May 2011

Carol Guensberg, “Spelling Not Always on the Mark Throughout History” (Scripps Howard News Service, May 27, 2011)

The young champion of next week’s Scripps National Spelling Bee will win acclaim, a $30,000 cash prize and goodies worth at least another $10,000. All 275 contestants in the May 31-June 2 event — much of it televised live on ESPN from National Harbor, Md. just outside Washington, D.C. — will gain recognition and at least a $100 gift card.

But for those motivated more by the cudgel than the carrot, we point out the sometimes-pricey consequences of misspelling…

Despite his soaring oratory, “Abraham Lincoln was not a very good speller, even with things he’d have to spell a lot,” adds linguist Ben Zimmer, a former editor of American dictionaries at Oxford University Press. “He had trouble spelling Fort Sumter,” the South Carolina site marking the Civil War’s opening volleys. “He kept spelling it with a ‘p’ in it.”

Perhaps it’s fitting that, on the Lincoln Memorial, the word “future” is inscribed as “euture” in the president’s second inauguration speech.

Zimmer now tracks such linguistic hits and misses as executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and The website includes an interactive spelling bee that adjusts to the individual’s level. Current Scripps finalists Nicholas Rushlow and Tony Incorvati practice on it, he adds.

Read the whole article here.

Interview on WCBS Newsradio about Bob Dylan’s impact on the English language. (May 27, 2011)

(Show page, related Word Routes column)

The June 2011 issue of the journal American Anthropologist includes a “dialogic review” of the On Language column.

Pamela Paul, “Raising Children Is Heck” (New York Times Week in Review, May 22, 2011)

What could account for the fervent embrace [of “Go the F**k to Sleep”]? After all, swearing is hardly new — unprintable words now grace the titles of Broadway shows and hit songs. It is surprising that a swear word “can still have any kind of transgressive power at this point, but it does — in certain contexts,” said Ben Zimmer, a linguist. “Given our current middle class culture, with its emphasis on exposing your children to positive influences, the book feels subversive.”

Read the rest here.

Interview on WCBS Newsradio about the origins of the phrase “Arab spring.” (May 20, 2011)

(Show page, related Word Routes column)

Steven Yaccino, “Away With Words” (University of Chicago Magazine, May-June 2011)

Ben Zimmer, AM’98, took over William Safire’s On Language column before it was pulled earlier this year. Now where’s a word nerd to turn?

Read the profile here.

Emily Guendelsberger, “The Etymology of ‘Jawn’” (The Onion A.V. Club, Philadelphia edition, May 16, 2011)

Reading stories from Philly, our poor copy editors back at The A.V. Club’s Chicago mother ship have to deal with not only our constant profanity, but also our regional oddities—“cheesesteak” as one word instead of the usual two, references to the mysterious Wawa, and, most recently, one writer’s use of the even more mysterious “jawn.” We explained the word’s all-purpose “thing” definition as best as we could, but that got us wondering about how the word came to have this meaning in Philly, and only in Philly. We decided to call up linguist, lexicographer, and On Language columnist for The New York Times Ben Zimmer to ask him about “jawn,” “hoagie,” “down the Shore,” and other words in Philly’s regional lexicon.

Read the rest here.

Decision by Judge Richard Posner in “Bloomfield State Bank v. United States of America,” U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit. (May 11, 2011)

“Choate, a back-formation from inchoate, is a misbegotten word, for the prefix in inchoate is intensive and not negative․ The word derives from the Latin verb inchoare ‘to hitch with; to begin.’ Yet, because it was misunderstood as being a negative (meaning ‘incomplete’), someone invented a positive form for it, namely choate (meaning ‘complete’).” Bryan Garner, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage 152 (2d ed.1995); see also Ben Zimmer, “On Language—Choate,” N.Y. Times, Jan. 3, 2010, p. MM16. The “in” in “inchoate” is no more a negative than the “in” in “incipient” or “into” or “ingress” or “inflammable.” Imagine thinking that because “inflammable” means “catches fire,” “flammable” must mean fireproof. “Inchoate” means vague, unformed, or undeveloped. If there were a word “choate,” it would mean approximately the same thing.

Read Judge Posner’s decision here (related On Language column here).

Interview on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show” about the controversy over using “Geronimo” as a codename in the bin Laden mission. (May 6, 2011)

(Show page, streaming audio, download, related Word Routes column)

Interview on the WBUR show “Here and Now” about the controversial use of “Geronimo” as a codeword in the Osama bin Laden raid. (May 5, 2011)

Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and, tells us how Geronimo made its way into military parlance and discusses why so many Native American terms pervade our culture, despite objections from American Indian groups.

(Show page, audio, related Word Routes column)