Ben Zimmer in the News

Susanna Speier, “Facebook Profile Pictures Taken Over by Giraffes: Behind the Invasion” (The Daily Beast, Nov. 1, 2013)

“As folklorists have long recognized, riddles make excellent memes,” says Ben Zimmer, executive producer of and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal. “Their textual compactness allows them to spread quickly and efficiently, and their question-and-answer format encourages the receiver of the riddle to change roles and become the transmitter.”

Ambiguity is what makes this particular riddle so interesting, he adds. …

“Since linguistic memes often ‘mutate’ as they travel, the phrasing of the question can change in transmission, which can in turn affect the ‘catch’ of the riddle in various ways,” says Zimmer.

Read the rest here.

Interview on NPR’s “All Things Considered” about “glitches” and “gremlins.” (Oct. 25, 2013)

When it comes to describing problems with the Affordable Care Act website, one word has been used a lot: glitches. But does that really capture the major problems with And where does the word come from? Ben Zimmer, executive producer of and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal takes a look at the word’s origins.

(Show page, audio)

Comment on Philip Bump’s analysis of the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year selections, “20 Years of Dumb New Words” (The Atlantic Wire, Oct. 23, 2013)

As an Ngram enthusiast and Chair of the New Words Committee for the American Dialect Society, I had an obvious interest in your analysis. It’s quite true that some of ADS’s choices over the years, from “bushlips” to “plutoed,” are cringeworthy in retrospect (and may have been cringeworthy at the time, to be honest). Fortunately, we don’t take ourselves too seriously as ultimate arbiters of lexical success, though I think the Most Likely to Succeed and Most Useful winners have actually fared pretty well. And many of our recent overall WOTY champs — especially techie terms like “tweet,” “app,” and “hashtag” — are clearly here to stay, even though we pick an overall winner according to its zeitgeistiness rather than its projected staying power.

Read the rest here.

Sydney Lupkin, “‘Bacne’ and Other Weird Health Word Origins” (, Oct. 16, 2013)

Believe it or not, the term “bacne” didn’t come from a bunch of mean high school girls.

Not at first, anyway.

It first appeared online in 1994, when people were speculating about whether certain pro wrestlers were on steroids. Back acne was considered a sign of steroid use, and the two words soon morphed into bacne, said Ben Zimmer, a linguist and executive producer of who has written about words for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Read the rest here.

Appearance on Fox NY News, “Vocal Fry Is Still a Thing” (Oct. 14, 2013)

Mae West did it, the Kardashians do it — a slow raspy way of talking that has come to be known as vocal fry. Britney Spears even does it when she sings.

Vocal fry is a style of speaking that involves a low fluttering of the vocal chords that creates a creaky sound to it.

Ben Zimmer, a linguist and founder of, gave me a lesson in how to fry your words.

An extended interview with The Chicago Manual of Style Online. (Oct. 8, 2013)

Ben Zimmer is a linguist, lexicographer, and language columnist—a word guru. From tracking the etymology of (and drama over) the word sneaker to interviewing Stephen Colbert about truthiness, Zimmer keeps tabs on the continuing evolution of language. With technology accelerating these changes and fueling debates over usage, Shop Talk decided to get Zimmer’s take on the transformation and technologization of language.

Shop Talk: A favorite debate in the CMOS community is whether new word usages should be allowed, with classic examples of hopefully and literally. How do you think we should draw the line between common usage and Standard Written English? Are there cultural or academic checkpoints that a word must go through before making the transition?

Ben: The first thing to recognize is that what we think of as “new” usage is very often not that new at all, thanks to what Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky has called The Recency Illusion. We tend to think of stigmatized language patterns as artifacts of our current age, when in fact they can reflect long-standing usage among established, respected writers. But just because you can find Alexander Pope writing “Every day with me is literally another yesterday for it is exactly the same” in 1708, that’s not going to assuage those who insist that literally should only be used, well, literally, rather than emphatically or hyperbolically. I often point to such historical evidence in usage disputes, but I doubt that I’m convincing anyone who has already decided that a particular point of usage is simply wrong.

I chalk up much of this black-and-white thinking about language to pedagogy: in our schooling, we are constantly encouraged to think that there is only one right answer, which flies in the face of the flexibility and mutability of language. And so as adults, we look to authoritative texts like usage manuals and dictionaries to uphold an unequivocal standard. The messy linguistic facts reveal that there is no single standard, however, even if we limit ourselves to a supposedly unitary “Standard Written English.” Different social contexts require subtle adjustments to our language use, and for the most part we navigate these changes of register without even consciously thinking about it. It’s only when we get snagged on a shibboleth like literally or hopefully that questions of propriety arise and we expect an authority to decree that there is One Right Way.

Good usage manuals and dictionaries won’t shy away from the complexity of language but will instead offer advice about what is typically expected in different written and oral styles. Such advice can never be carved in stone, either, as expectations of what counts as “standard” will change over time. Snuck as a past-tense form of sneak was once considered a colloquialism, but most standard references now treat it as no less acceptable than sneakedSnuck didn’t pass through any “checkpoints” on the way to acceptability, however: it just snuck in. Writers on usage are very often playing catch-up with changes that have already happened rather than holding the line against some linguistic tide, Canute-style.

Read the rest here.

Scott Bomboy (National Constitution Center), “Justice Antonin Scalia’s Most Unusual Word Choices” (Yahoo News, Oct. 8, 2013)

Ben Zimmer, who writes about words and language for The Wall Street Journal and produces Visual Thesaurus and, carefully explained the origins of “argle-bargle” on the Visual Thesaurus blog in June as a description of “a verbal dispute” or “a wrangling argument.” […]

And there was the historic battle in 2009 involving Scalia and a presenting lawyer over the use of the word “choate” in a case argument.

Randolph Barnhouse was arguing about a “choate” interest in property.

“There is no such adjective,” Scalia said. “I know we have used it, but there is no such adjective as ‘choate.’  There is ‘inchoate,’ but the opposite of inchoate is not choate.”

In a 2010 New York Times story, Zimmer explained it wasn’t the first time that Scalia took an attorney for using choate in his courtroom. In 1992, another attorney took a Scalia upbraiding during oral arguments for using the word.

Read the rest here.

Annalee Newitz, “The Bizarre Evolution of the Word ‘Cyber’” (io9, Sept. 16, 2013)

Ben Zimmer, who writes about linguistics for the Wall Street Journal, agreed with Holden, noting that the seemingly-incongruous ideas of cybersex and cyberwar “grew up side by side.” The earliest recorded use of the term “cybersecurity” came in 1989, the exact same year when the word “cyberporn” was coined. But neither term was dominant. […]

Zimmer pointed out that Douglas Adams may have invented the idea of cybersex back in 1982, when he remarked in Life, the Universe and Everything that “Zaphod had spent most of his early history lessons plotting how he was going to have sex with the girl in the cybercubicle next to him.” As more college age people began piling on to the internet in the mid-1990s, cybersex became trendy slang for what you did with your long-distance boyfriend using the university dial-up connection. And, like most slang, it quickly got shortened to cyber.

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

Interview on “Totally Biased with Kamau Bell” about the origins of the racial epithet “cracker.” (Sept. 10, 2013)

Interview on KUOW’s “The Record” about the expression “having your cake and eat it too.” (Sept. 6, 2013)

You can’t have your cake and eat it too, but how are you supposed to eat cake you don’t have? Language guru Ben Zimmer is back today and he explains the whole having, eating and not having cake thing. And what that has to do with how the Unabomber was captured. Really.

(Show page, related On Language column)