Ben Zimmer in the News

Interview on Minnesota Public Radio’s “The Daily Circuit” about dictionaries in the digital age. (Mar. 11, 2013)

As dictionaries head for a digital-only presence, we’ll look at what we can expect from our handy reference guides. Will publishing companies have to adapt their text with visuals and other digital elements to attract readers?

(Show page, audio)

Jen Doll, “How Do We Love Thee, Grammar? Count the Ways on Grammar Day” (The Atlantic Wire, Mar. 4, 2013)

Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer was one of the judges for this year’s Grammar Day Haiku Contest (stay tuned for the results, which will be announced later today by Mark Allen. Update: The winning haiku is here!). Zimmer told me he hopes Grammar Day can be about more just curmudgeonly nitpicking. “I have to admit that much of the public talk about grammar fills me with sorrow rather than joy, because so often the conversation is dominated by those clinging to outmoded or flat-out bogus rules, and expressing outrage at anyone who doesn’t obey those rules,” he says. “Cranky indignation becomes the dominant tone about grammatical issues when the ‘peevologists‘ hold sway.” (He points out, too, that certain peeves over spelling, punctuation, and word choice aren’t about grammar at all. While such linguistic peeves certainly fall into the trade of a good copy editor, they’re not technically grammatical. Whoops.)

Zimmer says, “Let’s use National Grammar Day as an opportunity to think about what grammar actually is, and to be open to differing opinions about grammatical propriety. If grammar evokes anxiety or crankiness, relax for a day! Don’t get hung up on the rise of singular ‘they’ or the decline of ‘whom.’ Don’t fret about the correct placement of ‘only,’ or whether ‘none’ needs to take a singular verb. Instead, embrace the living, breathing grammar of English in all of its varieties.”

Read the rest here.

Interview on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” about the expression “devil’s advocate.” (Mar. 3, 2013)

With all the news about the papal conclave, Weekend Edition wonders: what’s the story behind the phrase “devil’s advocate”? Host Rachel Martin checks in with the Boston Globe’s language columnist, Ben Zimmer.

(Show page, audio)

Geoff Nunberg, “Historical Vocab: When We Get It Wrong, Does It Matter?” (NPR Fresh Air, Feb. 26, 2013)

In a climate of insistent authenticity, there’s nothing harder to get right than a period’s vocabulary. The past speaks a foreign language that even those who grew up with it can’t recover. The producers of Mad Men take pride in fitting out their characters with the correct ties and timepieces. But as the Boston Globe‘s Ben Zimmer observed, they can’t seem to keep anachronisms out of the scripts. Were we already saying “keep a low profile” in 1963? Actually, no — it didn’t catch on until 1969, but who can remember these things?

Other writers don’t even seem to make an effort to get the dialogue right. Spotting linguistic anachronisms in Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey is as easy as shooting grouse in a barrel. “I couldn’t care less,” Lord Grantham says. Thomas complains that “our lot always gets shafted.” Cousin Matthew announces he has been on a steep learning curve, a phrase that would have gotten a blank reception even in the Sterling Cooper boardroom.

(Show page, audio)

Noreen Malone, “What We Mean When We Say ‘Bids Wanted in Competition'” (The New Republic, Feb. 26, 2013)

The habit of appropriating the language of work for the bedroom is an old one. The word “intercourse” itself came out of the business world, as did “partner” and “affair.” In fact, “the business” has been a euphemism for sex since the seventeenth century, points out Ben Zimmer, Boston Globe language columnist. But more recently (with some exceptions, like “he’s a closer”), we have favored slang that hints at a more leisure-driven kind of conquest—“rounding the bases,” for instance, or “rocking someone’s world.” “That may say something about society’s shifting views toward sex, which now tends to get euphemized by appropriating the language of more pleasurable pursuits,” explains Zimmer.

Read the rest here.

