Ben Zimmer in the News

Alyssa Bereznak, “An Oral History of YOLO, the Word That Lived Too Long” (Vanity Fair, Feb. 5, 2013)

On the most recent episode of Saturday Night Live, the Lonely Island crew partnered with host Adam Levine and musical guest Kendrick Lamar to parody the past year’s most popular and most hated word: YOLO. Andy Samburg declared the saying, short for “you only live once,” to be “the battle cry of a generation,” only to turn its original meaning on its head and offer “you oughta look out” as an alternative. It was a rare amusing mutation of the phrase, and the YouTube video became an instant hit, racking up more than 20 million views.

Yet YOLO’s poor performance in 2012’s Word of the Year competitions signals that its time as an “It word” has come and gone. As Ben Zimmer, a word scholar who served on the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year panel, puts it: “Even among the folks who were sort of language scholars and language observers, they had already gotten sick of YOLO too.” Within the span of a year, it has gone from catchy new slang to a “dangerous” youth motto, to a sarcastic Twitter hashtag, to the name of a new African cell phone. The world’s lexicographers have spoken: it is time we put the poor old colloquialism to rest, once and for all.

Read the rest here. (Related Boston Globe column, Word Routes column)

Maura Johnston, “Thanks To Will Smith, The World Has Been Gettin’ Jiggy For 15 Years” (Popdust, Jan. 29, 2013)

“I have to admit “(getting) jiggy” had pretty much fallen off my radar,” said Boston Globe language columnist and Visual Thesaurus executive producer Ben Zimmer. “At the time of the song’s popularity, it seemed destined for immediate obsolescence, like so much pop-culture slang. (In fact, it was in the running for ‘Least Likely to Succeed’ in the American Dialect Society’s 1998 Word of the Year voting.) When the OED saw fit to include it in a 2004 update, they gave the definition for the relevant sense of ‘jiggy’ as ‘excitedly energetic or uninhibited, often in a sexual manner,’ with ‘to get jiggy’ coming to mean “‘to engage in sexual activity.’

“I was surprised to see that the sexual sense is still quite common, at least in UK tabloids,” said Zimmer. The Sun used the phrase twice on the same day last week—once in a listicle counting down notable instances of public sex and once in a gossip item about Kim Kardashian; the UK version of the free paper Metro deployed it when talking about Beyoncé and Jay-Z; and The Sun (again!) used it in a story about people having sex at work.

“These are all uses of ‘get jiggy’ or ‘get jiggy with (someone),’ Zimmer noted. “When it’s used in the form ‘get jiggy with it’ (more consciously recalling the song), then the meaning tends to be ‘dance uninhibitedly’ or something similar.”

Read the rest here.

Jeffrey Kluger, “The End of an Epithet: How Hate Speech Dies” (Time, Jan. 25, 2013)

The roots of the anti-gay f-word are not what most people think they are. Popular lore has it that suspected homosexuals were once put to death by fire, and that piles of sticks — or “faggots,” in the antiquated term — were used as kindling. The pile-of-sticks definition is correct, but everything else appears not to be. “There’s no historical evidence that this is how and why it originated,” says Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Boston Globe and executive producer of the website “Its first recorded use was in the early 20th century, when it was applied to women. As with words like queen, it then became an epithet for gay men.”

But there’s value even in the etymological misconception. Gay people may never have been put to the torch, but the widespread belief that they were serves to sensitize people to the very real bigotry—and often very real danger—they’ve faced over the centuries. “Even if it has no historical truth it has a different kind of truth as a lesson,” Zimmer says.

Read the rest here.

Jessica Brodsky, “‘Hashtag’ Voted Word of the Year by American Dialect Society” (Brown Daily Herald, Jan. 25, 2013)

The Word of the Year is one that is rarely spoken.

The word “hashtag” — the act of using a pound sign (#) followed by a word or phrase to tag a message on Twitter — was dubbed “Word of the Year 2012” by the American Dialect Society Jan. 4.

The word “hashtag” was created for Twitter in 2007 by compounding the British term for the pound symbol and “tag,” Twitter’s mechanism for categorizing posts. New words are formed from “building blocks that often come from other words, or else they may be common prefixes or suffixes that are attached to some base,” said Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.

“As that word became more common, people didn’t think of it as being a compound anymore,” Zimmer said.

Read the rest here. (Related Word Routes column)

Jen Doll, “‘We, the People’: The Power of a Familiar Phrase Now” (The Atlantic Wire, Jan. 21, 2013)

Linguist and language columnist Ben Zimmer, who followed today’s swearing in and address and Obama’s first inauguration as well, told me that Obama’s 2009 speech included just one use of “We the People,” at the end of that speech’s second paragraph: “…We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents.” In today’s address, however, Obama “relied on that rhetorical device as a repetitive touchstone, tying the ‘here and now’ of his speech to the legacy of the founding fathers,” Zimmer said, explaining that the phrase has a dual purpose: elevating the presidential rhetoric “by connecting it to the opening words of the Constitution, recognized by all, and framing his call to collective action by emphasizing the inclusive solidarity of that powerful first-person plural pronoun.” […]

Zimmer noted that the verbs used in the “we the people” sentences are declare, understand, and still believe, the latter of which he used three times. “By joining together in a shared declaration, understanding, and belief, Obama suggests, the country can make progress and transcend its divisions. The rhetorical frame allows him to take on modern challenges (climate change or gay rights, for instance), while still presenting policy initiatives of his second term as continuations of bedrock American principles: ‘what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.'”

