An Open Letter to Sandy Frazier of The New Yorker
I call you Sandy not because I know you personally (as you know fully well I do not), and not because I wish to fool the reading public into thinking that I know you personally (though I bet 20-30% would fall for it!), but rather because Anne Fadiman (who does know you personally) referred to you as “Sandy Frazier” during a public talk I attended, as though everyone in attendance, though they surely couldn’t all know you personally, must well know that everyone who knows you personally calls you Sandy, not Ian.
But that is not why I am writing. I am writing concerning a recent New Yorker piece of yours (“He, The Murderer,” April 19, 2004). In it, you admonish those whom (whom!) you call “grammarians”—those people, apparently, who are annoyed that the improper use of the word “lay” to mean “lie” has been almost universally accepted and assimilated into the English language. “Give up, already!” you wrote. “You’ve lost!”
Now, I am as ready as anyone to accept that the English language is a living, breathing, changing beast, perhaps even one that goes to the bathroom. I say “He’s as smart as me,” “You’re sleeping with who?” and “a history lesson,” the same as any other twenty-first-century American. But with “lay” and “lie” there is a difference. It does not sound awkward or snobbish to say “Lie down next to me,” or “he’s lying in bed,” even in the most colloquial of circumstances. “Lie” is every bit as informal and easy-to-use as the incorrect “lay.” And if you insist on using the offending “lay,” then what on earth do you use for the past tense? Please, Sandy, please tell me that you don’t say to your wife, “I laid on the couch all day instead of working, hon.”
Why “Sandy”? Is your middle name Sanford? Do you—or did you (I’ve seen those jacket photos)—have sandy hair? Did you once, as a small child, come home from the beach with your bathing suit filled with several pounds of sand, and the nickname stuck from that day, ha ha ha? I guess if I knew you personally I would know the answer.
But why did Anne Fadiman think she could refer to you as “Sandy” in front of strangers? You’re not exactly Teddy Roosevelt. She wouldn’t have spoken of “Andy” White or “Jerry” Salinger or even “Papa” Hemingway. But you, Sandy Frazier, you, apparently, are more of a national institution even than old Papa. You are “Sandy” to us all.
Getting back to my main point: the lay of the “lie.” Is the human cerebrum truly so primitive that it can assimilate only one word for these two distinct actions? Are our children so anesthetized by Snapchat, X-boxes, and soccer that they are incapable of learning the difference between lying down and laying something down? Or—God forbid they have to remember this—that “lay” happens to be the past participle of “lie”?
Buck Fisher (what my friends call me. Well, what I always wished my friends would call me, though I never had the guts to start asking my friends to call me Buck. How did you ever get them to call you Sandy in the first place?)