Ben Zimmer in the News

Paul Hiebert, “Will We Ever See the End of Swearing?” (Pacific Standard, Mar. 11, 2014)

“If you draw a circle around acceptable language and that circle just gets bigger and bigger, there still has to be something outside of the circle,” says Ben Zimmer, the executive producer of and a language columnist at the Wall Street Journal. “There’s always going to be a need for language that transgresses or subverts polite discourse. If some words happen to get devulgarized, then other ones will come along.”

Read the rest here.

Presented at a SXSW Interactive panel on language, technology, and creating a “visual vernacular.” (Mar. 8, 2014)

52,000: The number of texts sent every second around the world. The proliferation of texting has exploded, starting with basic SMS in the late ‘90s, evolving to advanced iMessages and Emoji (picture characters) used to inject emotional cues and nuance into conversations.
Humans have gone from ancient cave paintings to complex language development, and now we’re returning to pictorial symbols again. Texting has been bemoaned as the downfall of the written word, yet it’s innovating its own grammar and conventions. What does this signal about the evolution of the human language? How will emerging technology change the way we communicate – with each other and with brands – in the future?
Join Sam Huston of JumpTank and linguist Ben Zimmer as they examine the use of symbols in language, how the human language is evolving alongside technology and its impact on culture, from brand interactions to expressions of personal narratives.

(Panel page)

Interview on the American Public Media/NPR show “Marketplace” about the origins of the “bear” and “bull” markets. (Mar. 4, 2014)

All of the above theories are wrong.  Or, at least, totally unproven, according to Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer, who is also a producer for

“People like coming up with theories,” he says, “especially when it’s something like bull or bears and it’s not immediately obvious why we should be using these terms.”

He says the term Bear Market (stocks going down) most likely comes from an old saying:

“Don’t Sell the Bear Skin Before You’ve Caught the Bear” – a little bit like today’s “don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

Because back in the early 1700’s, that’s kindof what some traders started doing.

“There were a lot of speculators engaging in what we’d now call shortselling,” says Zimmer. “They were selling stocks they don’t yet own, with the expectation that by the time it was due for delivery, that the price would fall before then, and the speculator would make a profit.”

That was called selling the bear skin, based on the old proverb,” says Zimmer.  A person who practiced this was called a “Bear Skin Jobber,” which was shortened to “Bear”.  Eventually, markets that were conducive to this practice – where prices were falling – were called Bear markets.

“So we have a pretty good idea of the bear part of bull and bear, but the bull is more mysterious,” says Zimmer.

Read the rest here.

Samantha Melamed, “Translating Philly-ese” (Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 20, 2014)

Some studies have shown white and African American vernaculars diverging, said Ben Zimmer, a linguist, lexicographer, and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal. But, he added, such research often focuses on vowel sounds. Other aspects of dialect, such as word choice, may paint a different picture.

“There are lots of other possibilities for crossover between white and black, in terms of having a distinct Philadelphia linguistic identity that transcends racial or ethnic backgrounds,” he said. “For instance, African American slang that might be popularized through hip-hop can appeal to audiences regardless of race.” [..]

Most linguists agree that jawn is a cognate of joint. But when it comes to drawlin, there’s not much to go on, Zimmer said.

“If it originates in oral use, it can become popularized in a community without having ever much of a written record,” Zimmer said.

And by the time a lexicologist gets interested in a slang word, its meaning may have changed.

Zimmer described seeing the term young boul, as applied by an older male in a relationship to a younger male, to imply a degree of protectiveness.

“A word like that, which seems pretty specific to Philadelphia, can serve this important social role of creating bonds between members of the community,” he said. […]

Zimmer said the endurance of hoagie, and the many other Philadelphianisms not mentioned here, is more than just linguistic novelty.

They’re also testaments to prized Philadelphia obstinacy.

“There are forces for homogenization: the fact that Subway is a popular chain, and presumably popularizing the term sub in places that might have used hoagie or hero,” he said. “But people can really hold on to what they grew up with sometimes as a point of pride: ‘This is how we speak in Philly.’ There’s a pride in having a distinct way of using language.”

Read the rest here.

Stefan Fatsis, “Why Do Figure Skaters Go to the ‘Kiss and Cry’ to Get Their Scores?” (Slate, Feb. 18, 2014)

But it took a few years for “kiss and cry” to travel from the rink and the production truck into the sports vernacular. Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer says the first reference to “kiss and cry” in news databases is a May 1987 article by John Powers of the Boston Globe. “Yes,” Powers wrote, “that place where figure skaters clutch their flowers and await their marks has a name—the Kiss and Cry Area.” The Times didn’t use “kiss and cry” until a pre-Olympics, pre-knee-whacking profile of Nancy Kerrigan in January 1994.