Read the rest here. (Related Word Routes column)

Aisha Harris, “Who Coined the Term ‘Catfish’?” (Slate, Jan. 18, 2013)

The earliest version of the story that I’ve seen is from Henry W. Nevinson, whose 1913 book Essays in Rebellion was pointed out to me by the linguist Ben Zimmer. In one of those essays, “The Catfish,” Nevinson tells essentially the same tale—though the British Nevinson refers to the European fishing industry, rather than its North American equivalent. Nevinson explicitly compares the catfish anecdote to other allegorical Christian stories, including the tale of Faust and Mephistopheles and the Parable of the Leaven. For Nevinson, a noted suffragist, the catfish is Christianity itself, without which “the soul of Europe” would “have degenerated into a flabbiness, lethargy, and desperate peace.”

Zimmer points out that Nevinson’s essay may have been published in a periodical some time before Essays in Rebellion  came out; it is cited in Charles Marriott’s novel The Catfish, which was also published in 1913.

Read the rest here. (Related Boston Globe column)

Rebecca Greenfield, “Why We Hate the Word ‘Phablet’ So Much” (The Atlantic Wire, Jan. 11, 2013)

English words generally use “ph” as eff for words from Greek origin, Ben Zimmer explained today in his Word Routes column. Now “phablet” obviously isn’t Greek, but the Greek words it conjures sound kind of gross, Stanford linguistics PhD candidate Lelia Glass told us; a lot of “ph” words followed by the letter “a” happen to be body parts — “like ‘phallus’ and ‘phalanges,’ which perhaps grosses people out,” Glass said.

Zimmer has a different theory. “Phablet” isn’t the first non-Greek word we’ve made up with a “ph” making an eff sound, but unlike other modern word innovations — like “phat” — it doesn’t have a sense of humor, or at least not a very good one.

Read the rest here.

Heidi Stevens, “‘Hashtag’ Crowned 2012 Word of the Year” (Chicago Tribune, Jan. 9, 2013)

Team “fiscal cliff” and team “YOLO” made strong showings. “Marriage equality” came from behind and threatened to knock them both from the running. There was mention made of crowning “Gangnam style” the victor.

But “hashtag,” in the end, proved impossible to defeat.

“It had an obvious appeal to a room full of linguists and lexicographers and language watchers, in that it is itself a kind of meta-linguistic term for this new kind of communication,” Ben Zimmer, chair of the new words committee of the American Dialect Society (and executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and explained to us after the vote. “It’s a word that is specifically related to Twitter, but people are finding it a useful vehicle and a new way of crafting online talk.”

Read the rest here.

Jennifer Schuessler, “Tweet This: ‘Hashtag’ Named Word of the Year” (New York Times, Jan. 7, 2013)

The baby named Hashtag buzzed about on the Internet in November may have been a hoax. But the American Dialect Society has given the Twitter-inspired term a boost by christening “hashtag” the word of the year.

The decision came at the society’s annual meeting in Boston over the weekend, where more than 250 linguists, lexicographers, grammarians, historians and other word maniacs weighed the relative merits of terms like “fiscal cliff,” “Gangnam style,” and “marriage equality.”

There were winners in 10 categories, including most unnecessary (“legitimate rape”), most euphemistic (“self-deportation”) and most creative (“gate lice,” meaning airline passengers who crowd around a gate waiting to board). “Binders (full of women)” was named top election-related word. “YOLO,” an acronym meaning “you only live once,” was named least likely to succeed. (It also finished strong in a recent contest nominating terms that should be purged from the language.) “Sandy” was voted name of the year.

In the main category, “hashtag” emerged as something of a dark-horse winner, edging out “fiscal cliff” and “marriage equality” (which took most likely to succeed honors), despite not being on the official list of nominees, as Ben Zimmer, the chairman of the society’s new words committee, noted in a rundown of the action. “This was the year when the hashtag became a ubiquitous phenomenon in online talk,” Mr. Zimmer said in a statement.

Read the rest here.

Colleen Ross, “Insights into the English Language” (CBC’s Word of Mouth, Jan. 7, 2013)

Other websites, including, offer audio pronunciations as well. Executive producer Ben Zimmer, who also presented at the convention, says the website used several opera singers to make the 140,000 sound files because they’re adept at interpreting the International Phonetic Alphabet. Consider it a grammatical serenade. […]

In the online world, you also lose the serendipity of discovering other words besides the one you looked up.

While Ben Zimmer acknowledges that, he says we’ll simply develop different orientations to text as we go online. He’s also the head of, which he says is modelled on how our brain works, and uses word maps.

Read the rest here.