Ben Zimmer in the News

Katy Steinmetz, “The Many Things ‘Hot Mess’ Has Meant Through History” (Time, Apr. 2, 2014)

In the South Midland region of the U.S., encompassing parts of states like Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee and Alabama, “mess” is used to describe an “objectionable or foolish person.” Ben Zimmer, executive director at, points out that none other than Scarlett O’Hara called Melanie as a “mealy-mouthed little mess” in the 1936 novel Gone With the Wind.

Zimmer also points out that “mess” and “hot” both have an abundance of slang meanings. Mess can describe an eccentric person, a large quantity or something both “praiseworthy” and “confusing.” Hot can be used to describe someone daring, flamboyant, uninhibited, wild, intense, lustful, sexy or drunk.

Read the rest here.

Jordyn Taylor, “ Launches App So You Can Actually Use Your iPhone to Learn Read” (Betabeat, Mar. 31, 2014)

“There’s something in our brains, clearly, that enjoys the rush of very addictive games,” executive producer Ben Zimmer told Betabeat. “So if that’s the way our brains work, why not take advantage of that — not just play some mindless game, but do something that’ll actually improve you? You don’t have to feel bad about playing [this] for a long time, because you’re improving your vocab.”

Read the rest here.

Eric Zorn, “Eke! A Skunk!” (Chicago Tribune, Mar. 28, 2014)

I’ll quote Ben Zimmer, Wall Street Journal language columnist and executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and

Zimmer told me that eke is what the word-nerd community calls a “skunked term,” meaning that its definition has changed through what purists argue is misuse by The Great Unwashed.

Common examples: Hopefully, bemused, decimate, enormity and nonplussed.

Read the rest here.

Misty Harris, “‘Conscious Uncoupling’ Pretentious But Signals Real Trend” (Postmedia News, Mar. 27, 2014)

Ben Zimmer, a noted lexicographer, said this disconnect is reflected in ongoing changes to the language around relationship dissolution.

“It makes sense to try to find a new set of terms and vocabulary to get away from the fraught taboos of separation and divorce,” said Zimmer, executive producer of “There’s a lot of therapeutic talk around this issue, encouraging people to think about these things not as single events but as an ongoing process.”

In fact, Zimmer found a reference to “uncoupling” as a synonym for divorce as early as 1942. So why is Paltrow, whose sepia-washed split announcement used the contentious term, getting so much flak?

Read the rest here.

Adrienne LaFrance, “When Did Group Pictures Become ‘Selfies’?” (The Atlantic, Mar. 25, 2014)

What is happening to the selfie?

At first glance, it seems it may be turning into what linguist Ben Zimmer calls an “anachronym,” a word or phrase that remains in usage even as behaviors change.

“The accumulated cultural knowledge of past technologies ends up powerfully shaping the way we talk about new technologies,” Zimmer told me. “Think about the terms that we use for telephones, for instance. We still talk about ‘dialing.’ And we talk about ‘taping’ something even if it’s on the DVR. Sometimes what we’re left with is language that’s sort of obsolete.” […]

“Terms that relate to communication technology may start off as being rather technical and obscure,” Zimmer said. “They become mainstream because people need a term to refer to the things we’re doing, so they get clipped or shortened to various diminutive forms.” […]

“You can’t really dictate these things,” Zimmer said. “There can be a lot of flux early-on, a lot of competing usage. But when people have already fixed on one particular term, it’s hard to displace it with something else. And so that’s why we sometimes get older or more anachronistic terms sticking around. Then you have the conservative forces of language, which serve to create a sort of inertia around those terms until the next wave.”

Read the rest here.

Nadine Epstein, “The Secret History of X & O” (Moment, March/April 2014)

But the timing—late-19th and early-20th century—of the debut of the “o” for hug may, however, be close. According to the research of linguist Ben Zimmer, executive producer of and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, the earliest mention of an “o” for hugs is 1905. His search of online databases came up with a 1905 Missouri Supreme Court case—The State v. James E. Kelley. Among the evidence was this letter:

“10,000  million X O
Yours forever
I will kiss Cicil for you now.”

