January 2009

William Safire, “On Language: Haircut” (New York Times, Jan. 11, 2009)

J. Sinclair Armstrong, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, told the Dallas Security Dealers Association on Nov. 1, 1955, about rules to “provide more stringent standards in valuing the broker’s assets. . . . These are the so-called ‘haircut’ provisions” that sought a 30 percent deduction from the market value of stocks in computing the broker’s net capital. Armstrong used the colorful term in subsequent Congressional testimony, but always with “so-called,” a dignity-conscious person’s way of dissociating himself from bean-counter slang.

Discovery of this early usage was provided us by the netymologist Ben Zimmer, executive producer at the lively Visual Thesaurus Web site (www.visualthesaurus.com).

(I thought I just coined netymologist, combining net and etymologist, to mean “one deft at using the Internet to track the origin of words and phrases.” But when I Googled the word to make sure no other great mind was thinking alike ­­­— drat! — up popped a previous usage by a communications-design group named M2 urging, “If you think you’ve got what it takes to be a Netymologist, contact us.” When it comes to coinage-claiming, the increasingly omniscient Web won’t let you get away with a thing.)

Read the rest here.

Interview on “Radio Times” with Marty Moss-Coane (WHYY) about the top words of 2008. (Show page, audio)

Motoko Rich, “Google Hopes to Open a Trove of Little-Seen Books” (New York Times, Jan. 5, 2009).

Ben Zimmer, executive producer of a Web site and software package called the Visual Thesaurus, was seeking the earliest use of the phrase “you’re not the boss of me.” Using a newspaper database, he had found a reference from 1953.

But while using Google’s book search recently, he found the phrase in a short story contained in “The Church,” a periodical published in 1883 and scanned from the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

Ever since Google began scanning printed books four years ago, scholars and others with specialized interests have been able to tap a trove of information that had been locked away on the dusty shelves of libraries and in antiquarian bookstores. …

Google’s book search “allows you to look for things that would be very difficult to search for otherwise,” said Mr. Zimmer, whose site is visualthesaurus.com.

Read the rest here.

EatFeed podcast, Amuse-Bouche 16: “Locavores & a Lexicon of Revolutionary Eaters” (Jan. 1, 2009)

Ben Zimmer of Oxford Univ Press talks about a century of new food words and the social revolutions that spawned them.

Listen to the podcast here.