All posts by Lucy Ferriss

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Scabby at the University

union rate[2]Unions are slowly making their way back into the news these days, perhaps because it’s a presidential election season, perhaps because graduate students are now considering their right to bargain collectively at several universities, primarily in the Ivy League. To mark this trend, a huge inflatable rat, nicknamed Scabby, has appeared at Long Island University, where stalled negotiations resulted in a lockout before faculty and administration agreed on a contract, and at Columbia University, whe…

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Literary Judgment, Literary Luck

0179f6077adad6796a3eac8bfd6cb67aTwenty years ago this month, I was in New Orleans to receive an award for my writing. I’ve been thinking about that moment as we return to classes. Whatever subject you teach, you most likely find yourself in the position of judging the quality of students’ prose. Indeed, for most of us, the grades we award at the end of the term will depend largely on how well our students express themselves in writing.

Here’s how the award I received in 1996 came about. I had published a couple of books in t…

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The Specter of the ‘Alt-Right’

Pepe TrumpI’m feeling a bit slimed as I type this post. Assuming you’ve come here in innocence, I hope you can finish the next few paragraphs without the slime’s smearing onto you.

It began, as many instances of sliming do, with curiosity, following Hillary Clinton’s August 25 speech denouncing Donald Trump’s ties to the so-called alt-right movement. Living as I do in a bubble, I had never heard the term alt-right before. In fact, my acquaintance with alt as a prefix was more or less limited to the Alt ke…

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‘Shenanigans’ in Rio

pic44731_mdThis just in from my friend, the writer Ethelbert Miller:

We know too many are trapped inside the criminal-justice system. After all the dirt of crime we never seem to reach the rinse cycle. We are never able to stop or dry our tears from injustice. One word I never heard any black person incarcerated use was the word shenanigans. I think if we used this word to describe black behavior there would be a reduction in the number of black boys arrested. Think of the word shenanigans recently used by…

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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…