November 2012

Stephen L. Carter, “The Surprisingly Long History of the Fiscal Cliff” (Bloomberg View, Nov. 29, 2012)

Ben Zimmer, who writes the language column for the Boston Globe and dug up the Kingston essay, has pointed to a 1957 use of “fiscal cliff,” in a slightly different context, from the New York Times. But what was new in the 1950s was only the addition of the word “fiscal.” The use of the word “cliff,” modified by an adjective, has long been a metaphor for economic distress. …

We can go back further. Zimmer noted an 1893 editorial in the Chicago Tribune: “The free silver shriekers are striving to tumble the United States over the same fiscal precipice.”

Read the rest here. (Related Word Routes column)

Kate Woodsome, “Gay Rights Activist Slams AP for Nixing ‘Homophobia’” (Voice of America, Nov. 27, 2012)

“Words shape culture and words reflect culture,” said linguist Ben Zimmer, a language columnist for The Boston Globe newspaper. “The fact that a word like ‘homophobia’ was coined in the 1960s in the first place was a way to reflect certain social trends and phenomena.”

But words are always available for reconsideration and rethought, he said, adding that he’s not so sure the AP made the right decision to drop the word “homophobia.”

“Words ending in ‘phobia’ are commonly used outside of clinical contexts. You can think about the word ‘xenophobia,’ which has been around for more than a century to refer to hatred of foreigners. That’s not a clinical condition in the same way that ‘homophobia’ isn’t a clinical diagnosis,” Zimmer said.

As revered as the AP Stylebook is, every news organization is free to make its own decisions and, even if “homophobia” is wiped from the AP’s texts, Zimmer said the meaning won’t disappear so easily.

Read the rest here. Audio here.

Interview on the American Public Media/NPR show “Marketplace” about the proliferation of names for shopping days (Nov. 26, 2012)

(Show page, audio, related Word Routes column)

Misty Harris, “Hate-Watching TV: The Year’s Biggest Small-Screen Trend” (Postmedia News, Nov. 22, 2012)

Linguist Ben Zimmer, chair of The American Dialect Society’s new words committee, has uncovered fan-forum citations for hate-watch (and its variants) as far back as 2005, though he notes the term didn’t find its footing until 2012. This likely happened on the steam of an April column in the New Yorker entitled “Hate-Watching Smash,” in which writer Emily Nussbaum expounded on her conflicted relationship with the NBC drama.

“I think (the expression) has staying power because it’s transparent,” said Zimmer, executive producer of Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. “Unlike other neologisms, which might require explanation, you can immediately figure out what it means if someone says, ‘I’m going to go hate-watch Glee.’”

Read the rest here.

Interview on WBUR’s “Radio Boston” on the true origins of the expression “Black Friday” (Nov. 22, 2012)

Contrary to popular belief, the phrase “Black Friday” does not come from businesses finally being able to make a profit (getting out of the red and into the black) due to the day after Thanksgiving shopping rush.

Linguist Ben Zimmer joins Radio Boston to reveal the true origin of “Black Friday” — which includes disgruntled police officers, absentee factory workers and worried commercial retailers.

(Show page, related Word Routes column)

Jen Doll, “Inside the Search for 2012′s Word of the Year” (The Atlantic Wire, Nov. 21, 2012)

Elsewhere on the Internet, the American Dialect Society is accepting nominations for Words of the Year (#woty). Linguist-about-the-Internet Ben Zimmer is chair of the New Words Committee for ADS, and as such, has “something of a vested interest in the whole Word of the Year business,” he told The Atlantic Wire, giving us a brief history of the program, which he calls “the granddaddy of all the WOTYs.” It started back in 1990, when “it was the only game in town,” a way to generate publicity for the organization. He says, “Some selections have made more of a splash than others: the 2005 choice of the Colbert-ism truthiness got a little out of hand. For dictionary programs that have joined the WOTY bandwagon, it’s also clearly a public-relations opportunity, one of the few surefire ways for a dictionary publisher to get some media attention. I was part of that marketing machine when I served as editor for American dictionaries for Oxford University Press and was responsible for the 2007 choice of locavore. (A New York Times piece that year went with the meta angle, reporting not so much on the word itself but on my efforts in publicizing the selection of it.)”

Read the rest here.

John Tozzi, “The Branding of Black Friday” (Bloomberg Businessweek, Nov. 20, 2012)

In fact, factory owners in the 1950s first coined Black Friday to lament the high number of workers who wouldn’t show up for work, as linguist Ben Zimmer pointed out last year. The connection between Black Friday, crowds, and shopping came in the early 1960s from some Philadelphia cops, he explained. They used the phrase to describe the mad traffic downtown on the day holiday shoppers converged with football fans arriving for the Army-Navy game, traditionally played in Philly on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

The name Black Friday, picked up by the press, presented a branding problem from the start. Zimmer quotes a 1961 story from Public Relations News that called the label “hardly a stimulus for good business,” and notes city spinmeister Abe Rosen’s efforts to replace it with the anodyne “Big Friday.” The Philadelphia newspapers refused, and Black Friday stuck.

Read the rest here. (Related Word Routes column)

Interview on NPR’s “Morning Edition” about the history of the expression “fiscal cliff” (Nov. 20, 2012).

The fiscal cliff has economists and politicians in a tailspin. The term is used to describe what will happen if Congress fails to come to an agreement on budget cuts or tax increases by the end of the year. Some say the term is inaccurate, and somewhat alarmist. Linda Wertheimer talks to linguist and Boston Globe language columnist Ben Zimmer about the origin of the term fiscal cliff.

(Show page, audio, related Word Routes column)

Tom Geoghegan, “Who First Called It a ‘Fiscal Cliff’?” (BBC News Magazine, Nov. 14, 2012)

Long before the fiscal cliff came the “fiscal precipice”, says lexicographer Ben Zimmer, pointing to an editorial in the Chicago Tribune in 1893:

“The free silver shriekers are striving to tumble the United States over the same fiscal precipice.”

“The metaphor of the precipice is clearly an ancient one,” says Zimmer. “And the cliff metaphor works for the modern age because of the cliffhangers of Hollywood, while driving off the fiscal cliff brings up the image of Thelma and Louise.”

Read the rest here. (Related Word Routes column)

Interview on the WBUR show “Here and Now” on Word of the Year candidates for 2012. (Nov. 14, 2012)

It’s that time again, when we start considering what words have found their way into our vocabulary this past year.

The Oxford English Dictionary has named “omnishambles” its word of the year – it means an all-out fiasco.

The Oxford American Dictionary picks the verb “GIF.” The acronym has long been used as a noun for the file type “graphic interchange format,” which supports animations. But it’s now being used as a verb for making the image and video sequences that have become ubiquitous on the web.

We speak with linguist and language columnist Ben Zimmer who’s been compiling his own list of words. He tells Here & Now that they include YOLO, the acronym for “you only live once,” made popular by rappers Drake and Rick Ross.

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