All posts by Lucy Ferriss


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 …


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…


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…


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…


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,…


Post-Truth and Chaos

latitude-north-star-5-degrees-above-horizon_8d32bb0c6f9cb1e2I don’t know when prefixes stopped meaning what we think they mean, but it was a long time ago. I’m just wrapping up a course in recent American prose, for instance, where the term postmodernism keeps coming up. The students initially thought, quite logically, that postmodernism was a movement that came after modernism — even though, since they look around at a world they consider to be modern, they had a hard time wrapping their minds around its post- period’s being in the recent past. We wor…


Not Normal

81e48716ddf4ca3d44ade161a8930d2dI’m a very recent convert to the idea of normal.

My allergy to the word has come from two separate strands. One is a trend I’ve noticed among students for at least 20 years, wherein they apply the word normal to forms they consider standard. My creative-writing students, for instance, decry John Barth’s as being “not normal” stories. My literature students ask if I want them to write a “normal” essay. I want to shake them by the shoulders and say, “There is no normal story! There is …


Words of Solace, Words of Action

d510962f696c5b1a77bf1a42fcad5846Votes did not save us from the precipice last week. Yet, so often, language has buoyed us — given us wings, or perhaps simply currents of warm air, to carry us onto steadier ground. I have no such words of my own, but in the past 10 days I’ve been hearing some wise voices, from other dark times. Here are a few:

From W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose building…


Election Lexicon RIP

Dead WordsEvery election has its own lexicon, or sublexicon, a cohort of words and phrases that go beyond my opponent and interest groups. In 2008, we had financial meltdown, change, country first, aloof, that one, yes we can, and other tidbits that were mostly returned to the stacks once the dust had settled on the campaign. The same held true for lingo that has lingered only as historical slogans now removed from their context—Tippecanoe and Tyler too; rum, Romanism, and rebellion; morning again.



Girl Talk

mgid-uma-image-logotvMaybe it’s because I’m in the midst of teaching Mary Karr’s groundbreaking 1995 memoir, The Liars’ Club, but when I hear about studies that purport to determine the differences between how men and women speak, I want, in Karr’s inimitable lexicon, to earp.

Granted, these studies do not decree that biology is destiny. But they do claim to have sifted through thousands of language samples looking for language that is “aggressive” and language that is “tentative” and studying the parts of s…