Ben Zimmer in the News

Appearance on Fox NY News, “Communicating by Sharing Photos, Videos” (July 2, 2013)

It’s hard to argue the popularity and impact of social media has changed the way we stay in touch with each other.
Whether it’s a simple photo that lets the world know how we’re feeling or a video captured on social media apps like vine.
Experts agree we are experiencing a communication evolution unlike any we’ve seen in human history.
Ben Zimmer, a linguist, says photo sharing and innovation in social media are creating a new form of language.

Interview on KUOW’s “The Conversation with Ross Reynolds” about Justice Scalia’s use of the word “argle-bargle” and mobspeak from the Whitey Bulger trial. (June 27, 2013)

The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Federal Defense of Marriage Act was big news yesterday and the coverage and analysis continues today. Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent in the decision caught the eye of language lover and writer Ben Zimmer. On the 22nd page of his dissent Justice Scalia used the term argle-bargle. Zimmer, language columnist for the Boston Globe, explains the strange word to Ross Reynolds.

(Show page, related Word Routes column)

Rebecca Greenfield, “The Brouhaha Behind ‘Argle Bargle’: A Linguistic Explanation” (The Atlantic Wire, June 26, 2013)

“‘Argle-bargle’ is formed by what’s known as rhyming reduplication,” linguist Ben Zimmer told The Atlantic Wire. “Reduplication,” is when “a word formation process by which some part of a base (a segment, syllable, morpheme) is repeated, either to the left, or to the right, or, occasionally, in the middle,” as the Lexicon of Linguistics explains it. So, it’s like okey-dokey or mumbo-jumbo.

It’s not exactly Supreme Court level language, which is exactly why Scalia chose it. People use these types of terms to sound either juvenile or pejorative, which was the justice’s point: These other opinions aren’t just wrong, they’re argle-bargle level wrong, or plain dumb. “I think Scalia’s pejorative intentions were clear, but he was looking for something a bit more exotic than ‘mumbo-jumbo,'” added Zimmer.

Read the rest here. (Related Word Routes column, Language Log post)

Interview on NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered about the colorful language of the Whitey Bulger trial. (June 23, 2013)

This week, we’ve been immersed in news about mobs both real and fictional, with the death of Sopranos star James Gandolfini and the continuing trial of James “Whitey” Bulger.

The Sopranos gave us a primer on mob language like “clipping” a “rat.” But Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang and his Boston Irish cohort were the real deal. Members of Bulger’s old cohort came to the witness stand and used the real-life slang of their gang days.

That caught the ear of linguist Ben Zimmer, who tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that he’s been fascinated by quotes from the trial.

(Show page, audio, related Boston Globe column)

Interview on the Southern California Public Radio show “Take Two” about the language of the Whitey Bulger trial. (June 21, 2013)

It was just one year ago that famed mobster Whitey Bulger was captured in his Santa Monica apartment. The outlaw had evaded authorities for 16 years.

Bulger’s trial got underway last week and linguist Ben Zimmer has been keeping an ear to the salty talk of former mob men.

(Show page, audio, related Boston Globe column)

Rebecca Greenfield, “Why ‘To Tweet’ Is Lowercase But ‘To Google’ Is Not” (The Atlantic Wire, June 14, 2013)

“The simple answer is that ‘tweet’ isn’t a trademark, or at least it didn’t start as one,” linguist Ben Zimmer told The Atlantic Wire. A word like Google, because it doubles as both the proper noun and verb — Google the company and Google “to search” — has always had an official trademark. And in that case, the verb version keeps the style of its proper noun brand-name.

Unlike made-up nouns Google  or Xerox, Twitter takes its name from a real verb. “Twitter is a ‘suggestive name,’ as it is based on an actual word, twitter, imitative of a bird chirping,” Zimmer explained to the Wire. “And because of that suggestiveness, early adopter were encouraged to think of ‘tweet’ as a kindred term, since it too is an onomatopoetic term for a bird’s chirping.” Both tweet and Twitter as verbs remained acceptable for awhile. And while Twitter got the trademark from the get-go, tweet developed organically and only gained official US Patent and Trademark Office stamp of approval in 2011 — long after its colloquial usage began.

