Ben Zimmer in the News

Appearance on Fox NY News, “Those Annoying Things Local TV News Reporters Say” (Apr. 25, 2014)

“Another dramatic car chase,” linguist Ben Zimmer said. “Do all car chases have to be dramatic? They do in the rhetoric of local news.”

Zimmer, the executive producer of, can find “tragic,” “tragedy,” “horrible” or “heart-breaking” abused at least once in any nightly news show. Hearts on his TV now seem to go out to a lot of different things.

“A dangerous chase,” Zimmer said, “a dramatic car crash, a terrifying ordeal.”

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Eric Zorn, “SAT Changes Fail to Diminish the Joy of Lex” (Chicago Tribune, Apr. 23, 2014)

“Students need to make sure that high-level words are in their vocabulary arsenal if they’re going to take on challenging reading passages,” said Zimmer, a Wall Street Journal language columnist whose website and app feature interactive word games that drill down into the subtleties of usage.

Read the rest here.

Alice Robb, “How Capital Letters Became Internet Code for Yelling” (The New Republic, Apr. 17, 2014)

People have long used capital letters to set text apart and convey its importance, but upper case letters haven’t always signified loudness. The first bloggers may be responsible for that development: Linguist Ben Zimmer pointed me to old “Usenet newsgroups”—the precursors of the forums and Reddit threads that dominate the Internet today—where people hashed out what capital letters would mean online.

Read the rest here.

Katy Steinmetz, “This Is How the New SAT Will Test Vocabulary” (Time, Apr. 16, 2014)

Ben Zimmer, executive producer of, a site with the mission of fostering and expanding vocabularies, also sees worth in the SAT changes. He is sympathetic to the College Board’s explanation that they can only test students on so many words and being able to understand the many meanings of intense is more pressing than understanding the single meaning of dilettante. “It’s necessary for them to be a little selective in what they emphasize,” he says. “You really need to appreciate the full range of meanings that a word can have.”

Zimmer, like the College Board, emphasizes that eliminating lachrymose or obsequious or punctilious from the SAT doesn’t denigrate the value of knowing such words. But it does mean that students will have to be inspired to want to know those words without necessarily getting points in return.

Read the rest here.

Katy Steinmetz, “‘Stay-at-Home Mothers:’ Why We Still Use This Clunky, Outdated Term” (Time, Apr. 11, 2014)

Homemaker, sociolinguist Ben Zimmer says, was seen as more respectful. And it sounds more active, more productive than a word that connotes maintenance of kitchen cabinets. The term also sounds less gendered, Zimmer says: “A man, in theory, should be equally good at making the home.” But that term didn’t do it for everyone either, and in the politically correct culture of the ’90s, tortured alternatives crop up, like domestic engineer or parenting professional or household technician.

Read the rest here.

Beth J. Harpaz, “Staycation or Bleisure? Travel Loves Made-Up Words” (Associated Press, Apr. 9, 2014)

Whatever you’re doing on vacation, chances are there’s a made-up word to describe it. Combine honeymoon and volunteering, you get honeyteering. Combine business and leisure, you get bleisure. Add glamour to a camping trip with wine, steak and scented candles, and you’re glamping.

Lexicographers call these blended words portmanteaus. The travel industry doesn’t have a monopoly on them — think “brunch.”

But they do “come in handy in a business sector where there’s often a need to come up with clever marketing spin,” said Ben Zimmer, executive producer of and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal. “It’s niche marketing. You’re trying to appeal to different sectors of the public: ‘Well, we have a special kind of tourism for you and it has a special name.'”

Read the rest here.

Interview on Bloomberg TV’s “Taking Stock with Pimm Fox” about the app. (Apr. 8, 2014)

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Bonnie Bertram, “Breaking: Trend Stories Are Bullsh*t” (The Daily Beast, Apr. 8, 2014)

“We see this happen in cases where there’s this moral panic, where there’s a concern that plays on social anxieties,” says Ben Zimmer, a linguist who writes a language column for The Wall Street Journal. In essence, something can be talked into being. “It may be phrased in very evocative or scary language. And by giving something a new term, the media then wants to report on it.”

On April 19, 1989, a jogger was brutally assaulted and raped in New York City’s Central Park. The police rounded up a group of black and Latino boys for questioning—the media would later quote police who referred to them as a “wolf pack” that was randomly attacking people in the park.

“The term ‘wilding’ came out of that,” says Zimmer, referring to the attack in Central Park. “That word served to concretize the way people might have been anxious about crime involving urban youths. And often there was a racial component to that as well.”

Read the rest here.

Appeared in New York Times / Retro Report video on the myth of the “superpredator.” (Apr. 6, 2014)

(Interview appears about 5 minutes into the video.)

Interview on KUOW’s The Record on the origins of some colorful baseball terms.

From ‘cup of coffee’ to ‘Bronx cheer,’ Ross Reynolds runs the language bases of baseball with linguist Ben Zimmer.

(Show page, audio)