; we who are not composers generally have few opinions about the qualities of various key or tempo signatures, much less about the composition of the orchestra. We have the right to …

by

Rapider Times

SWA Rapider[1]

On a quick trip to Minneapolis over the weekend, I noticed Southwest Airlines’ slogan, “Is ‘rapider’ a word?” Well, no, I thought. It’s not. That is, you do not find suffixes appended to the adjective rapid to form comparative and superlative forms. Fortunately, in English, you have other choices. You could say faster or quicker, for instance. But those words wouldn’t draw the busy traveler’s attention as easily, and of course they would have no resonance with Southwest’s Rapid Rewards fr…

by

Clear Skies Acts Abounding

large_1_20130321115720

The changes in language, under the current administration, come thick and fast. Even before George Orwell pointed out that “Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable,” people paying attention noticed the distinct and often disturbing intertwining of political purposes and language manipulation. Prior administrations had their self-contradicting legislation, like George W. Bush’s ill-fated Clear Skies Act. But Chris Mooney and Lisa Rein, in The Washingto…

by

Abstaining in Absence

Graduation!

I actually enjoy commencement exercises — the pomp, the circumstance, the grandmothers, the decorated caps, even the speeches. Only one niggling irritation blemishes the day, assuming the day is dry and not too hot. At about a third of the more than two dozen commencement exercises I have attended, the stalwart soul reading the names of graduates before they march across the stage into their futures has noted those who earned their degrees but could not be present by tacking onto their names …