Ben Zimmer in the News

Interview with KUOW’s “The Record” about the origins of the expression “the whole nine yards.” (Sept. 5, 2013)

Did you know that the phrase “the whole 9 yards” used to be “the whole 6 yards?” It’s true. And cloud nine, that fantastic place to be, used to be cloud seven, then cloud eight. So how did we get to nine yards and cloud nine? Ben Zimmer is back today to talk about phrase inflation as we consider our series on strange language.

(Show page, related Word Routes column)

Mike Vuolo, “Here Come the Word Nerds! Introducing Slate’s Language Blog, Lexicon Valley” (Slate, Sept. 4, 2013)

Why do English speakers often begin sentences with a dangling, superfluous so? What makes the “historical present” such an effective storytelling tense? Is Bob Garfield a stone-cold misogynist because he finds “vocal fry” insufferable?

These are just a few of the questions we’ve tackled on the podcast Lexicon Valley over the past year and a half, and we’re deeply grateful to the many listeners who have tuned in. But many of you have written to request language-related content that can be consumed without headphones, which, alas, remain taboo in many workplaces (where shirking with the eyes is easier to do on the DL).

And so, until surgically implanted “in-ear” speakers (Exhibit A) are standard-issue, we bring you Lexicon Valley: The Blog. We’ve teamed up with the brilliant linguists at Language Log—including the University of Pennsylvania’s Mark Liberman, the University of Edinburgh’s Geoffrey Pullum, and’s Ben Zimmer—whose new and archival posts will be featured here along with content from other contributors.

Read the rest here.

Interview on KUOW’s “The Record” about the origins of the expression “pipe dream.” (Sept. 4, 2013)

Yesterday we heard some history on the term “doping” in sports and today, language columnist Ben Zimmer explains where the term “pipe dream” comes from.

The origin of “pipe dream” has to do with opium smoking and dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries. The dream-like visions or flights of fancy known to occur under the influence of opium came to be called “pipe dreams,” referring to the opium pipe.

The expression took off in late 19th century in American English in cities where opium dens were appearing, especially Chicago. Chicago newspapers began using the term more generally to mean something unrealistic or fantastic; something you hope for but don’t think would actually occur.

Expressions that come out of modern drug use can become so common that we can use them without evoking the images of drug use.

(Show page, related Word Routes column)

Katy Steinmetz, “What Twitter Says to Linguists” (Time, Sept. 9, 2013)

There’s more in a tweet than 140 characters. Among the 500 million messages sent each day on Twitter, there’s a tsunami of slang terms and textspeak. There are hashtags, emoticons and links. Many tweets contain geotags that identify where on earth a person stood when pressing send. That may sound like just a lot of noise, but for linguists making ever more sophisticated use of it all, Twitter is providing the most enormous stream of data they have ever had at their disposal.

Gone are the days when a language researcher had to interview subjects in a lab or go door to door in the hope of gaining a few insights about a limited sample of people. Academics in the U.S. and Europe are using the seven-year-old microblogging platform to put millions of examples under the microscope in an instant. “It’s unprecedented,” says sociolinguist Ben Zimmer, “the sheer amount of text you can look at at one time, and the number of people you can analyze at once.” Hidden in tweets are insights about how we portray our identity in a few short sentences. There are clues to long-standing mysteries, like how slang spreads. And there is a new form of communication to study. If language is the archive of history, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, social media should get its own shelf.

Read the rest here.

Interview on KUOW’s “The Record” about the origins of “dope” and “doping.” (Sept. 3, 2013)

We’ve seen lots of sports scandals in the news over the years that have to do with performance-enhancing drugs, commonly referred to as doping. Dope, from the Dutch word doop, is actually a gravy or a sauce, so how did we go from gravy to drugs? Lexicographer Ben Zimmer gives KUOW’s Ross Reynolds the straight dope on dope.

(Show page, related Wall St. Journal column, Word Routes column)

Interview on WGN Radio’s “The Brian Noonan Show” on the hubbub over “twerk” and other words being added to Oxford Dictionaries. (Sept. 1, 2013)

(Show page, related Language Log post)

Katy Steinmetz, “Media Makes the Manning Switch” (Time Swampland blog, Aug. 28, 2013)

The prospect of a person living life as a him and then a her is still confusing for many Americans: A 2011 survey found that 3 in 10 do not know what it means to be transgender. And the idea that biological sex is divorced from culturally constructed gender—that there is something more fluid than a sex listed on a birth certificate—is not an easy one for many people.

“Identities that subvert those binaries make us uncomfortable,” said sociolinguist Ben Zimmer, executive producer at

Pronouns can be political hot buttons, the same way marriage and husband and wife have been for those taking opposing sides when it comes to gay rights.

“Pronouns are personal,” Zimmer said. “They’re the most personal parts of speech.”

Read the rest here. (Related Language Log column)

Interview on WNYC’s “The Leonard Lopate Show” about the literary origins of the financial term “bubble.” (Aug. 27, 2013)

Ben Zimmer, executive producer of and the Visual Thesaurus, and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, discusses the use of the word “bubble” in the financial sense.

(Show page, streaming audio, download, related Wall Street Journal column, Word Routes column)

Interview on PRI’s “The World” about the history of the word “drone.” (Aug. 8. 2013)

In the 1930s, Admiral William Standley visited the United Kingdom when the Royal Navy gave him a presentation of the “Queen Bee”. That was a remotely controlled aircraft– a prototype the Royal Navy had developed for the gunnery to use as target practice.

“Admiral Standley was so impressed that when he came back to the United States, he got his men on it, and in homage to the Queen Bee, he chose the name drone.”

That’s according to Ben Zimmer, a linguist who writes the language column for the Washington Post, and the executive producer of and the Visual Thesaurus.

He recently discussed the origins of the word “drone” and its new use as transitive verbs.

To hear more about drones, and how Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Marilyn Monroe and Ronald Reagan are all connected, take a listen.

(Show page, audio, related Wall St. Journal column, Word Routes column)

Monica Hesse,  “Move Aside, .com: .wed, Other Domains Will Make Internet More Crowded” (Washington Post, Aug. 6, 2012)

“It’s funny, thinking about dot-com,” says Ben Zimmer. Zimmer is a linguist — he’s the executive producer of — and he thinks a lot about the context and meaning of words. “Even though it still gets used, it’s most often used to refer to the original dot-coms of the late ’90s — the boom and bust. Perhaps for some time, it has had an almost nostalgic quality. It reminds you of that time.”

Now, “dot-com” is almost extraneous: Every business is a dot-com because every business has an Internet presence. There is a word for when this happens, for when technology moves forward more quickly than the words used to describe it, e.g., “dialing” a phone or “tuning” a radio. Linguists jokingly call them “anachronyms.”

Read the rest here.