Posts Tagged 'Cambridge'

Misled Again!

Before last week I had never been on a walking tour of my hometown of twenty years, and I probably would not have signed up for the Cambridge Historical Society’s recent outing had it not been titled “Misled.” You see, the word “misled” has long been a running joke in my family, ever since I realized that, in my mind, I had been mispronouncing it myz-əld, despite knowing perfectly well how the past participle of the verb “mislead” should be pronounced. For years – well past college – I persisted in this private malapropism, until the time I read it aloud using my invented pronunciation, provoking howls of laughter from my husband. He’s my ex-husband now, but this is one of the enduring catchphrases from the happier years of our marriage. “Myz-əld again!” one of us will say, and the other is guaranteed to laugh.

Elmwood c. 1920-39 (CHS archives)

Elmwood c. 1920-39 (CHS archives)

“History with an asterisk” is how our guide, CHS Executive Director Gavin Kleespies, framed the Misled tour’s organizing principle to the forty-odd folks who turned out for a two-hour stroll in the Brattle Street area on August 14. One of our first stops was the buttercup yellow Georgian-style mansion at 33 Elmwood Street. Built in 1767 as the then-100-acre country estate of the Lt. Gov. Thomas Oliver, a Tory whose wealth came from a slave plantation in Antigua, Elmwood was later the lifelong home of the poet and abolitionist James Russell Lowell (1819-91). Since 1962 it has served as Harvard’s own White House, but it would be 45 years before a female president took residence. I think Lowell would be pleased that Civil War historian Drew Gilpin Faust now presides over Elmwood, succeeding economist Larry Summers, whose foot was in his mouth for a good deal of his tenure. Continue reading ‘Misled Again!’

Only a Hat?

Investing meaning in an object is a risky proposition, not least because losing the object poses an existential danger beyond its material worth. And, of course, making assumptions about a person’s values based on, say, what they are wearing can be misleading.

And with these caveats in mind, I present Exhibit A: a mink hat that, for me, is freighted with meaning and weighted with contradictions.

Cecily Rocks The Hat (1999)

When I acquired The Hat in 1993 I could not have predicted that, 18 years later, it would become a potent symbol of my own personal and political evolution. At the time, I was a young mother living in Manhattan. My regular route between our apartment and my son’s nursery school took me past an upscale thrift shop on Third Avenue, and one winter day I stopped in to browse. The Hat caught immediately my eye from inside a display case. I remember asking the sales lady to take it out, and hesitating when I saw the price tag: $75 was more than I was prepared to pay for an impulse purchase. But when I tried The Hat on I felt a sense of destiny; it fit perfectly, and the color of the fur exactly matched my hair. Sold! I wore it home. Continue reading ‘Only a Hat?’

Once More to the Pond

E. B. White wrote Once More to the Lake (August 1941) about returning with his young son to the pristine Maine lake where he spent every childhood August. Before arriving, he fears that this “holy spot” will have been spoiled and won’t measure up to his idyllic memories. He is relieved that, apart from the unwelcome noise of outboard motors, little else has changed. Continue reading ‘Once More to the Pond’

The Living Language

On a recent visit to Bryn Mawr Book Store, my neighborhood’s pre-owned book shop (may it never lose its lease or its charmingly fusty decor!), I came across a gently worn hardcover edition of E. B. White’s Writings from The New Yorker (1927-1976).

It only took me a few flips through its pages to land on piece called “The Living Language,” published in the February 23, 1957, issue of the magazine, which recounts the era’s heated debate over standards for usage and cites the ungrammatical Winston ad (mentioned in my last post) as evidence of Madison Avenue’s marketing ploy to butcher the language to bring home the bacon. (I doubt such a strategy would raise any eyebrows today, the standards of popular usage having fallen so far and so low.)

EBW describes the thin line he and his fellow editors must walk to keep peace between a handful of sober grammarians” and “an army of high-spirited writers” and states that he seen firsthand “the nasty chop that is kicked up when the tide of established usage runs against the winds of creation.” Toeing the editorial party line he writes,

Through the turmoil and the whirling waters we have reached a couple of opinions of our own about the language. One is that a school child should be taught grammar — for the same reason a medical student should be taught anatomy. Having learned about the exciting mysteries of an English sentence, the child can then go forth and write any damn way he pleases.

Continue reading ‘The Living Language’


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