Ben Zimmer in the News

Katy Steinmetz, “This Is What ‘Eggcorns’ Are (and Why They’re Jar-Droppingly Good)” (Time, May 30, 2015)

Eggcorns present us with some options for how we treat each other and our language. We can haughtily correct the anxious person who says they’re “chomping” at the bit, explaining that the original phrase is actually “champing” at the bit, for champ has meant to crush and chew by vigorous and noisy action of the jaws since the 16th century. Or we can take a moment to recognize that, to the modern speaker of English, chomp makes a lot more sense than champ—and to appreciate how convenient it is that a once useful idiom can evolve into a currently useful one by the accidental swapping of a vowel.

“That word champ as a verb only really exists now in that particular idiom,” said Ben Zimmer, linguist and executive editor of “We don’t use it in any other context, so that’s a good candidate for reanalysis.” Zimmer is from that more embracing school of linguists who like to observe language rather than snap their ruler and instruct people on how to use something that is in a continual state of makeover. “Of course, with many of these eggcorns, there will be people who say, ‘No, no no, that’s not the way it is,’” he said. “They’ll mention the new form as proof that someone is uneducated. But this is something that we all do with language, whether we’re educated or uneducated … taking forms and relating them to things we already know.”

Zimmer presents the example of free rein, the original version referring to horses with loose reins that allow free motion, and free reign, the eggcorn that evokes the feeling of a ruler who can do whatever he or she might like with their kingdom. He also mentions “real trooper,” which is a corruption of “real trouper,” conjuring the image of an intrepid soldier rather than a dependable member of an acting troupe. Sure, it’s wrong in a sense, but the change is easy to see as more of an improvement than an error.

Read the rest here.

Interview on WBUR show Here and Now, “Gender Pronouns And The History Of ‘They’” (May 18, 2015)

The use of the word “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun is gaining wider acceptance, even among copy editors. But linguist and Wall Street Journal columnist Ben Zimmer says the use of the universal pronoun ‘they’ is nothing new.

Zimmer tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson that writers including Chaucer and Shakespeare have used “they” instead of he or she. But will modern-day English speakers adapt their style to incorporate “they”?

(Show page, audio, related WSJ column)

Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast, “Attention Southerners: Here’s Why You Love Seersucker” (May 4, 2015)

Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield discuss the etymology and history of the word seersucker with Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer. For more on seersucker, visit Zimmer’s Word Routes column on

(Show page)

Interview on ABC Australia show Future Tense, “The Language of Emoji” (Apr. 26, 2015)

They infuriate some and delight others, but whether you like them or not, Emoji are certainly getting harder to ignore.

The cute (or infuriating) little picture-symbols that adorn our emails, text messages and online posts are quickly becoming a defining feature of the modern age.

In the past decade-and-a-half they’ve developed from a simple smiley face icon into a complex catalogue of emotional markers, bringing context to curt communication.

(Show page, audio, transcript)

Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast, “Why Is Pumpernickel Bread Named for a Farting Devil?” (Apr. 6, 2015)

Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield discuss the etymology and history of the word pumpernickel with Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer. For more on pumpernickel, visit Zimmer’s Word Routes column on

(Show page)

Lauren Klinger and Kristen Hare, “Question from ACES2015: Is it Time to Accept ‘They’ as a Singular Pronoun?” (Poynter, Apr. 2, 2015)

The Associated Press didn’t announce any earthshaking changes last week at the annual American Copy Editors Society conference. But Ben Zimmer did notice a recurring topic.

“It feels like at every session I’ve attended, singular ‘they’ has come up,” said Zimmer, a Wall Street Journal columnist and the editor of

Read the rest here.

Katie Antonsson, “Zimmer: On Hashtags, Emoji, Language Trends and How Words Will Disappoint the Sticklers” (American Copy Editors Society, Mar. 28, 2015)

Ben Zimmer, executive editor of, Wall Street Journal columnist, chair of the American Dialect Society New Words Committee and general renaissance man of all things wordy, delivered a wide-ranging, always humorous, and occasionally musical keynote address at the ACES 2015 banquet.

Zimmer discussed what he called “Nitpickery, Debunkage, and the Joys of Getting it Right,” taking us from the reinvention of words in hip hop to glaring anachronisms in “Downton Abbey.” Through these wild examples, Zimmer landed on the notion that language is always subject to change, and whether one is a descriptivist or a prescriptivist, the goal is the same: “I think we can all agree that this notion of getting it right that we’ve been discussing at this conference in a laudable goal. When ‘right’ means appropriate to the context. That means matching language to its time, its place, its situation of use. So let’s all continue obsessing about that and let’s all work to get it right.”

We took a moment before Zimmer’s speech to talk words, technology and what it means when language changes.

Read the rest here.

Interview on Fox Business, “Why is Silicon Valley Calling Billion Dollar Startups ‘Unicorns’?” (Mar. 23, 2015)

(Show page, related WSJ column)

Interview on Minnesota Public Radio, “What Languages Will the World Speak in 100 Years?” (Mar. 10, 2015)


Ben Zimmer: The Wall Street Journal, columnist
Geoffrey Nunberg: University California Berkeley

As the world continues to grow more interconnected the way we communicate becomes more similar as well. MPR News host Kerri Miller facilitated a conversation on the future of language and words.

(Show page, audio)

Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast, “Two Theories on the Origin of Carnival” (Mar. 9, 2015)

Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield discuss the etymology and history of the word carnival with Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer. For more on carnival, visit Zimmer’s Word Routes column on

(Show page)