Ben Zimmer in the News

Interview on KUOW’s “The Conversation” about “drone” and other words in the news. (Aug. 5, 2013)

What are the words and phrases you love? What about the words and phrases you hate? Wall Street Journal word columnist Ben Zimmer fills us in on current examples from politics.

(Show page, related Wall St. Journal column)

Katy Steinmetz, “We, the Tweeple: Why Twitter Inspires So Many New Words” (Time Newsfeed, July 24, 2013)

Every day, new combinations march into being. Twitteracy is the ability to understand the medium. Twittebrities are the A-listers who use it. Twitterati, Twittersphere, tweeple, tweetup, twisticuffs, twelete, twirting. There’s no question that there are a twitload. But why, exactly, is Twitter such a fusion muse? And will any of them last?

Linguist Ben Zimmer theorizes that these words keep cropping up because the “tw-” intro is so distinctive. After the name of the platform inspired the name of its central unit—the tweet—early adopters had a formula they could use and reuse, he says. The name Twitter is also “playful and distinctive,” he says, which perhaps encourages wordplay. […]

“Snappy portmanteaus certainly work well on Twitter, where space is at a premium and linguistic memes can spread quickly via hashtagging,” Zimmer says.

However, spreading quickly does not often give way to lasting long. Cronuts are already ceding ground to crookies in news stories. Obamaquester is a distant memory. The Internet gave new slang the potential to reach more people much faster—and when more people are exposed to new words, there’s a good chance they’ll get tired of them faster, too. “Very often these new portmanteaus are just the meme-tastic flavor of the week,” Zimmer says, “and their fall to the linguistic scrapheap is just as rapid as their ascent.”

Read the rest here.

Interview on WNYC’s “The Leonard Lopate Show” about the forensic linguistics that helped uncover J.K. Rowling’s pseudonymous authorship. (July 23, 2103)

Ben Zimmer talks about the surprising linguistic science behind the revelation that J.K. Rowling wrote the crime novel The Cuckoo’s Calling under a pen name. Zimmer is the Wall Street Journal language columnist and executive producer of

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

Interview on the New Hampshire Public Radio show “Word of Mouth” about the forensic linguistics behind the J.K. Rowling revelation (July 23, 2013)

Last week, author J.K. Rowling of HarryPotter fame was uncovered as true author behind The Cuckoo’s Calling, a mystery novel written under the pen-name Robert Galbraith. Signed first editions of the book are now selling for over six thousand dollars, a testament to the value of a name. The reporters at the Sunday Times who broke the Rowling story consulted several academics whose methods of determining authorship relied heavily on software they had developed for that very purpose.

Ben Zimmer is a linguist, lexicographer, and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He’s on the line to talk about the science that went into discovering the true identity behind “Robert Galbraith,” which he covered for their “Speakeasy” blog.

(Show page, audio, related Wall Street Journal column)

Rachel Elbaum, “Nappy? Pram? Deciphering Duchess Kate’s British English” (, July 19, 2013)

On British playgrounds, there are often snickers when American parents shout “good job” at their kids, instead of the British “well done.” Or blank looks when those same parents talk about pacifiers instead of dummies.

“If you think about terms that have to do with raising children, they are often words that are passed down in an intimate environment and may have more of a local flavor,” said Ben Zimmer, producer of and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal.

Read the rest here.

Katy Steinmetz, “The Edward Snowden Name Game: Whistle-Blower, Traitor, Leaker” (Time, July 10, 2013)

Linguist Ben Zimmer, who writes a weekly column for the Wall Street Journal, dug into the history of whistle-blower, which comes from an earlier idiom, to blow the whistle (on). (You’ll be able to read his deep dive this Saturday here.) In the early days, blowing the whistle simply meant to stop something going afoul, like a referee in a boxing match. In the 1930s, Zimmer says, whistle-blower took on a negative spin, becoming the equivalent of “snitch.” A critic of Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa actually disparaged him as a “notorious fink” and “whistle-blower” in 1960.

Then the 1970s hit and politician Ralph Nader gave the term a makeover. “He was looking for a label that could fit these responsible, civic-minded people working in corporations or government who would step up and report fraud or negligence,” Zimmer says. “He recognized that there was the whole class of terms—like rat, fink, squealer, informer, stool pigeon—and I guess he saw whistle-blower as the easiest to salvage or rehabilitate.” Once Nader salvaged that title, the word’s usage took off. …

Zimmer has traced the “leak” metaphor back to ancient Rome, when a leak described information seeping out like water coming through a leaky roof or shoddy boat hull. In the early 1900s, leak was often used in the passive tense—“information leaked”—without assigning responsibility. In the Deep Throat era, Zimmer says, the word took on a more active sense, describing things people did rather than things that had, you know, just happened.

It’s hard to argue, however you feel about Snowden, that he didn’t leak something. “It’s helpful to introduce him in a terse way and leaker does that,” Zimmer says. “People think of it as more neutral.”

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

Interview on Voice of America’s Special English program TALK2US about the events in Egypt, and about the debate over labeling the military overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi a “coup.” (July 9, 2013)

Interview on WBUR’s “Here and Now” about the history of the word “upset” in sports. (July 5, 2013)

It’s down to the wire at Wimbledon, the men’s finals are on Sunday, the women’s on Saturday. And some of the biggest names will not be participating, because there have been a lot of upsets—Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova all lost in the early rounds. These upsets had linguist Ben Zimmer thinking about the use of the word “upset.”

And that got him thinking about a horse race in 1919.

“There’s a popular story that involves a race that happened in 1919,” Zimmer said. “The thoroughbred Man o’ War, who was a great racehorse of the day, lost the only race of his career to a horse named Upset, believe it or not.”

In popular mythology, this race gave rise to this usage in different sports of the word “upset” for the unexpected defeat of a favorite.

However, Zimmer says, there are some holes in this story.

Zimmer found the term “upset” used in horse racing in 1857, decades before the famous 1919 race.

In the nineteenth century, the term “upset” was often used to mean “overturn,” like the phrase “upset a boat” as in “capsize a boat.”

“So it wasn’t a big stretch for that to carry over into horse racing,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer thinks that the horse race of 1919 helped to popularize the term “upset” in the popular imagination.

But perhaps it got too popular.

Zimmer found a sportswriter for the Chicago Tribune writing in 1928 that the term was overused, because it was convenient for newspaper columns.

“I think sport writers might still be guilty overusing that term,” said Zimmer, “although in a case like Wimbledon this year it’s certainly justified.”

(Show page, audio, related Wall Street Journal column)

Arit John, “Do We Really Need to Shorten the Word ‘The’?” (The Atlantic Wire, July 5, 2013)

This may very well be the first time someone has decided to advocate on behalf of the. Linguist and language columnist Ben Zimmer told The Atlantic Wire that, while he could think of similar campaigns to popularize ‽ (aka the interrobang, that very unpopular combination of question mark and exclamation point) as well as marks to denote sarcasm, no one has ever tried to shorten the before. And probably for good reason. “I’m not sure that this is something that people are crying out for,” Zimmer told us in a phone interview Friday. “People seem to be just fine using the word the.”

Read the rest here.

Interview on WBUR’s “Radio Boston” about the colorful language of the Whitey Bulger trial. (July 3, 2013)

Linguist Ben Zimmer’s been listening closely to the trial of James “Whitey” Bulger, and he says witness testimony has “opened up a time capsule of old-school Boston mobspeak” that traces its history back more than 300 hundred years.

(Show page, audio, related Boston Globe column)