And the court record added:

“Prosecutrix, her mother and a banker in Bolivar testified that this letter was in defendant’s handwriting. Prosecutrix also testified that defendant told her that when he wrote X and O he meant hugs and kisses.”

Ben Zimmer ventures a guess that the pairing of “x” and “o” in noughts and crosses may have led to the addition of “o” to “x.” Just as noughts and crosses go together, so do hugs and kisses. “At some time ‘x’ stood for kisses and if you wanted to expand that to hugs and kisses ‘o’ became a reasonable choice,” he says. Another possibility is that the “o” was added because it is iconic, that is, a symbol that is a representation of the thing itself. Zimmer also adds that there are those who believe the “o” stands for kiss and “x” for hugs, which may stem from the fact that we say “hugs and kisses” as opposed to “kisses and hugs.” This, he says, is contrary to the historical record: It is likely that we say hugs first because it has fewer syllables. In English, paired phrases usually start with the shorter word and end with the longer.

Read the rest here.

Katy Steinmetz, “9 Great Things to Read in (Roughly) 9 Minutes” (Time, Mar. 19, 2014)

“It’s important, especially for students, to know that vocabulary is something that is living, that is constantly all around them, that literacy doesn’t consist of a particular canon of books,” says Ben Zimmer, executive producer of, which debuted an addictive word-learning app for iPhones this week. “You can take any text, whether it’s a movie script or the lyrics of a song, and pull out the vocab words.”

Read the rest here.

Rebecca Greenfield, “ Launches a Positively Addictive App for Aspiring Wordsmiths” (Fast Company, Mar. 18, 2014)

It’s a Monday afternoon. I’m playing an iPhone game at my desk instead of working–and for once, I don’t feel bad about it. Unlike Candy Crush,’s new app, available as of today, isn’t a mindless-borderline-embarrassing way to occupy yourself while commuting. Yes, it’s a time suck. But like reading the newspaper or watching documentaries, it’s the kind that makes you feel okay about your life choices, because it helps build vocabulary. As a writer, I can even professionally justify tapping away on my phone.  […]

The hope is that method, plus the variations of question types, along with robust definitions, offers a more enticing and more useful experience than flipping through flash cards. “We’re incorporating all sorts of things that are available to give people the best handle on words and their meanings and understanding how they work in the world,” Ben Zimmer, a trained linguist and executive producer of explained to Fast Company. The app’s dictionary offers more than just standard Merriam-Webster style entries, with graphics showing a “word family” and usage examples from real-world sources, for example.

Read the rest here. ( app download page)

Stefan Fatsis, “These Sports Terms Should Be Playable in Scrabble” (Slate, Lexicon Valley blog, Mar. 18, 2014)

Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer suggests several baseball terms.Gyroball had a short, mysterious, overblown life as the secret pitch of Japanese import Daisuke Matsuzaka. Hitterish has been attributed all the way back to Babe Ruth. (If you remove an H you get SHITTIER, which isn’t in the OSPD because it’s an offensive term but is playable in club and tournament Scrabble, which allows a set of words—known as the Poo List—banned from the over-the-counter dictionary in the 1990s).

Zimmer also offers eephusjunkballribbie, and squibber. An S-A-B-R front-hook for METRICS is overdue. As are the one-word adjectives leftfieldrightfield, and centerfield, and their nounal -ER extensions. Loogy, an acronym for Lefty One Out GuY, deserves a spot in the lexical lineup. As does its homonym, loogie, the viscous ball of expectorant released by many a ballplayer, possibly derived from Lou Gehrig’s name (though that seems dubious).

Read the rest here.

Emily Guendelsberger, “The Etymology of ‘Jawn’” (City Paper, Mar. 18, 2014)

Jawn’s been in the news lately — the Daily News‘ Bill Bender got the perfect quote from a witness to one of the many worrying building collapses, and “The whole jawn came down” will now live forever. We thought, then, that this was the perfect time to post this interview with linguist, lexicographer, Wall Street Journal columnist and former New York Times On Language columnist, UPenn Language Log-ger and all-around good sport Ben Zimmer, in which he sheds some light on the origins of “jawn,” plus “hoagie,” “chumpy” and other words from Philly’s regional lexicon. (Zimmer also has a new vocab-game app out — check it out!)

Read the rest here.