Ben Zimmer in the News

Tierney Sneed, “Do All These #PopSongs Mean the Hashtag Is Here to Stay?” (U.S. News, May 21, 2013)

“Used in many creative ways, the hashtag ends up being used in jokes, for various memes, for self effacing commentary — a kind of meta-commentary on one’s message,” says Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and, and a language columnist for the Boston Globe. “It was a very sort of simple straight forward convention that developed on Twitter that people invested with all sorts of special uses.”

Read the rest here.

Motoko Rich, “Making a Word Meme” (New York Times, May 19, 2013)

The phrase [“lean in”] had a life before Ms. [Sheryl] Sandberg used it. It was frequently invoked in sports (lean in to the slope, lean in to the wave) and evolved into a metaphor for embracing risk, said Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and, and language columnist for The Boston Globe.

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Interview on WBUR’s “Radio Boston” about the origins of the slogan “Boston Strong.” (May 16, 2013)

In the wake of the Boston marathon bombings, two words have become famously associated with the city’s response: “Boston Strong.”  You see it and hear it everywhere — and it’s become a handy short-hand for defiance, solidarity and caring. But where does this verbal branding come from and what makes it so powerful?

(Show page, audio, related Boston Globe column, Word Routes column)

Adrienne LaFrance, “The Language of Tragedy” (Medium, May 16, 2013)

Euphemisms inevitably sprout in the wake of disaster. Consider the word yesterday, which suddenly meant something specific and terrible on April 16, 2013.

I noticed this new yesterday while I was in Boston reporting on the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. People there weren’t calling them “the marathon bombings.” They weren’t calling the attacks anything, really, even though the bombings were all anyone was talking about.

It got me wondering: What determines how we talk about nightmarish events? And what happens once yesterday turns into last month or last year or last century?

But first: Back to April 16, when yesterday was all you had to say. “Yesterday,” or “the thing that happened,” or “it.”

“The purpose of the euphemism is really to alleviate some sense of trouble that you might feel if you were to use more direct language,” the linguist Ben Zimmer told me; it’s a way of “covering up or avoiding deeper emotions.”

Read the rest here.

Interview on Minnesota Public Radio’s The Daily Circuit about the “surreal” words we use at times of collective tragedy.

As people in Boston and beyond struggled to make sense of the marathon bombings last month, the news media churned out reports that started to follow a pattern.

Ben Zimmer, the language columnist for The Boston Globe, spent time reflecting on the bombings and their impact on people’s reactions. He noted that the words used to describe the bombings mirrored a trend that followed 9/11: The word “surreal” popped up in both instances.

Writing in The Globe, Zimmer offered a theory about why this was so: People use the word “when our mundane day-to-day experiences of life seem to move into some other dimension that our rational minds cannot account for. As with 9/11, it is not surprising to see ‘surreal’ paired with ‘like a movie’: Cinematic images of terror, disaster, and panic may be our closest touchstones.”

With the rise of social media, it did not take long for “surreal” to spike in usage after the bombings. Along with “surreal,” other superlatives are often employed in the coverage of breaking news events.

Zimmer joins The Daily Circuit to talk about the use of superlatives and other language trends.

(Show page, related Boston Globe column, Word Routes column)

Geoff Nunberg, “‘Horrific’ And ‘Surreal’: The Words We Use To Bear Witness” (NPR Fresh Air, Apr. 26, 2013)

There was another word that kept appearing in the stories about Boston and Texas, “surreal.” That one didn’t come from the public figures and commentators the way horrific did — as Ben Zimmer pointed out in The Boston Globe, it bubbled up from the firsthand reports of the witnesses on the scene. You could think of the two words as bookends. The things we see as horrific have an indisputable realness that we alternately confront and shrink away from. While “surreal” is the word we reach for when reality threatens to overwhelm us, till it takes on what Merriam-Webster defines as the “intense irrational reality of a dream.” Though in these settings, it’s more often another kind of unreality that comes to mind. “It was surreal,” people kept saying, “like a scene in a movie.”

Read the rest here.