The phrase, Zimmer says, is one of several “kiss and blank” descendants of “kiss and tell,” which dates to a 1695 comedy by the English poet and playwright William Congreve. (“O fie, miss, you must not kiss and tell.”) For instance, “kiss and ride” was coined around 1956 by the general manager of the Chicago Transit Authority after he watched wives kiss husbands goodbye at a train drop-off, Zimmer says.

Read the rest here.

Tanya Ballard Brown, “The Origin (And Hot Stank) Of The ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’” (Code Switch, NPR blog, Feb. 16, 2014)

“[Lou Rawls has] been credited with the term,” says Ben Zimmer, executive producer of and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal. “All the early examples of it … are from interviews with him.”

Zimmer is referring to two interviews with the singer, the first a Dec. 3, 1966 Billboard magazine piece:

As a result of the disk hits, [Lou] Rawls has become an artist in demand. He’s booked solid through next August and is first starting to play cities off the “chitlin’ circuit,” his affectionate name for the small blues clubs. […]

Rawls described the scene in a Jan. 8, 1967 Los Angeles Times interview:

“For years I played night clubs, working the Chitlin’ Circuit. These clubs were very small, very tight, very crowded and very loud. Everything was loud but the entertainment. The only way to establish communication was by telling a story that would lead into the song, that would catch people’s attention.”

“He was talking about the Chitlin’ Circuit as these clubs that he was playing, he had just come out with an album Lou Rawls Live! … and that album had a lot of these monologues that he would do in these different clubs,” Zimmer says. “So he was talking about that experience, but it’s interesting that that was when Lou Rawls was achieving enough fame that he didn’t have to work the Chitlin’ Circuit anymore, he was graduating beyond that.”

Read the rest here.

Sue Owen, “Bachmann Didn’t Say Bible Was Written in English, and Neither Did Texas Governor” (Politifact Texas, Feb. 12, 2014)

Wall Street Journal language columnist Benjamin Zimmer investigated the “Bible in English” meme in an April 29, 2006, post on a linguists’ blog at the University of Pennsylvania.

The oldest iterations, he wrote, were jokes about an 1881 translation of the Bible, rather than about the English language specifically.

Zimmer cited a May 23, 1881, New York Times story about clergymen’s reactions to the new Bible. One preacher, the story says, told his congregation a joke that ended thus: ” ’What’s the matter with the good old King James version?’ the farmer replied. ‘That was good enough for St. Paul, and it’s good enough for me.’ ”

Read the rest here.

Evan Fleischer, “Is The State of the Union Getting Dumber?” (Esquire, Jan. 29, 2014)

“We’re mostly talking about sentence length,” says Ben Zimmer of The Wall Street Journal. “As Mark Liberman has shown on Language Log, the decline in word length is much more modest. And the trends don’t apply to the overall length of the speech. Obama is averaging just under 7000 words per State of the Union, about the same as Lincoln. And I don’t think anyone is pining for the days of Taft, who averaged more than 22,000 words per SOTU.”

Read the rest here.

Interview on KUOW’s The Record about the origins of football lingo. (Jan. 27, 2014)

Just like learning acronyms at a new workplace, catching on to the Seahawks’ lexicon can be daunting for the uninitiated. Ben Zimmer, linguist and self-described “word nerd,” helps us break down the terms that are flying around as often as a 12th Man flag.

Don’t feel bad if you’re a bit behind: Players have to learn these terms too since nicknames and lingos can be specific to a team or vary between teams. The term “Omaha” for the Indianapolis Colts could mean something very different than how the Denver Broncos use it.

“All of these code words and codes that hide other codes are extremely complicated. At the same time, they have to be transparent enough for players to understand and the opposing players can’t be in on it,” Zimmer said on KUOW’s The Record.

(Show page, audio)

Interview on the RTR-FM show “Talk the Talk” about the American Dialect Society’s 2013 Word of the Year selection. (Jan. 21, 2014)

It’s time to look at the words that made the news last year. Forget twerking, and stop taking selfies, because this year’s winner was truly momentous. There’s even someone special to take us through it: Ben Zimmer of the American Dialect Society talks to our resident linguist Daniel Midgley on this episode of Talk the Talk.

Listen to

(Show page, audio, blog post with show notes)