Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer uncovered the missing link between radio and space during the HealthCare.gov debacle, penning a column on the subject in TheWall Street Journal. Before taking on cosmic significance, glitch passed through television. Zimmer found a 1955 Bell Telephone ad in Billboard describing the company argot: “And when he talks of ‘glitch’ with a fellow technician, he means a low frequency interference which appears as a narrow horizontal bar moving vertically through the picture.” A 1959 trade magazine piece about tape-splicing explains: “‘Glitch’ is slang for the ‘momentary jiggle’ that occurs at the editing point if the sync pulses don’t match exactly in the splice.”
Zimmer delights in the historical happenstance. “Glitch becomes entrenched among radio technicians, then television technicians, and then space technicians, and then computer technicians,” he says. Most of its existence, he adds, has been “under the radar as this technical term.” But no longer. Thanks to the ubiquity of crashing computers and freezing smartphone screens, the word has even inspired an artistic style that embraces error as an aesthetic ideal. But its Yiddish root is subtle enough that it often falls victim to the “backronym”—an apocryphal acronym retroactively applied to a word of mysterious origin. Such gems include “Gremlins Loose In The Computer Hut” and “Gremlins Lurking In The Computer Hardware.” Says Zimmer: “People have a lot of fun trying to explain where things come from.”
At the second Republican presidential debate, held last night at the Reagan Presidential Library and aired on CNN, the candidates jockeyed for the attention of primary voters. There are many ways of judging their performances, but what better way than to analyze their choice of words?
As with the first debate, Vocabulary.com has conducted a rapid-response survey of the candidates’ vocabulary, showcasing their most relevant words according to an analysis of the debate transcript. “Relevance” is determined by comparing the frequency of words used by the candidates with those words’ frequency in the Vocabulary.com corpus of texts. The corpus consists of 3.2 billion words from a variety of English sources, and it is continually growing with new sources added every day.
The analysis reveals some common themes related to serious-minded policy discussions: among the top relevant words overall were immigration and amnesty, autism and vaccine, destabilize and nuclear. But there were also some not-so-presidential words that Rand Paul might deem sophomoric.
The European migration crisis has many wondering whether people seeking a safer life should be called refugees. Linguist and language columnist Ben Zimmer says the term “refugee” carries a lot of baggage.
Recently, I posted an item on Sarah Palin’s abuse of the English language, which included her observation that if immigrants don’t want to be stigmatized, they should start “speaking American.” Very coincidentally, later on that same day, I came across an item in the discussion list for the American Dialect Society that included a link to a much lengthier item posted previously to Language Log. The two items are re-posted here with the permission of the author, Ben Zimmer. They demonstrate concretely that Palin’s nativist sensibility has deep historical roots in American life.
Brothers (and newspaper columnists) Ben and Carl specialize in making esoteric subjects compelling for the everyday reader.
On a recent afternoon at Pete’s Tavern, Carl and Ben Zimmer were reminiscing over pints of ale. “It’s been a while since I’ve been here,” Carl said, taking in the scene. The Zimmers were roommates on the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn Heights in the early ’90s, when Ben, fresh out of Yale with a degree in linguistics, had his first job as a program assistant at the Social Science Research Council. Carl, who had also graduated from Yale, was working as an editor at Discover magazine, and Pete’s was a haunt, as was Cedar Tavern, which has since closed.
The usually bespectacled brothers don’t get together for beers as often anymore, now that they’re busy as wonky columnists at the city’s dueling dailies.
Interview on UK radio program The Monocle Daily about “speaking American.” (Sept. 7, 2015)
Episode 996: Monocle’s editor in chief Tyler Brûlé brings us the latest news from Vienna as Europe’s refugee crisis unfolds. We then look at how Latin America and North America are responding. We discuss why Russia and the US are concerned about Greek airspace; plus linguist Ben Zimmer breaks down what “talking American” sounds like.
[Interview begins at 50 min.]
“There’s nothing specifically about the words themselves that makes them offensive,” says linguist Ben Zimmer, executive producer of Vocabulary.com, “but the idea that people are trying to find a devious way to get into the country by having children here basically dehumanizes everyone involved.” …
Regardless, the phrase has stuck. And, while debate over its use can actually lead to discussion of important issues like candidates’ positions on birthright citizenship (Bush is for it; Donald Trump, who also uses the term, is against it), that stickiness is just one more reason for conscientious politicians to steer clear of it, says linguist Zimmer. “The difficulty is that those pithy words and phrases are much more memorable and work their way into the public consciousness,” he says. “And once they’re there, they are difficult to dislodge.”
Linguist and journalist Ben Zimmer has taken to collecting early examples of the “Harvard Yard” version of the phrase. Though he hasn’t found a patient zero, he’s seen it written down as early as 1946 when it was already being referred to as the “Famous Harvard Accent Test.”
Harvard, it turns out, once had its own dialect, distinct from the Boston accent, as we know it. Like the Boston accent, it was distinguished by the dropping of the “r.”