April 2012

Talk given to the Anthropology section of the New York Academy of Sciences on new data-driven approaches to investigating linguistic phenomena. (Apr. 30, 2012)

The last Monday in April marks the final 2011/2012 meeting of the Anthropology section of the New York Academy of Sciences at the Wenner-Gren Foundation. We’ve had a great range of presenters this season, and for this last session we welcome the first presentation dealing explicitly with linguistic anthropology. Ben Zimmer of ThinkMap, Inc. and the Boston Globe, best known for previously penning the column “On Language” in the New York Times, will discuss the emergent linguistics of digital communication – and the new tools used to study it – with discussants Melissa Checker of Queens College and Rudolf Gaudio of SUNY Purchase.

(Preview, recapaudio)

Interview on WNYC’s “The Leonard Lopate Show” about the contentious history of the word “supercalifragilisticexpialodocious” (Apr. 27, 2012).

Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Boston Globe and executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com, tells the untold story behind the word “supercalifragilisticexpialodocious.” He wrote about it in his latest Boston Globe column.

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

Interview on WBUR’s Radio Boston on the unexpected baseball roots of the word “jazz.” (Apr. 9, 2012)

As Boston baseball fans prepare to celebrate the 100th birthday of Fenway Park, there’s another important centenntial involving the national pastime: it’s about how baseball gave us jazz. It turns out that the word “jazz” has an unlikely history. It starts 100 years ago with an obscure baseball player named Ben Henderson.

Henderson was a washed up pitcher with the Pacific Coast League with a reputation as an unreliable drunk, so his career never amounted to much. But back in 1912, he told a reporter about a new pitch he had developed, and became the first person known to use the word “Jazz.”

“And he told the reporter that he had a special pitch, a curve ball called “the jazz ball” that he was going to use, and he said it would completely flummox the batters because it wobbles so much you simply can’t do anything with it,” said Ben Zimmer, the language columnist for The Boston Globe and producer of visualthesaurus.com and vocabulary.com.

According to Zimmer, 100 years ago Henderson was playing for the Portland Beavers out in Oregon. And while his taste for liquor proved fatal to his baseball career, his description of his “jazz ball” turned out to be a major linguistic legacy.

(Show page, audio, related Boston Globe column, Word Routes column)

Craig Calcaterra, “Baseball Gave Us the Word ‘Jazz’? Cool.” (Hardball Talk, NBC Sports blog, Apr. 9, 2012)

This is from a couple of weeks ago in the Boston Globe, but I’m just seeing it now via Baseball Think Factory. File it under Stuff You Never Think About But Which is Nonetheless Cool: A hundred years ago a minor leaguer basically invented the word “jazz.”

It happened when one Ben Henderson, a pitcher for the 1912 Portland Beavers, told a Los Angeles Times reporter that he had a new curve ball he called a “jazz ball.”  It hit the paper on April 2nd with the headline “Ben’s Jazz Curve.”

Read the rest here. (Related Boston Globe column, Word Routes column)

Sarah Kliff, “Can Obama Reclaim ‘Obamacare?’” (Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog, Washington Post, Apr. 9, 2012)

Linguist Ben Zimmer digs into previous presidents’ attempts to own their eponyms and finds success largely hinges on the popularity of the policy:

Events on the ground have dictated the fate of other personalized political words, such as those in the “-nomics” family. “Nixonomics” was originally suggested within the Nixon White House in the summer of 1969, in a memo circulated by a young speechwriter named William Safire. But by that fall, “Nixonomics” was already being used disparagingly in the press. Thus, when “Reaganomics” came into use during Ronald Reagan’s first term, it carried the bad old whiff of “Nixonomics” and was a popular putdown among Democrats. When the economy recovered, however, the term lost its bite, and Reagan proudly ran on “Reaganomics” in his 1984 reelection campaign.

Personalizing the political worked the worst for President Hoover, who was plagued by numerous eponyms, most notably the shantytowns called “Hoovervilles.”

(Related Boston Globe column)

Carey Goldberg, “Neutralizing The Term ‘Obamacare’” (Common Health, WBUR blog, Apr. 9, 2012)

I seem to be willfully tone-deaf to political nuance. But that’s not the only explanation for why I’ve been blithely using “Obamacare” in our headlines, insensitive to the negative spin put on the term by the president’s foes. It’s just simply the shortest, liveliest way to say “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” far pithier than “the federal health care overhaul.”

So when I read Ben Zimmer’s fun column in Sunday’s Globe about President Obama’s attempts to take back the term and turn it positive, I thought, “Let’s all take back the term! Can’t we all just consider it a neutral term and make life easier for headline writers everywhere?” Just for the records, that’s how we use it. Change starts here.

Read the rest here

Interview on WBEZ’s Eight Forty-Eight about the role of baseball in the origins of the word “jazz” a century ago. (Apr. 5, 2012)

Baseball season is upon us, and in honor of America’s pastime, Eight Forty-Eight brings you a special sports edition of Music Thursdays. During the show, Boston Globe language columnist Ben Zimmer will explain how the word “jazz” travelled from the West Coast to Chicago 100 years ago (hint: it has something to do with baseball).

(Show page, audio, related Boston Globe column, Word Routes column)

Interview on WNYC’s “The Leonard Lopate Show” about the unexpected baseball origins of the word “jazz.”

Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Boston Globe and executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com, will talk about the first known use of the word “jazz”—and its surprising link to baseball.

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

On his Daily Beast blog “The Dish,” Andrew Sullivan features an excerpt from Lapham’s Quarterly, “Word for Word“:

Ben Zimmer chronicles writers’ love-hate relationship with the thesaurus. It began with Peter Mark Roget’s first edition in 1852:

Roget’s thesaurus was crucially a conceptual undertaking, and, according to Roget’s deeply held religious beliefs, a tribute to God’s work. His efforts to create order out of linguistic chaos harks back to the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden, who was charged with naming all that was around him, thereby creating a perfectly transparent language. It was, according to the theology of St. Augustine, a language that would lose its perfection with the Fall of Man, and then irreparably shatter following construction of the Tower of Babel.

By Roget’s time, Enlightenment ideals had taken hold, suggesting that scientific pursuits and rational inquiry could discover antidotes to Babel, if not a return to the perfect language of Adam. Though we no longer cling so tightly to these Enlightenment notions about language in our postmodern age, we still carry with us Roget’s legacy, the view that language can somehow be wrangled and rationalized by fitting the lexicon into tidy conceptual categories.