Ben Zimmer in the News

Alexander Nazaryan, “Feeling a Bit Iffy About ‘Abilify’” (Newsweek, Sept. 10, 2014)

“There’s no danger of abilify becoming a conventionally accepted verb any time soon,” says Wall Street Journal “Word on the Street” columnist Ben Zimmer. “All this demonstrates is that those in the naming and branding industry have a penchant for adding the -ify suffix to create new concoctions.” Zimmer notes that fellow linguist Christopher Johnson has compiled a Pinterest board of “ify” brands, which include Rentify, Wingify and Attendify, not to mention the popular music-streaming service known as Spotify.

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Philip Bump, “Scott Brown Wants Us to Discuss Whether or Not He Was a Lobbyist. So We Did.” (Washington Post, The Fix, Sept. 8, 2014)

We asked Ben Zimmer, executive producer of and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal, for his assessment of how the word is understood. “It’s an interesting case where Congress trying to legislate language and the meaning of words,” Zimmer said, adding that “the meaning of words are very slippery things.” From the beginning of its usage, there has “always been a general understanding that the role of a lobbyist is to influence legislators.” Its application to Brown is “kind of a gray area, obviously,” with Zimmer arguing that simply working for the firm not necessarily implying that Brown is doing lobbying.

(Incidentally, the term itself does not originate from men waiting in the lobby of a hotel for President Grant, as legend has it. “There’s plenty of evidence that the term predates the Civil War,” Zimmer notes, pointing to research conducted by OED contributor Barry Popik. The first mention of “lobby” in the sense we mean dates to 1814 — in Albany, N.Y., not Washington.)

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Chuck McCutcheon, “What Politicians Really Mean When They Use These Washington Buzzwords” (National Journal, Sept. 2, 2014)

Glide path

Technically it’s the final descent route for a landing plane, but in political parlance it has become used with increasing frequency to describe the proper outcome for a bill or a difficult issue. Even before Obama took office, language lovers took note of his use of the phrase in such contexts as “the glide path that we are on with respect to health care spending” and getting on “a glide path to reducing our forces in Iraq.” Since then, other politicians have used it to evoke a sense of comfort and certainty about the course on which something is heading. But it doesn’t work in every context. “When the glide-path metaphor is transferred to economics, I think, it doesn’t quite … fly,” Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer observed. “Even if the economy is being steered to a ‘soft landing,’ it’s still going down, right? Wouldn’t we want to get that plane moving upwards, or at least staying level?”

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Tanya Ballard Brown, “How ‘Sassy’ Came To Mean Something Both Sweet And Sour” (NPR’s Code Switch blog, Aug. 31, 2014)

Ben Zimmer, executive producer of and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, tried to help me trace “sassy” back to the big bang moment when it split from “saucy” and we couldn’t quite pin it down. But he did point me toward To Make Our World Anew: Volume I: A History of African Americans. In it, Peter H. Wood suggests that the West African word “sasi” may have influenced the development of the word.

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Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast, “LinguaFile II: Can You Guess the Mystery Word?” (Aug. 25, 2014)

Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield discuss a mystery word or phrase with Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer. For more on the mystery word, visit Zimmer’s Word Routes column on

Interviewed on WNYC’s “The Leonard Lopate Show” on techniques to boost your vocabulary. (Aug. 20, 2014)

Ben Zimmer, linguist, lexicographer, and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, quizzes us on what words mean and explains the often misunderstood history of common words in our lexicon. He’ll also answer listener questions. Zimmer is the executive producer of and the Visual Thesaurus.

(Show page, audio)

Dale W. Eisinger, “The Loudest Word in Rock and Roll” (The Atlantic, Aug. 19, 2014)

“The Ink Spots set the model for those vocal groups that became recognized for doo-wop, gospel, and R&B,” said Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer. The Ink Spots began performing under that name in 1934; groups like The Charioteers, The Ravens, and The Southern Sons debuted around then as well. These groups, as well as others, began the trend of “the” being used in the names of acts that were their own entities. …

The Rolling Stones picked up on the pattern early, but later seemed to want to distance themselves from the “the” trend. As Zimmer pointed out, The Rolling Stones released albums with their name on the cover through 1966, but the covers of their three 1967 releases (1967, Between the Buttons, Flowers, and Their Satanic Majesties Request) did not show the band’s name at all. The band then started calling itself “Rolling Stones.”

In the ’70s, the choice to leave off the definitive became more clearly artistically significant. “With punk being a neo-traditional form, returning to the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, it explains again why we get ‘the’ names going, along with three-chord progressions and traditional band instrumentations. It shouldn’t try and have pretentions more than that,” Zimmer said. “It gets revived again with The Strokes and The Killers and The Hives.”

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Amanda Katz, “How ‘YOLO’ Went from Drake to Dictionary” (Boston Globe, Aug. 14, 2014)

Ben Zimmer, our language columnist, promptly tracked YOLO to its source and wrote a column explaining this word so demographically specific that a 21-year-old could be too old to say it, except in air quotes. In August 2012, the term, as Zimmer notes, was already starting to be uncool, trickling into graduation addresses and even appearing in association with Katie Couric, not exactly the epitome of urban teen edge.

But it turned out that a column explaining YOLO was exactly what grown-ups wanted to read. Our YOLO column promptly shot to the top of our “most-read” list – and stayed there, for months. By now it ranks as one of the most popular pieces ever published in Ideas. Now, it has finally made it into at least an online authoritative reference guide. Time from Drake to dictionary: 1017 days.

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Fox NY, “Filler Words”

August 12, 2014

Interviewed on Fox NY News about gender differences in use of “filler words.” (Aug. 12, 2014)

(Show page)

Beth J. Harpaz, “What’s a Group Selfie? Usie” (Associated Press, July 30, 2014)

The word — sometimes spelled usie, sometimes ussie — has been showing up in written material since at least April 2013, according to Ben Zimmer, executive producer of and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal. …

There are countless variations on the theme, including ‘twofie,’ ‘threefie,’ et cetera, if you want to specify the number of people photographed,” said Zimmer.

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