At its annual meeting last January, the American Dialect Society named a new chair of its New Words Committee: Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com, and until recently the On Language columnist for The New York Times Magazine. As part of his duties, Zimmer will take the helm of “Among the New Words,” a long-running department in American Speech, the quarterly journal of the ADS published by Duke University Press. Zimmer will also oversee the selection of the ADS Word of the Year, an announcement that attracts extensive media attention. Here Zimmer reflects on his new role.
Interview on NPR’s Morning Edition about the perils of smartphone autocorrect. (Mar. 22, 2011)
Linguist Ben Zimmer says that the history of automatic spellcheckers goes back to Microsoft Word and other word processors, but the technology for smartphones differs from those because it tries to understand what the user means based on both the proximity of the letters to each other on that tiny little virtual keyboard and on completing a word based on what it thinks you meant.
So if you’re trying to tell a friend about a great double play by “Derek Jeter,” don’t be surprised if your phone turns that into “Derek heterosexual.” Because the phone’s dictionary might not recognize Jeter, it turns the J to a close letter on the keyboard – H — and completes the new word, “heter,” that it’s now created.
The linguist Ben Zimmer said he thought the growing popularity of the service as a creative outlet could be ascribed to the same “impulse that goes into writing a sonnet, of accepting those kind of limits.” But he admitted that his favorite Twitter literature in recent weeks has not been exactly Shakespearean: the wildly profane and popular Twitter musings that purported to be by the Chicago mayor-elect, Rahm Emanuel, but whose real author was recently revealed to be the rock journalist Dan Sinker.
“The deeper you got into it,” Mr. Zimmer said, “the more novelistic it became, and it was really compelling. It’s almost impossible to see it working in a traditional novel format. But as a Twitter creation it was hilarious, and worth every word.”
Interview on NPR’s Morning Edition about the history of the word “tsunami.” (Mar. 18, 2011)
The word “tsunami” is originally a Japanese word, but today it’s commonly used in English. And it’s been all over the news since a powerful earthquake sent a wall of water into northeastern Japan on March 11.
The first English use of the word happened more than 100 years ago, says linguist Ben Zimmer, of the Visual Thesaurus. That’s when an earthquake struck off the east coast of Japan, very close to where the recent tsunami hit.
Finally, and perhaps most troubling for a high-school English teacher and lover of language, was Ben Zimmer’s announcement that this would be his final On Language column. Zimmer performed admirably in the unenviable task of replacing William Safire. In this time of rapid changes in the development of language — the redefinition of what is acceptable, the spectrum of global influences and so on — a column like this is essential.
Ben Zimmer, executive producer at the Visual Thesaurus, was looking into Sheenisms when I caught up with him, having just coined Sheenenfreude to describe the fascination with the actor’s ravings. Zimmer chairs the New Words Committee for the American Dialect Society, whose members vote for the best word, new or old, every fall. In 2009, the members picked “tweet,” and in 2008, “bailout” stole the show. For 2010, they chose “app,” a word that had been around for quite a while but needed a boost from Apple to capture society’s attention.