All posts by Lucy Ferriss

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My New Crush on the Dictionary

Trump_Bigly (1)I’m hooked. Merriam-Webster is the coolest thing on social media. In these dark times, where clickbait generally leads down a long tunnel into dystopia, the Twitter resurgence of a venerable dictionary is something to, well, tweet about.

First, there’s M-W’s political savvy. As NPR and other media organizations have observed, the nerdy group in Springfield, Mass., has been having a field day with the malapropisms of the current administration. Just last week, after the president spent part of hi…

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What if the President Couldn’t Read?

2E131CE400000578-3303860-image-m-27_1446654140207A rumor has been circulating about our new president’s level of literacy. First suggested (I think) in a blog post for The Times of Israel, the notion that the president not only doesn’t like to read but cannot read above the fifth-grade level of his campaign rhetoric has made the rounds of Samantha Bee, the Daily Kos and other left-wing opinion makers. I am not here to spread that rumor, but to ask what it might mean for our understanding of both this unusual president’s character and the fut…

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Diagramming Gorsuch

Judge-Neil-Gorsuch-of-the-U.S.-Court-of-Appeals-for-the-Tenth-Circuit-in-DenverI don’t know why the Supreme Court Justice nominee Neil Gorsuch diagrammed part of a sentence in one of his legal opinions. Following the Reed-Kellogg norms that Mark Liberman of Language Log once described as “intellectually obsolete for a hundred years,” Gorsuch diagrammed his selection sloppily. It’s unclear how the diagram really informed his opinion. But more to the point, those merry few who have followed this revelation of Judge Gorsuch’s affinity for diagramming seem to be judgin…

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Pussies and Appropriation

womens-march-pink-1024x676They were hard to ignore, those square-shaped pink knit caps carpeting the Mall in Washington and flooding the streets of New York and other major cities around the world. Weeks before the Women’s March, when I first saw organizers sporting these things, I thought they looked stupid, an awkward flop of pink atop the head. Then a crafty friend knit me one, and it not only kept me warm through a gray, blustery day in Washington; it empowered me.

The Pussy Hat Project is a classic example of approp…

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Hypotheticals vs. Contrary-to-Fact

situational-hypothetical-questionsSomehow I am getting news announcements from The New York Times on my iPhone. I don’t know how I elected this option, but it’s interesting to see what they choose to send me and how they choose to word it. Here’s what floated in on the morning of January 17:

18 million would lose insurance and premiums would soar in 2018 if Obamacare is partially repealed, a congressional study says.

Now, I know we get our panties in an unnecessary twist when it comes to things like the conditional tense and the…

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Seeing Through the Gaslight

manipulate-e1462292001507A confession: Before this political season, I had not understood the term gaslighting, so eloquently explained on Friday by my colleague Ben Yagoda. I may have heard it, but only as a conniving manipulation by some politician of whom the writer didn’t approve. Not knowing its provenance, I thought maybe it had something to do with leakage from old-fashioned lighting, such that those who inhaled it sort of lost their minds.

In fact, as Ben points out, the term gaslighting originated with Patrick …

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Tpyos vs. Mispelings: a Presidential Matter

TR-Spelling-BookMy New Year’s resolution is to write less about politics. But Orwell has hardly been the only one to note how deeply entwined are politics and language. Today I’m obsessed with the difference between typos and misspellings.

Why? Because the storm of tweets sent out by our president-elect reveals an unusual number of orthographic oddities. Let’s put aside, for the moment, the claim that these are “grammar errors,” grammar being another province from orthography. I’m interested in the subtle…

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The Hand of the People

2008-02-16-unfunded_man_dateIn a moment of exasperation when a third of my first-year seminar class failed to show up for a library research session, I asked — rhetorically, I thought — in class the next day, “Who here doesn’t know what mandatory means?”

To my dismay, three hands went up.

I’ve been thinking about that moment over the past couple of months, as the debate over the incoming president’s mandate has raged. Hundreds of news sites and blogs have claimed that, having lost the popular vote by nearly three milli…

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Won’t He Do It!

hqdefaultThe writer Tayari Jones recently posted a question on Facebook about a phrase she’s planning to use in her forthcoming novel: “Won’t He do it!” I immediately felt the interest of, say, a cat in catnip, and followed along. Here’s what I learned, and what it made me think about.

First, “Won’t He do it!” is a statement, not a question. It’s a statement of faith in God, and it’s been popular, apparently, for several decades as a call and response in black churches. Jones’s initial concern arose wh…

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A Radical Contranym

webradishI’ve been studying Italian, a language that gets me thinking about etymology even more than I usually do. The other day I learned that the word for root  is radice. “Funny,” I said to my husband as we were fixing dinner that night. “It’s like a cross between radish and radical.” I was — I swear to you — chopping salad as I said this. I held up a radish to examine. “Well, duh,” I said. “It’s a root.”

Linking radical to radice felt more complicated. In mathematics, it makes sense as the root, say,…