Ben Zimmer's latest interviews and other media appearances.
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Linguistic Society of America, “WSJ’s Ben Zimmer receives first LSA Linguistics Journalism Award” (Oct. 29, 2014)

The Linguistic Society of America is pleased to name Ben Zimmer as the first recipient of our Linguistics Journalism Award. Zimmer is well-known for his linguistic contributions to mainstream media, most notably as the language columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

Ben Zimmer headshot

The Linguistics Journalism Award, newly established by the LSA in 2014, honors “the journalist whose work best represents linguistics during the 12-month consideration period indicated in the call for nominations”. (This year’s consideration period ran from June 1, 2013 to May 31, 2014.) In addition to his work for the Wall Street Journal, Zimmer has recently written articles on linguistic topics for the Boston GlobeThe Atlantic, Slate’s “Lexicon Valley” blog, and Language Log, among other media. Zimmer is also the executive producer of and the Visual Thesaurus.

The Linguistics Journalism Award is the seventh of the 2015 LSA Awards to be announced; the final award for this year, the Leonard Bloomfield Book Award, will be announced in the coming weeks. All LSA awards will be presented at the 2015 LSA Annual Meeting on Saturday, January 10, 5:30 PM PT at the Hilton Portland & Executive Tower.


Caitlin Dewey, “An Unnecessarily Long and Surprisingly Fascinating History of ‘Guys’” (Washington Post, The Intersect, Oct. 24, 2014)

By the early 1930s, says Ben Zimmer — a linguist and frequent commentator on everything from “stalking” to “czars” —Americans were just beginning to use “guys” to indicate people of either gender. But guys was always a really weird word, its exact definition changing based on context. …

It makes sense, then, that Zimmer credits modern Internet usage of the word to the sarcasm-inflected headlines of Gawker and the Awl, sites that have long specialized in a sort of cool, removed irony. But even they may have had help: The popular sitcom “Friends,” which ran from 1994 to 2004 — notably, a time at which many Awl and Gawker writers were coming of age — used the word “guys” so frequently that language researcher Theresa Heyd used it as a launching point for her 2010 discourse on language change.

“I wouldn’t discount ‘Friends’ as an influence on how people currently use ‘guys,’ ” Zimmer said. “Perhaps there’s an echo of the staginess of ‘Friends’ when people use ‘guys’ now, which adds to the ironic distance someone can create by starting a tweet or snarky headline” that way.

Read the rest here.

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.