Ben Zimmer in the News

Clive Thompson, “That Way We’re All Writing Now” (The Message, Medium blog, Mar. 6, 2015)

To suss this out, I called up some linguists: Gretchen McCulloch… and Ben Zimmer, a linguist with who writes for the Wall Street Journal. As they pointed out, this style of wordplay initially appeared—like most online memes — on image-boards, Tumblr and Youtube. An early version was the meme “that feel when”; variants morphed into the standalone phrase “that awkward moment when”, which by last year was common enough to appear as a movie title.

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Jessica Bennett, “When Your Punctuation Says It All (!)” (New York Times, Mar. 1, 2015)

“Digital punctuation can carry more weight than traditional writing because it ends up conveying tone, rhythm and attitude rather than grammatical structure,” said Ben Zimmer, a linguist and the executive editor of “It can make even a lowly period become freighted with special significance.”

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Philip Bump, “Rudy Giuliani and the ‘Love it or Leave it’ View of America” (The Fix, Washington Post blog, Feb. 20, 2015)

We reached out to linguist Ben Zimmer, executive producer of and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal, to get a sense of the evolution of the phrase itself. One of the earliest known usages of the expression as a patriotic slogan was a quote from a congressman in 1921. Rep. William Valle told a House immigration committee that his message to non-citizens was “love it or leave it.”

Zimmer notes that the American Legion seized on the phrase as a slogan at the outset of World War II, a time when fear of German and Japanese saboteurs was rampant. A few decades later, it became a response to opponents of the Vietnam War — and served as a shorthand for the political battle line over patriotism that still exists today.

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Fritz Klug, “Actually, ‘Michigander’ was used before Abraham Lincoln’s speech” (MLive, Feb. 15, 2015)

I called Ben Zimmer, the executive editor of and the Visual Thesaurus as well the language columnist for The Wall Street Journal. He had written about Lincoln and Michigander previously.

For a long time, it was sourced that Lincoln was the first to use term. But new evidence shows that the term was used beforehand, as well as people using it to describe Lewis Cass.

“It would be erroneous to say that [Lincoln is] solely responsible for coining it,” Zimmer said.

Advancements in technology have changed how words are sourced. Zimmer said searchable databases of newspapers and other texts have allowed earlier uses and senses of the words to be discovered.

“It’s becoming increasingly easy to debunk word lore based on evidence we can collect on digitized databases,” Zimmer said.

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Interview on NPR’s “On the Media” about the history of the word “whistleblower.” (Feb. 13, 2015)

In the age of Snowden and Manning, the term “whistleblower” is increasingly present in our media. But where exactly did the word come from? Who gets to decide who qualifies as a whistleblower? Brooke talks to language columnist Ben Zimmer, legal director for the Government Accountability Project Tom Devine, and progressive icon Ralph Nader–who “rehabilitated” the word in the 1970’s–about the history of the popular epithet.

(Show page, audio, related Word Routes column)

Interview on the Southern California Public Radio show Take Two, “A Man’s Quest to Fix One Grammatical Mistake on Wikipedia” (Feb. 11, 2015)

About 8 million English Wikipedia articles are visited every hour of every day, yet only a tiny fraction of readers click the ‘edit’ button in the top right corner of every page.

Bryan Henderson is not most users. The 51-year-old software engineer has a pet peeve when it comes to people who misuse the phrase “comprised of.” Under the moniker Giraffedata, he’s made more than 47,000 edits to the site since 2007.

Joining the show to talk more about is another man with a deep passion for grammar, Ben Zimmer, executive editor of and language columnist with the Wall Street Journal.

(Show page, audio)

Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast, “Did the Word Quiz Result From a Bet?” (Feb. 9, 2015)

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

(Show page)

Shirley Li, “What Do Emojis Mean?” (The Atlantic, Feb. 4, 2015)

To begin to understand why emojis—and specifically the ones with faces—can be so hard to read, it helps to look at the many ways people express laughter in text. The linguist Ben Zimmer tells me laughter allows for different gradations of emotion and phatic expression—the use of language as a social function instead of a mode to convey information—which makes it perfect for seeing the malleability of definitions behind textual expressions…

As for the phatic expression of laughter, “haha,” “lol,” “hehe,” etc. can serve as placeholders as well, regardless of whether the sender of the message is laughing in real life. In these cases, letters stand in for the nods, smiles, or utterances (e.g. “uh huh”) that we’d otherwise use in face-to-face conversations to signal to the other person that it’s okay to keep talking and reassure that person we’re listening. When we don’t utter little noises or gestures of understanding, we worry about the silence. “We acknowledge each other all the time through the conversational turn-taking,” Zimmer says, “so when it’s not there in text, there’s social anxiety.”

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Interview on KUOW’s The Record, “Is The Seahawks Organization A Trademark Troll?” (Jan. 30, 2015)

Marcie Sillman talks with linguist Ben Zimmer about the Seattle Seahawks’  bid to trademark the number 12 and the word “boom.”

(Show page, audio)

Katy Steinmetz, “Here’s a Closer Look at the ‘Snowmenclature’ People Are Using” (Time, Jan. 27, 2015)

Ben Zimmer, executive editor at, found evidence of bloggers using this “snowmenclature” when storms hit the U.S. in 2005. But, he says, they didn’t really blow up until Twitter had taken hold in 2010. Even President Barack Obama was on board that year. “Hashtags lend themselves to this play with blended words,” Zimmer says. “And a successful blend, one people recognize and understand, is one where the parts are obvious at first glance, like snowmageddon.”

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