Ari Shapiro,  “Loaded Words: How Language Shapes The Gun Debate” (NPR Morning Edition, Feb. 26, 2013)

But words are not fixed points on a map. They exist on shifting ground. A phrase that once carried a punch may grow toxic or just fall limp.

“An example of this can be seen in the recent announcement that Planned Parenthood would no longer be using the term ‘pro-choice,’ ” says Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus.

Zimmer says Planned Parenthood realized that some people support abortion rights but don’t identify with the term “pro-choice.”

And he has lots of examples from government. Democrats used to proudly call themselves “liberal.” They abandoned that word for “progressive.” And now “liberal” is making a comeback.

Then, there’s “reform.” Zimmer says politicians of both parties tack that word onto any effort to change a program — from tax reform to immigration reform.

” ‘Reform’ is one of those terms that is very charged and helps to present one’s own position as something positive — a way of advocating change in a positive light,” Zimmer says. “But what counts as reform, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.”

Politicians might call any proposal for change a “reform.” But not every change is a good change.

(Show page, audio, transcript)

Jen Doll, “Why Drag It Out?” (The Atlantic, March 2013 issue)

Ben Zimmer, a linguist and lexicographer, notes that elongations, like emoticons and initialisms (OMG! LOL!), tend to flourish in those venues most starved for nuance. “When you’re dealing with IM, texting, and Twitter, those discursive functions that add to the simple message are really crucial,” he said. These tactics suggest that the process linguists call “accommodation”—the way speaking styles converge when humans talk to one another, facilitating both conversation and a sense of common identity—is not limited to spoken communication. “We’re navigating different registers all the time, finding out what’s appropriate,” Zimmer said. But “when those registers don’t match our expectations”—when our best friend begins a text with “Dear Jennifer,” or someone responds Hello to our Hiiiiiii—“that’s when we wonder if things are running afoul.”

Read the rest here.

Appearance on NBC’s The Today Show discussing the history of the Boston accent. (Feb. 15, 2013)

(Show page, related Boston Globe column)

Richard Sandomir, “Things Are Going Zimmo” (Bats blog, New York Times, Feb. 14, 2013)

Ben Zimmer, the language columnist for The Boston Globe — he has never been called Zimmo to his face — said in an e-mail that Wednesday’s bit of Fred Speak “strikes me as a playful ad hoc formation, possibly influenced by such cartoonish words as ‘whammo’ and ‘blammo,’ onomatopoetically suggesting an explosion.”

He noted that some early 20th-century sportswriters called the infielder Heinie Zimmerman, Zimmo. But it would seem farfetched for Wilpon to have been thinking about a former New York Giant and Chicago Cub who played from 1907 to 1919.

A Mets spokesman declined to respond to a request to learn more about Wilpon’s seemingly impromptu word formation.

Zimmer wondered if two other words — zoom and boom — helped fuel Wilpon’s use of zimmo.

“They would be appropriate sound effects for a rapidly growing real estate market,” Zimmer said.

Read the rest here.

Emily Elert, “The State of The Guardian’s SOTU Infographic Is…Dumber” (Popular Science, Feb. 13, 2013)

In reality, the Flesch-Kincaid readability test measures two things: the length of the words in a piece of prose, and the number of words per sentence. As columnist and linguist Ben Zimmer explains, the test was developed in the 1970s, not as a metric for the intelligence, complexity, or lingual eloquence contained in a text, but as a “rough and ready analytical tool” for assessing the appropriateness of texts for different grade levels. If a book or article or written speech scores a 5, a fifth-grader should be able to get through it without getting lost in a sea of clauses and semicolons. […]

Okay, so word length has decreased slightly over time, and sentence length has decreased dramatically. That trend may denote a stylistic shift in political rhetoric, says Zimmer, but it tells you very little about the quality or intellectual prowess of each sentence’s content. Instead, it probably reflects the fact that politicians have caught on to the idea that audiences don’t really want to walk away from a speech in awe of the orator’s masterful use of the semi-colon; they want to walk away knowing what the orator was talking about.

Read the rest here.