- Website: http://benzimmer.com/
- I am the executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com, and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal. I'm also the former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. Since 2005 (when I became a regular contributor to Language Log), I have been a research associate at the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science. I've also worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. I currently serve as chair of the American Dialect Society's New Words Committee. You can follow me on Twitter or Facebook.
Posts by Ben Zimmer:
The following is a guest post by Ammon Shea, a researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary's Reading Program and formerly a consulting editor for American Dictionaries for Oxford University Press.
Hendrik Hertzberg has made a series of claims recently on the New Yorker web site ("Nobody Said That Then!") about the ostensible inaccuracy of the language used in the television show Masters of Sex. His main contention is that many of the characters' utterances are improbable, asserting that certain words and phrases were not in use at the time that the show takes place (the mid-1950s). One of the problems with making bold and declarative statements about the origins of specific words is that these words have a nasty habit of first appearing much earlier or later than memory or intuition would attest. Read the rest of this entry »
Read the rest of this entry »
Charles Fillmore died yesterday at age 84 after a long battle with cancer. A brilliant linguist, especially in the field of lexical semantics, who influenced so many of us Berkeley students and colleagues elsewhere. He was sweet and funny and loving, and deeply devoted to [his wife, Berkeley linguist] Lily Wong Fillmore. The loss of my Doktorvater feels like the loss of a parent.
The obituaries for the great comic Sid Caesar invariably mention his proficiency in "double-talk," mimicking the sounds (but not the sense) of foreign languages. (On the phenomenon of double-talk, see Mark Liberman's posts on yaourter here, here, here, and here.) It turns out that this was a talent Caesar had cultivated ever since he was a boy clearing tables at his father's restaurant in multi-ethnic Yonkers. Read the rest of this entry »
Read the rest of this entry »
A recent Twitter exchange between William Gibson and Simon Max Hill:
— simonmaxhill (@simonmaxhill) February 3, 2014
Wouldn't it be wonderful if a term from high philosophy had really penetrated the street slang of Oakland? Alas, it looks like a case of false cognates.
The Super Bowl may have been a lackluster blowout this year, but the commercials provided an opportunity to inflame the passions of some viewers. Coca-Cola ran a commercial with a multilingual rendition of "America the Beautiful," with languages including English, Spanish, Keres Pueblo, Tagalog, Hindi, Senegalese French, and Hebrew.
The American Dialect Society's recognition of because as Word of the Year has sparked a number of intriguing linguistic arguments. In its innovative use, because can take various different parts of speech as its complement: nouns, adjectives, interjections, and even adverbs. (See Tyler Schnoebelen's Idibon post for some corpus analysis.) While Geoff Pullum urges us to treat because as a preposition, regardless of its complement, Gretchen McCulloch has argued that we should be thinking of innovative because as a member of a "class of subordinating conjunctions that can relatively-newly take interjectionary complements." (The complements are "interjectionary" as long as they can serve as interjections, regardless of part of speech, like the adjective awesome or the adverb seriously.)
One of the most peculiar reactions to the ADS WOTY selection comes from "Stumblerette," a self-identified linguist who objects to the choice of because "because it is neither a word nor particularly zeitgeisty." Wait, because is not a word? In a previous post, Stumblerette explains that the selection "is stretching the meaning of the word 'word'" presumably because the innovative "because X" construction requires at least two words to work.
Or does it? On Facebook, Stephan Hurtubise shared a clip from last night's episode of "Parks and Recreation" demonstrating that because even works with non-verbal complements.
Sam and Cat make a bet with the annoying older brother of a babysitting client that "lumpatious" is a real word. When they discover it is not, they must figure out how to get it in the dictionary.
The interactive dialect quiz on the New York Times website, developed by Josh Katz from Bert Vaux and Scott Golder's Harvard Dialect Survey, has proved to be immensely popular. It's been a viral sensation on social media, much like the original Business Insider article on Katz's heat maps back in June (currently at 36 million pageviews and counting). And as in June, Katz's work is attracting plenty of mainstream media attention, too. This morning, I was on a panel discussion talking about the dialect quiz, and regional dialects in general, on MSNBC's "Up With Steve Kornacki" (segment 1, segment 2).