Jen Doll, “The Rise of the Food-Tarians” (The Atlantic Wire, Apr. 24, 2013)

Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer told me, “I find it odd that he [Mark Bittman] says ‘at least the word flexitarian hasn’t been perverted, as has vegetarian.’ This ‘perversion’ of vegetarian has been going on for more than a century (fruitarian is in the OED from 1893 and nutarian from 1909). Flexitarian is just another variation on the -tarian theme. My favorite is breatharian, from the crackpot notion that you can get all the nutrients you need from breathing air.”

If there is a reason “flexitarian” is more pure or accurate as a descriptor than vegetarian, maybe it’s because it’s also infinitely more general, seeking to describe the flexible nature of one’s eating rather than what one won’t eat. “Semi-vegetarian” in contrast, sounds pretty mealy-mouthed. And flexitarian has a certain of-the-moment cache, maybe because it seems slightly less culturally saturated than vegetarian. But it’s also just another of those food words that have sprung up to indicate a particular type of person eating a particular type of food. Like locavore (named the New Oxford American Dictionary Word of the Year in 2007; someone who “seeks to consume only locally grown food”), opportunivore (“a person who eats whatever is around”), freegan (“eating food that’s been discarded”), and all of the many “tarians,” those who are eating flexibly are just eating in their own way. We’re all a bunch of eat-tarians. We all eat food.

Zimmer writes that the suffix tarian “has proved even more productive than -vore for naming new classes of eaters. Starting with vegetarianin the 19th century, there have been fruitarians (fruit eaters), nutarians (nut eaters), pescetarians (fish eaters), and flexitarians (flexible vegetarians). Lately there have also been plantarians, who promote a plant-based diet as a healthy lifestyle choice. If all of these X-tarians sound like religious sects (along the lines of Unitarians or Trinitarians), that’s only fitting: the advent of vegetarianism in the US and UK in the 1830s-40s was tied to ethical and religious movements to improve society.”

Read the rest here.

Jeffrey Kluger, “Hey, Word Geeks! Now There’s a Website for You” (Time Techland blog, Apr. 23, 2013)

“The [] system acts like a personal trainer,” says Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Boston Globe and the site’s executive producer. “We work with the student to reinforce memory and mastery of the word.” That, of course, skews any real competition among the students; refs hardly stop the game to perform calisthenics with players who need it. But a completely even playing field is not the point — learning is. Still, to keep the energy of the game going, the system posts regularly updated leader boards and also allows participating schools to compete with one another.

Teachers can keep an eye on all of this, with back door access to the work all of the students are doing so they can see how they’re progressing. They can tailor their lessons for a particular group of students and then enroll them in an online class, choosing which kids belong in which group and teaching them in ways appropriate to them. “It’s an efficient use of teachers’ time since they don’t have to work on things kids know already,” says Zimmer. “They can drill down and see how every student is doing.”

Read the rest here.

Rebecca Greenfield, “The Rise of the Term ‘Glasshole,’ Explained by Linguists” (The Atlantic Wire, Apr. 22, 2013)

“There’s a reason ‘glasshole’ came first — it’s more intuitively obvious,” linguist Ben Zimmer told The Atlantic Wire. […] Further, there is a linguistic reason to choose glasshole: all the glass + ass profanity mixtures are what linguists call satisfying blends because they derive from two words whose sounds overlap, as another linguist explained back when we pondered the hatred toward the word “phablet,” which is an unsatisfying blend. All the Glass + wipe, hat, hole, etc work as these blends. But glasshole is more obvious than the others because it has been used in other blend combinations before. “‘Asshole’ has already generated other similar blends, notably ‘Masshole’ as an epithet for an inconsiderate Massachusetts driver,” Zimmer explained.

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Mark Johnson, “UW’s Dictionary of American Regional English in Financial Peril” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Apr. 21, 2013)

Ben Zimmer, who writes a column for The Boston Globe called “The Word” and serves as executive producer for the language website , called the potential loss of the dictionary “a tremendous blow” to scholarship on American English.

“It’s truly America’s dictionary,” said Zimmer. “It’s the best record we have for the diverse ways Americans have used language over the course of the Republic.”

Read the rest here.