Read the rest here.

Rebecca Hiscott, “Oxford English Dictionary Deigns to Allow Twitter’s Definition of ‘Tweet’ Into Its Hallowed Tome” (Betabeat, June 14, 2013)

According to lexicographer Ben Zimmer, the general rule of thumb for the OED is that a word must be in use for around ten years to warrant inclusion, but the rules can be relaxed, particularly in the case of tech-related words.

“It’s happened a few times when it comes to ‘techie’ words that have taken off very quickly,” Mr. Zimmer told Betabeat. “Two examples are Google, as a verb, and podcast, as a noun or verb. Both of those took off quickly enough that the [OED] felt the words were entrenched enough and weren’t going anywhere.”

“The criteria are really just that it needs to have a very strong record in terms of print sources,” he added. “So if ‘tweet’ is appearing everywhere in major publications, then there’s really no denying that it’s become firmly fixed in the lexicon.”

Read the rest here.

Who Says What, Where” (Harvard University Press Blog, June 10, 2013)

Last week the internet caught fire with a bit of love for language, as it is blessedly wont to do. The spark this time was a collection of North Carolina State University PhD candidate Joshua Katz’s visualizations of regional dialect variations, which were presented at Business Insider, where they racked up tens of millions of views and quickly spread.

Over at Language Log, Ben Zimmer notes that the research behind Katz’s heat-map visualizations has been available for about a decade, and that—despite having been collected via not-quite-ideal online elicitation—it has been frequently repurposed over the years since it was produced by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder. Though the frequent obscuring of the data’s origins and potential shortcomings is a perhaps lamentable result of the workings of internet virality, it’s nevertheless truly exciting for the word nerds among us to see linguistic lighting strike the web.

As Zimmer also notes, such “voracious public appetite for dialect maps” likely bodes well for the forthcoming digital edition of the Dictionary of American Regional English.

Read the rest here.

Interview on the WBUR show “Here and Now” about euphemisms and dysphemisms for dying. (June 7, 2013).

Has “dying” gone out of style? And how do we know whether to say someone has died, versus “passed away”?

We asked word guru Ben Zimmer, executive producer of The Visual Thesaurus and, and former “On Language” columnist for the New York Times. He told us:

I wouldn’t say it’s falling out of favor. But in American English — as in other varieties of English and other languages — there can be many, many different ways of describing death.

There’s the straight forward verb “to die.” But then we have more euphemistic expressions.

So something like “to pass away” softens the image of death a little bit. That term is probably the most favored euphemism for death.

But, you know, actually in journalism they tell you if you’re writing an obituary, you should say “die” instead of “pass away” or something poetic like “departed this life.”

Death is one of those areas that attracts a lot of euphemisms. Sometimes the euphemistic terms may be religious and focusing on the afterlife. So, if you say someone is “going to depart this life” or “meet his maker.”

But you know, English is a very rich language, and it has not just euphemisms, which make things softer, but also dysphemisms, which make things rougher and blunter.

So we have these colorful idioms like “kick the bucket” or “cash in your chips” or “buy the farm.” There are all sorts of rough and ready expressions that we use for death when we’re not being so careful.

(Show page)

Appearance on Fox NY News, “What Are the Most-Hated Words in the English Language?” (May 30, 2013)

Are there words that you absolutely hate either because of their meaning or just because of the way they sound?

Ben Zimmer, a linguist and executive producer of, said “word aversion” is the term linguists use to describe the visceral reaction some people have to words that really bother them. He said many hated words have to do with bodily functions.

“Moist” is so heavily despised, detested, loathed and abhorred it even has its own Facebook pages, but there are plenty of others.