One of the highlights of this weekend's Saturday Night Live was a "Weekend Update" appearance by Taran Killam playing Jebidiah Atkinson, a 19th-century speech critic.
(Apologies to those outside of the U.S. who can't view Hulu videos.)
US Circuit Judge Denny Chin has ruled in favor of Google in its long-running copyright litigation with the Authors Guild over the scanning and digitization of books. Chin ruled that the Google Books project constitutes fair use because it is "highly transformative" and "provides significant public benefits." In explaining those public benefits, Chin cited the use of Google Books data for Ngram queries, and pointed to a research example that we've discussed several times on Language Log.
Back in 2008, an image got passed around the blogosphere showing the Singaporean identity card of one Batman bin Suparman. I broke down the name in a Language Log post (my first after the great LL changeover). Since then, I hadn't thought much of young Batman, but today brought the sad news that he had been jailed on theft and drug charges.
That gave me an excuse to return to the 2008 post and freshen it up a bit for Slate's Lexicon Valley blog, so head over there for the latest. As part of Language Log's partnership with Lexicon Valley, some past LL posts have been featured on the Slate blog with minor updates. (I've contributed a few other golden oldies, including posts on meh, WTF, and early obscenicons.)
[Update: BBC News has picked up the story, quoting me.]
For several years now, many linguists and their fellow travelers have talked about the need for a magazine about language issues that could capture the public attention. Mark Liberman has beaten the drum at least since his 2007 LSA plenary address (see: "Linguistics: The Magazine"), and there have been a few recent efforts along these lines. But Michael Erard, author of Um… and Babel No More, has taken matters into his own hands by launching an online magazine called Schwa Fire to specialize in high-quality long-form language journalism.
As reported earlier this month by Arnold Zwicky, the world of linguistics lost Ivan Sag after a three-year fight against cancer. Now Corrie Goldman of The Humanities at Stanford provides a more in-depth look at Sag's life, quoting many colleagues (including a couple of Language Loggers) who worked — and played — with him.
The phrase "American exceptionalism" has been much in the news ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote an op/ed piece in the New York Times taking issue with President Obama's statement that America's foreign policy "makes us exceptional." "I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism," Putin countered. "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."
Putin's comments revived an old discussion about the origins of the phrase. On Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall addressed an article by Terrence McCoy that appeared last year on The Atlantic's website, "How Joseph Stalin Invented 'American Exceptionalism.'" And on Real Clear Politics, Robert Samuelson wrote that "the most interesting fact to surface in the ensuing debate over "American exceptionalism" is that the phrase was first coined by Putin's long-ago predecessor, Joseph Stalin." But should Stalin get the credit?
On the Wall Street Journal's Emerging Europe blog, Emre Peker reports on a case of linguistic chicanery, with none other than Noam Chomsky as its victim.
Coming from Noam Chomsky, the following sentences may look as if the famed American linguist was seeking to develop a new syntax: “While there have been tampered with, sometimes with the Republic of Turkey won democracy. It ruled democratic elections.”
Except they didn’t belong to Mr. Chomsky, but to an imaginative Turkish newspaper, while the quotes appear to have been translated into English using Google’s translation tool.
On August 27, Turkish daily Yeni Safak, or New Dawn, published a front page article headlined–“The Arab Spring Has Now Found Its True Spirit”–which it claimed was based on an e-mailed exchange with Mr. Chomsky. The interview, which was conducted in English and centered on the crisis in Egypt, had taken place two weeks previously, the story said.
According to Yeni Safak, the renowned antiwar activist spent a considerable part of the exchange defending policies parallel to those of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The newspaper also cited several answers by the world’s most famous linguistics professor in unintelligible English.
“This complexity in the Middle East, do you think the Western states flapping because of this chaos? Contrary to what happens when everything that milk port, enters the work order, then begins to bustle in the West. I’ve seen the plans works,” Mr. Chomsky allegedly said in an answer to one question.
The text, however, flows perfectly in Turkish. Plugging the Turkish content into Google Translate shows that Mr. Chomsky was left uttering phrases like “milk port”–a direct translation of an idiom derived from sailing that means “calm.”