October 2012

Jeffrey Kluger, “The Problem with the ‘We Are All…’ Trope” (Time Opinion, Oct. 22, 2012)

“The earliest example I’ve seen for the trope is Thomas Jefferson’s ‘We are all republicans, we are all federalists,’ in his first inaugural address,” says Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Boston Globe and executive producer of the site Vocabulary.com. Jefferson’s coinage didn’t return in the language records until Sir William Harcourt, a British Liberal leader, declared in 1888, “We are all socialists now.” That, in turn, prompted a generations-later rejoinder from economist Milton Friedman, who in 1965 answered, “We are all Keynesians now.”

But it took John Kennedy to grab the We are all device, flip it to the first person singular, translate it into German and mainline it straight into the linguistic bloodstream, with his celebrated “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963, delivered at the then-new Berlin wall. “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin,” Kennedy declared. “And, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’” As Zimmer notes, ”The recent declarations of transnational empathy — we are all New Yorkers or Americans or Danes now — seem much more evocative of Kennedy.”

It’s a measure of the pandemically infectious nature of language tropes that you can’t even discuss one without invoking others. Among linguists, Zimmer says, We are all is considered a subcategory of what’s known as a “snowclone,” a language template that gets riffed-on and repurposed over and over again.

Read the rest here. (Related Language Log post)

Jen Doll, “Are You an Anglocreep?” (The Atlantic Wire, Oct. 11, 2012)

I checked in with American linguist and language columnist Ben Zimmer, who explained that “the use of British English as a prestige model has come in waves over the course of American history.” In the old days, though, the accent was the source or reflection of the prestige (that to some extent explains why rs were dropped in certain Boston, New York City, and Southern dialects, and also is part of why old Hollywood stars had that affected way of speaking we call the mid-Atlantic accentoh, dahling!). But we’ve moved from accent to word: “The British influence that Ben Yagoda and others have been discerning lately is strictly lexical,” he says. “British pronunciation rarely enters into it. These Britishisms, like the older pronunciation patterns, do serve as status markers to delineate an in-group. The nature of the prestige may have changed: it’s not so much about sounding aristocratic as sounding ‘smart,’ perhaps.”

Read the rest here.

Interview on WNYC’s “The Leonard Lopate Show” about “locavore” and other food-related terms. (Oct. 10, 2012)

Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Boston Globe and executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com, talks about the origin of the words “locavore” and “vegetarian” and the many variations that have been developed, such as “pescatarians” and “flexitarians.”

(Show page, streaming audio, download)

Interview on “The Conversation with Ross Reynolds” about “YOLO” and other new words. (Oct. 9, 2012)

You may not know what “yolo” means, but language guru Ben Zimmer says chances are your teenager does. Today, Ben Zimmer and participants in KUOW’s youth media program RadioActive introduce us to some new words. And we take your phone calls. What new words do you love? What new words do you hate?

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

David Skinner, “Wars of Words” (The Weekly Standard, October 2012).

In the midst of a recent book review, the New Yorker’s Joan Acocella read from the old script about prescriptivists and descriptivists as she observed that the American Heritage Dictionary seems increasingly ambivalent toward its own position as the prescriptivist dictionary. …
Acocella … compounded her error by offering readers the usual sermon about the good but fallible prescriptivists and their long crusade against the self-righteous descriptivists, provoking Language Log contributor Ben Zimmer to accuse her of arguing with straw men.

Read the rest here. (Related Language Log post)