Thinkmap’s executive producer for Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com is Ben Zimmer, a linguist, lexicographer and author, who wrote the “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine after William Safire. Of Vocabulary.com, Mr. Zimmer said, “The technology makes it possible to create a dynamic learning environment that is personalized to the individual.”
What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding? Nothing, but other words are hilarious! Ross Reynolds talks with language columnist Ben Zimmer about words we love, words we hate and words that simply make us laugh.
Interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition about difficulties in labeling straight and gay relationships. (Mar. 29, 2013)
But 30 years later, straight and gay people are still struggling with the same questions.
“Each of these terms has its own problems,” says Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. “For instance, ‘partner’ sounds very official or contractual. ‘Companion’ sounds unromantic or even euphemistic. ‘Lover’ might just be too explicit. ‘Boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’ are inappropriate for a lot of people, unless they’re a teenager.”
When the love that dare not speak its name finally opens its mouth, people can get tripped up on the words.
Take traditional marriage. On the one hand, opponents of same-sex marriage can use that language to purposefully elevate heterosexual marriage as a more established, legitimate relationship. In a piece assessing journalists’ coverage of same-sex marriage battles for Columbia Journalism Review, Jennifer Vanasco highlights this point:
She uses “traditional marriage advocates” to refer to people against same-sex marriage and “gay marriage” to name the issue. “Gay marriage” and “same-sex marriage” are neutral terms. But “traditional marriage” is not. It’s a phrase used by conservatives to imply that marriage between a man and a woman has been the norm forever …
But, says linguist Ben Zimmer, while the appeal to tradition is an important part of the argument against legalizing gay marriage, referring to heterosexual marriage as “traditional” undermines that position, too. “By calling it ‘traditional marriage,’ you’ve already ceded the ground that there is another kind of marriage,” he says. With the attempt to distance comes (perhaps inadvertent) recognition.
Marriage: For years, lexicographers have pored over the term at the center of Supreme Court proceedings today, trying to tweak dictionary entries to reflect how all people use the word, regardless of their political persuasions. “Lexicographers end up in a no-win situation, where no matter what they do, somebody’s going to have trouble with the definition,” says Ben Zimmer, linguist and executive producer at Vocabulary.com.
Some dictionaries, like the historically ordered Merriam-Webster, have added a second definition for same-sex marriage and left the main entry referring to a man and a woman. Zimmer points out that some gay rights activists balk at that fix, however, feeling a second definition suggests that gay marriage is second class.
Interview on the WGBH show “Boston Public Radio” about an initiative in Providence, RI to narrow the “word gap.” (Mar. 26, 2013)
A new study revealed children in high-income families heard and learned more language — more words in total — than children in low-income families. Boston Globe language columnist Ben Zimmer joined Margery and Jim to talk about a solution. Ben Zimmer is featured Sundays in the Globe’s Ideas section.
Interviewed on the CBC Radio Show “Q with Jian Ghomeshi” about the ascent of the hashtag. (Mar. 26, 2013)
Linguist Ben Zimmer was on the show today to talk about hashtag mania, its popularity, usage, and future. Whether you’re on Twitter or not, it’s hard to escape the rise of the # in common English usage. Hashtag expressions are used in print articles, online memes, photos on Instagram, and even in speech (as witnessed at this year’s Grammys.) Even Facebook might soon incorporate hashtags into your newsfeed.
Interview on the WGBH show “Boston Public Radio” about the “living Latin” movement. (Mar. 12, 2013)
When Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation in Latin in February, he thrust the long dead language into the spotlight. In the United States, few Catholics still celebrate Mass in Latin, and we’re far from the days of mandatory Latin in schools (you’d be hard pressed to find a person under the age of 20 who knows the Latin phrase “semper ubi sub ubi”).
Linguist Ben Zimmer joined Boston Public Radio to talk with Jim Braude and Margery Eagan about Latin’s comeback.
Blending once-discrete references online creates a “kind of blossoming map of words and meaning” that readers can explore, says Ben Zimmer, a linguist and executive producer of the Web site Visual Thesaurus and its sister site Vocabulary.com. He chairs the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society and writes columns on language for TheBoston Globe. “Dictionaries are not just static entities anymore,” he says. “You have to be able to react to current events, how people are going to look things up.”
On Vocabulary.com, Zimmer and his colleagues serve up not just a standard dictionary definition but what he calls “blurbs,” chattier and sometimes whimsical explanations designed to help a reader understand and remember what he or she looks up. Look up “hirsute,” for instance, and you get this: “What do Santa Claus, Bigfoot, and unicorns have in common? Aside from the fact that they’re completely real, they’re also hirsute: very, very hairy creatures,” the site explains. “The word is pronounced ‘HER-suit,’ so if you see a woman wearing a furry jacket with matching pants, you could say, “Her suit is hirsute.” Just make sure it’s actually a suit and not her real hair.”
Like online versions of print dictionaries, sites like Vocabulary.com also give users the sounds as well as the meanings of words. (Trained opera singers “are perfect for this kind of work,” Zimmer says. “They know how to enunciate.”) And in the handy bells-and-whistles category, quizzes and other extras reflect the enthusiasm for language-learning games that’s taken hold among students and educators, he says. “You have to meet young learners on the terrain they’re comfortable with.”