Ben Zimmer in the News

Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast, “Where Did the Word Snark Come From?” (Oct. 20, 2014)

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

(Show page)

Anna Pujol-Mazzini and Oliver Moody, “Facebook Study Shows Young Are the Me, Myself and I Generation” (The Times, Oct. 10, 2014)

Ben Zimmer, the lexicographer and executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus, a language app, said: “One factor in the changes in pronoun use is simply that our immediate frames of reference change as we get older, relating more to marriage and family, which are by their nature more other-oriented than self-oriented.

“The life of the single millennial is, through the lens of Facebook, much more about individual activity than the life of someone married with kids, when the ‘I’ becomes subsumed by the ‘we’ of the family.”

Read the rest here (for subscribers).

Jack Nicas, “Why Some Drone Makers Hate the Word ‘Drone’ and Want to Change It” (Wall St. Journal, Oct. 9, 2014)

“You will never hear me use the word ‘drone,’ and you’ll never hear me use the term ‘unmanned aerial systems,’ ” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in May. “Because they are not. They are remotely piloted aircraft.”

However, it was the military that originally nicknamed the devices “drones,” said Ben Zimmer, a lexicographer who has researched the history of the term. In 1935, the U.S. Navy began using unmanned aircraft as aerial targets for shooting practice. The British Royal Navy had named its unmanned target aircraft the Queen Bee, Mr. Zimmer said, so in homage, the Navy called its targets “drones,” which means male bee.

Many unmanned-aircraft enthusiasts say that is why the term drone is inaccurate—because it should refer only to aircraft used for target practice. But Mr. Zimmer disagrees, saying the military began arming unmanned aircraft and calling them “assault drones” in World War II.

As early as 1946, the media had picked up the term. “Drones, as the radio-controlled aircraft are called, have many potentialities, civilian and military,” the magazine Popular Science wrote that year.

Read the rest here.

Alice Robb, “People Use Fewer First-Person Pronouns As They Get Older” (The New Republic, Sept. 30, 2014)

Linguist Ben Zimmer doesn’t see the new data as an indictment of millennials, either. For twenty-somethings, says Zimmer, “Their frames of reference have more to do with themselves as individuals, and later on those frames expand to include spouses and children.” Life changes, as much or more than attitude changes, are likely to affect diction. “Starting a family also licenses a person to speak on behalf of the family unit. In a Facebook post of someone who is married, and especially of someone married with kids, the use of ‘we’ is implicitly understood to encompass the nuclear family in one shared ‘voice.’”

Read the rest here.

Tanya Ballard Brown, “People Be Triflin’, From ‘Bills, Bills, Bills’ To The Bible” (NPR’s Code Switch blog, Sept. 28, 2014)

Ben Zimmer, the executive producer of and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, pointed me to the Dictionary of American Regional English, which tells us the word is chiefly used today in the South and Midland regions. And he explained via email that “there are a few interrelated meanings in Southern and African-American dialects: ‘lazy, shiftless, worthless’ (from 1832), ‘tired, draggy, under the weather’ (from 1887), and ‘sexually promiscuous’ (from 1924). That last sense has frequently been used in blues lyrics for untrustworthy members of the opposite sex.”

Read the rest here.

Steve Wood, “How to Talk Like You’re from New Jersey” (Courier-Post, Sept. 25, 2014)

We’re not filled with self hate. We also have room to deride others.

“Shoobies” and “bennies” are terms held for unfriendly interlopers to the Jersey Shore.

“Never affectionately, always disparagingly,” says Ben Zimmer, executive producer of and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal.

“There’s a pretty clear dividing line on the shore where ‘Benny’ gets used and where ‘Shoobies’ get used,” he says.

The line of demarcation lies around the southern tip of Long Beach Island. Descending south of this point and typically from the Delaware Valley are shoobies, a term used since the 19th century, when Philly daytrippers could travel cheaply to the shore by train — with a shoe-box lunch.

To welcome New York outsiders, motorists as south as Asbury Park would sport bumper stickers reading “Bennies go home,” says Zimmer, a Jersey City resident. The mainly New York “Jersey Shore” cast only added ire.

Though the Jersey Shore culture is unlike any other, the tension between insiders and outsiders is replicated around the country, from Hawaiians toward white surfers to New Englanders toward “summer people,” Zimmer says.

Read the rest here.

Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast, “Which Came First: Orange the Color or Orange the Fruit?” (Sept. 23, 2014)

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

(Show page)

Eric Alterman, “Of Optics and Objectivity: How Journalism Is Failing Our Democracy” (The Nation, Sept. 11, 2014)

This growing fascination with “optics” reveals a lot about how our press’s news values have been compromised by those that it covers. Back in 2010, Ben Zimmer’s New York Times “On Language” column offered an astute etymological history of the term, one that also speaks volumes about the trap the press has fallen into.

“When politicians fret about the public perception of a decision more than the substance of the decision itself, we’re living in a world of optics. Of course, elected officials have worried about outward appearances since time immemorial, but optics puts a new spin on things, giving a scientific-sounding gloss to P.R. and image-making.”

Read the rest here.

Caitlin Dewey, “Do We Even Need Words Anymore?” (Washington Post, The Intersect, Sept. 10, 2014)

“I watched the Apple event and was struck by the ‘post-linguistic’ nature of the communications Apple is now pushing,” said Ben Zimmer, a prominent linguist and language commentator. “It’s a canny direction for Apple to be heading, in large part because these visual cues are independent of any particular language and thus can work well in any market in the world.” …

“It’s not only ‘post-linguistic’ but ‘pre-linguistic’ as well, harking back to the pictorial systems that gave rise to early writing like Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics,” he said, of our increasingly visual messaging. “Surely semioticians will have a field day analyzing these emergent communications channels.”

Read the rest here.

Rebecca Greenfield, “Why You Won’t Be Wearing an iWatch” (Fast Company, Sept. 10, 2014)

“Even if it was precipitated by trademark wrangling, it may very well be a canny move to leave the ‘i-‘ prefix in the past,” linguist and Wall Street Journal language columnistBen Zimmer told Fast Company. The whole iGimmick might define Apple, but Zimmer called it a “double edged sword.” Note that Apple also went with Apple Pay and not iPay. “You run the risk of ‘iWatch’ being interpreted as ‘I Watch’ and ‘iPay’ as ‘I Pay.'” Plus, at this point, iThings, which are not exclusive to Apple, are old-hat. …

“Much as the ‘e-‘ prefix has been largely abandoned (outside of established terms like ’email’ and ‘ecommerce’), the ‘i-‘ prefix may soon sound rather quaint, a reminder of an earlier technological age,” said Zimmer.

Read the rest here.