Language Commentary in The Boston Globe

From 2011 to 2013, Ben Zimmer wrote “The Word” column for The Boston Globe Ideas section every other week.

2013 · 2012 · 2011

How to Talk Like Whitey Bulger (June 23, 2013) [, gif]
Mobster lingo gets its day in court.

Why We Love ‘Cronuts’ (June 9, 2013) [, gif]
The devilish pull of the food portmanteau.

How Do You Pronounce ‘Cicada’? (May 26, 2013) [, gif]
A pronunciation crisis on a 17-year cycle—and how it got that way.

“Boston Strong,” the Phrase That Rallied a City (May 12, 2013) [, gif]
How’d we find a unifying phrase so fast? It’s been evolving for years.

At This Year’s Spelling Bee, Make Way for Meaning (Apr. 28, 2013) [, gif]
Why is spelling showbiz while vocabulary is homework?

Why ‘Surreal’ Took Over (Apr. 21, 2013) [, gif]
The words we turn to when we try to describe the indescribable.

Boston Driving: So Bad It Needs Its Own Lingo? (Apr. 7, 2013) [, gif]
Terrible road maneuvers, from the Boston left to the California roll.

Providence’s $5 Million Plan to Shrink the “Word Gap” (Mar. 24, 2013) [, gif]
Can a city boost achievement by recording, and changing, how parents talk to kids?

The Original Scalawag (Mar. 10, 2013) [, gif]
A young word sleuth’s ancestor was being insulted before the insult was in the dictionary.

Besides the Pope, Who Speaks Latin Today? (Feb. 24, 2013) [, gif]
A visit to a living Latin conference uncovers scholars, teachers, journalists, religious figures, and even young students who are keeping an ancient tongue alive.

When Physicists Do Linguistics (Feb. 10, 2013) [, gif]
Is English ‘cooling’? A scientific paper gets the cold shoulder.

Catfish: How Manti Te’o’s Imaginary Romance Got Its Name (Jan. 27, 2013) [, gif]
Why we turn to stories to label strange human deceptions.

All the President’s Words (Jan. 20, 2013) [, gif]
Whatever happened to our neologizers-in-chief?

How to Talk Like a Doomsday Prepper (Dec. 30, 2012) [, gif]
Useful jargon for the zombie apocalypse.

And 2012’s Word of the Year Is… (Dec. 16, 2012) [gif]
Presenting the fast, fun, and careless coinages of 2012.

How Tony Kushner Made Lincoln Talk (Dec. 2, 2012) [, gif]
The movie’s vivid 19th-century dialogue is an achievement of its own.

Jacques Barzun, Protector of English (Nov. 25, 2012) [, gif]
Right up to his death at 104, the historian fought to preserve the language he loved.

How Twitter Language Reveals Your Gender — or Your Friends’ (Nov. 4, 2012) [, gif]
Social media is giving linguists new insight into how speech varies.

Now, Speaking for Romney (or Obama) (Oct. 21, 2012) [, gif]
What’s behind the rise of the ‘surrogate.’

Who You Calling a Moocher? (Oct. 7, 2012) [, gif]
How an old-timey slur became the rage in 2012.

Dear Apple: Stop the Funnification! (Sept. 23, 2012) [, gif]
Advertisers love coining words nearly as much as critics love skewering them.

How Sam, Mike, and Will Became Football Positions (Sept. 9, 2012) [, gif]
The logic of the game’s strange new nicknames.

What is YOLO? Only Teenagers Know for Sure (Aug. 26, 2012) [gif]
A youthful slang craze flies under the adult radar.

Crowdsourcing the Dictionary (Aug. 12, 2012) [, gif]
A publisher turns to the masses for new words.

How Did ‘Monday’ Become a Racist Slur? (July 29, 2012) [gif]
A Leominster police officer’s coded insult opens up a world of regular words used for ill.

Higgs Boson Metaphors as Clear as Molasses (July 14, 2012) [, gif]
The pleasures and limits of analogy in science.

Where Did the Supreme Court Get Its ‘Parade of Horribles’? (July 1, 2012) [, gif]
How an obscure Fourth of July custom from New England spawned a legal-world insult.

The Fight Over Defining Marriage, Literally (June 10, 2012) [, gif]
Can you change the world by changing the dictionary?

Whassup, Citizens! (June 3, 2012) [, gif]
The new, overly friendly political speech.

A Golden Age of Proverbs (May 20, 2012) [, gif]
The modern era offers its own wise catchphrases.

Dude, This Headline is So Meta (May 6, 2012) [, gif]
“Meta” has become a perfect meta-commentary on the consciously self-referential age we live in.

Supercalicontentious (Apr. 22, 2012) [gif]
Who coined the longest nonsense word in America? It’s a touchy subject.

Taking Back ‘Obamacare’ (Apr. 8, 2012) [gif]
Can the president make an insult into a selling point?

How Baseball Gave Us ‘Jazz’ (Mar. 25, 2012) [gif]
The surprising origins of a 100-year-old word.

Rise of the Crossword Robots (Mar. 11, 2012) [gif]
Computers vs. humans hits the next frontier.

The ‘Meh’ Generation (Feb. 26, 2012) [gif]
How an expression of apathy invaded America.

Linguistic Gotcha at ‘Downton Abbey’ (Feb. 12, 2012) [gif]
The Dowager Countess would never say that!

A Pahticulah Way of Talking (Jan. 29, 2012) [gif]
In a new book by Richard Bailey, 17th-century Massachusetts speech comes alive.

American Dialects from A to Z (Jan. 15, 2012) [gif]
A massive dictionary of regional language gets to ‘zydeco’—now what?

Twenty-What? Two Thousand Who? (Jan. 1, 2012) [gif]
Saying the new year out loud.

What We Talked About in 2011 (Dec. 18, 2011) [gif]
The year in language.

Is This the Last Print Dictionary? (Nov. 6, 2011) [gif]
An American Heritage for the digital age.

That’s Ridiculous (Oct. 23, 2011) [gif]
How the absurd became sublime.

Twitter’s Self-Deprecation Revolution (Sept. 24, 2011) [gif]
Hashtags are a sly new way to undermine what we say.

Ground Zero (Sept. 11, 2011) [gif]
Are these words tied to 9/11 forever?

Birth of the Nerd (Aug. 28, 2011) [gif]
The mysterious origins of a familiar character.

+1’tastic (July 31, 2011) [gif]
When a number becomes a word.

The 72-Word Door (June 19, 2011) [gif]
If dictionaries are tools for clarity, why is their writing so tortured?

Skadoosh! (June 29, 2008)
The story behind the word of the summer.