Ben Zimmer in the News

Misty Harris, “Cronuts and Selfies and Twerking Define the Year in Words” (Postmedia News, Dec. 21, 2013)

You might call the Word of the Year language’s annual “selfie” — which, incidentally, was Oxford Dictionaries’ pick for the 2013 honour. It’s the word or phrase that best mirrors the Zeitgeist, reflecting back to us the climate of a given year with brevity and imagination.

By early 2014, lexicographers, media outlets and professional wordsmiths alike will have revealed their choices, which are certain to vary based on the lens through which they view pop culture. There are, however, some clear front runners likely to make most lists — and whether or not you recognize them might say something about your own ability to take the pulse of a nation.

“Lean In,” for instance, was unavoidable this year thanks to the runaway success of the eponymously named book about women in the workplace.

“There’s a whole social message built into that two-word phrase,” said Benjamin Zimmer, chair of the American Dialect Society’s new words committee. “And it’s one where you can really say that in 2013, it came to prominence in a new way.”

Read the rest here. (Related Wall Street Journal column)

Interview on “Central Time” (Wisconsin Public Radio) on the notable words of 2013. (Dec. 19, 2013)

From ‘twerk’ to ‘selfie,’ and everything in between, a linguist discusses the top words of the past year.

(Show page, audio)

Elizabeth Withey, “Of Selfies, Shelfies and Other Cray-Cray Language” (Edmonton Journal, Dec. 17, 2013)

“There’s an element of playfulness to it,” American linguist Ben Zimmer says of the slang, which is popular online, in texting as well as face-to-face communication. “There’s fun in sharing this in-group code. These are forms of language you are sharing with a group that appreciates what you’re doing.”

Call it the cutesification of communication. Or diminutivization, if you’re sweet on linguistics. Diminutives are word tweaks that imply smallness or, in this case, affection and familiarity. The -ie or -y ending (pronounced “ee”) is one of the biggies, but other diminutives include -let, -ling, -ette and mini-. They make speech sound fun, casual, less pretentious. “The childishness of it is intentional,” says Zimmer, executive producer of and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal. “It’s a way of being endearing to a particular subject in either a loving or condescending way.”

Read the rest here.

James S. Murphy, “The Case for SAT Words” (The Atlantic, Dec. 11, 2013)

Ben Zimmer, the executive producer of, suggested that “a lot of what might be considered the traditional SAT words might have been a little esoteric and also very specific in their meaning,” which meant that “you just learned this strange-sounding word and its meaning and you’re done,” rather than learning the kinds of words that take on different meanings in different contexts.

Read the rest here.

Interview with the PBS web series Offbook about the past, present, and future of emoticons. (Dec. 6, 2013)

(Related Word Routes column)

Alexander Nazaryan, “The Knockout Game Has America Fearing ‘Thugs’ Once More” (Newsweek, Nov. 25, 2013)

“Thug” is an immensely pleasing word to say. It has what linguist Ben Zimmer describes to Newsweek as a “blunt monosyllabic sound,” which it shares with many of our most beloved four-letter imprecations: the f-word, the c-word. And it is wholly unambiguous in meaning. …

Zimmer (who writes about language for The Wall Street Journal in a column called “Word on the Street”) explains to Newsweek that “thug” has had “a decidedly negative connotation throughout its history in English.” It was first used pejoratively in the 19th century to describe highway robbers in India who belonged to the Thuggee cult, thus insinuating itself slowly into the lexicon as a broad term for criminal behavior. And thugs have been “knocking out” innocent folks for some time: Zimmer points to a citation in the Oxford English Dictionary from an 1895 newspaper article about “election Thugs” “engag[ing] ‘knockers-out’, who…belabour and disable voters as they are entering the booths.”

Read the rest here.

Hilary Stout, “The Transformation of Black Friday” (New York Times, Nov. 24, 2013)

Ben Zimmer, executive producer of, who has researched and written about the term, says its association with shopping the day after Thanksgiving began in Philadelphia in the 1960s — and even then the reference wasn’t positive. The local police took to calling the day after Thanksgiving Black Friday because they had to deal with bad traffic and other miseries connected to the throngs of shoppers heading for the stores that day.

Needless to say, that use didn’t sit well with local retailers. They tried, according to Mr. Zimmer, to give the day a more positive name: Big Friday. That did not take, but eventually retailers — in Philadelphia and beyond — managed to spin a new connotation: The day retailer’s books went from red ink to black.

Read the rest here. (Related Word Routes column)

Forrest Wickman, “How Do You Pronounce ‘Doge’?” (Slate Browbeat blog, Nov. 15, 2013)

The meme known as doge—in which photos of dogs, usually Shiba Inus, are labeled with internal monologues like “wow,” “such [adjective],” and “very [noun]”—has been taking over the Web in recent weeks. Websites and comment sections are full of phrases like “Wow, so crack” (in reference to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford) and “Such fail” (in relation to the rollout). But how do you pronounce doge? …

There’s also Strong Bad, who, as the Know Your Meme page on doge points out, spoke the word in a 2005 Homestar Runner video. He pronounced it dohj. Ben Zimmer, a language columnist for the Wall Street Journal who frequently writes about language for Slate, told me, “In deference to Strong Bad, I would favor /doʊʒ/ or /doʊdʒ/ (with the J sound).”

Read the rest here.

Guest appearance on the WAMC Northeast Public Radio quiz show, “Any Questions?” with Ian Pickus and resident quizzer Mike Nothnagel. (Nov. 15, 2013)

It’s guest answerer time again. Ben Zimmer is a linguist, lexicographer, and word nut. He is the executive producer of and, two websites for language lovers.

For the Wall Street Journal, he writes a weekly language column, “Word on the Street.” Let’s see how much he knows about something that shares his name. This week our questions are about an iconic London landmark: Big Ben.

(Show page, audio)

Cordelia Hebblethwaite, “Trending: Batman Bin Suparman Jailed in Singapore” (BBC News, Nov. 12, 2013)

Batman bin Suparman’s family appear to be originally from the Indonesia island of Java – where the name Suparman is very common, explains Ben Zimmer, a language columnist for the Wall Street Journal, who has worked in Indonesia and who has written about Suparman.

“Su” has Sanskrit origins and is a common prefix in Indonesia, featuring in a whole rung of Indonesian presidents’ names – including the current one Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. “Bin” means “son of” in Arabic, making it very likely that Batman’s father was also called Suparman.

The Batman part is a bit harder to explain, however says Zimmer, as it’s not a traditional name in the region. The most likely explanation is that his parents chose it as a joke – Batman the superhero is popular there, and Indonesians are often playful in the names they choose, says Zimmer. “I see the name as this interesting juxtaposition of local naming with Western pop culture.”

Zimmer, for one, says he was sad to hear the news of Batman’s arrest and sentencing. He believes one of the reasons he became such a star on social media was because of how how young and innocent he looked.

Read the rest here. (Related Lexicon Valley post)