Ben Zimmer

Website: http://benzimmer.com/

I am the language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and formerly wrote language columns for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. I've worked as the executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus, as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press, and as a 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 curious case of "dillweed"

    On The Awl, Samantha Sanders has a wonderful piece on "Dillweed (As An Insult)." (This is part of The Awl's "holiday series on flavors and spices," naturally enough.) She muses on how dillweed has been used as a pejorative since it was popularized by the show "Beavis and Butt-Head" back in the early '90s and considers how this mild-mannered herb got pressed into service as a minced oath. On Twitter, I responded with some more ruminations on the history of dillweed, as well as other insults from the same family, including dickweed, dinkweed, and dickwad (with input from slangologist Jonathon Green and others). I've compiled the Twitter thread as a Storify story, embedded below.

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    Annotating the First Page of the First Navajo-English Dictionary

    Don't miss Danielle Geller's remarkable, moving personal essay in The New Yorker, "Annotating the First Page of the First Navajo-English Dictionary." Here's how it starts:

    The first, incomplete Navajo-English Dictionary was compiled, in 1958, by Leon Wall, an official in the U.S. government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. Wall, who was in charge of a literacy program on the Navajo reservation, worked on the dictionary with William Morgan, a Navajo translator.

    ’ąą’: “well (anticipation, as when a person approaches one as though to speak but says nothing)”

    I could begin and end here. My mother was a full-blooded Navajo woman, raised on the reservation, but she was never taught to speak her mother’s language. There was a time when most words were better left unspoken. I am still drawn to the nasal vowels and slushy consonants, though I feel no hope of ever learning the language. It is one thing to play dress-up, to imitate pronunciations and understanding; it is another thing to think or dream or live in a language not your own.

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    The American Dialect Society in the New York Times crossword

    The American Dialect Society gets a nice shout-out in Tuesday's New York Times crossword. More than a shout-out, in fact: the puzzle is actually ADS-themed.

    Subscribers to the Times crossword can download the puzzle in Across Lite format or as a PDF. After you've solved it, you can read my commentary in the NYT's Wordplay column. (Or just skip to the column if you don't mind the spoilers. You can also see the clues and completed grid on XWord Info.)

    Wordplay also quotes Greg Poulos, the crossword's creator (making his debut in the Times), who revealed that he came up with the theme while reading Language Log. Great to see, especially after Tom McCoy's grammatical-diversity-themed puzzle back in March. Linguisticky crosswords are all the rage!

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    "Understatement" misstatement

    Here's the opening to Dahlia Lithwick and Scott Pilutik's piece for Slate, "Lies My Client Told Me" (10/31/17), about a judge ruling that Paul Manafort is not entitled to attorney-client privilege:

    It’s not an overstatement to characterize the attorney-client privilege as the cornerstone of criminal law, an inviolable right that can and must withstand all manner of legal aggression.

    There's an asterisk after the sentence, however, indicating that a correction has been made. At the bottom of the article, a note reads:

    *Correction, Oct. 31, 2017: This piece originally misstated that it would not be an understatement to characterize the attorney-client privilege as the cornerstone of criminal law. It would not be an overstatement.

    It's remarkable that a correction was made in the first place, since misnegations involving understate(ment) are so common that they hardly even get noticed these days. Last August, Mark Liberman shared a tweet by Los Angeles Times correspondent Matt Pearce in which he quickly corrected his use of "difficult to understate," but such second thoughts are exceedingly rare. Again and again, the sort of thing that one would want to identify as "not an overstatement" is routinely called "not an understatement," at Slate and elsewhere.

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    What is Trump demanding now?

    Here's a nice crash blossom (that is, a difficult-to-parse ambiguous headline) noted on Twitter by The Economist's Lane Greene, with credit to his colleague James Waddell. In The Financial Times, a promotion of an article inside (a "reefer" in newspaper-speak) is headlined: "Trump demands dog 'Dreamers' deal."

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    The New Yorker baubles it

    Yesterday, The New Yorker posted an article on its website: "The Error in Baseball and the Moral Dimension to American Life," by Stephen Marche. As originally published, the article contained this paragraph (emphasis mine):

    In practice, “ordinary effort” describes, as Bill James wrote, what should have happened. What should have happened in a piece of fielding can have nothing to do with the play of the fielder. Utter offered me a case: The runner hits the ball into the outfield, the fielder baubles the ball, and the runner advances to second. Is that an error? It depends. “What we would have to look at is—is it a single or is it a double? Or is it a single and advance on an error or on the throw?” The way that the scorer determines whether that bauble is an error or not has less to do with the action of the fielder than with the action of the runner. “Was the runner going all the time? Did he never think about stopping at first? Or was he running and looking at the play and then slowed down a little bit and then took off when he saw the little bauble?” If he paused, noticed the misplay, and ran to second, “That becomes the error.”

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    A brief history of "taking a knee"

    With dozens of NFL players "taking a knee" during the national anthem as a form of silent protest, the very phrase "take a knee" has been invested with new significance. "Take a knee" or "take the knee" now expresses solidarity against racial injustice and defiance against Donald Trump's attacks on protesting players. As the phrase dominates the headlines, it's worth taking a look at its history in football and beyond. While The Dictionary of American Slang dates the expression back to the 1990s (as noted by John Kelly on his Mashed Radish blog), I've found examples in football going all the way back to 1960. And while "taking a knee" may have also become a military tradition, the phrase's origin is firmly rooted in football, with a number of interlocking uses.

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    Belfast noun pile headline head-scratcher

    This head-scratcher of a headline from the Belfast Telegraph was brought to our attention by Mike Pope: "Ed Murray: Sex abuse claim US mayor's time in Northern Ireland 'should be probed'".

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    "Nephew-nazi"

    When the White House issued a statement that finally condemned white supremacists for the violence in Charlottesville this weekend, the version that was originally released had an unusual typo: "nephew-nazi" for "neo-Nazi":

    The president said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry, and hatred and of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, nephew-nazi and all extremist groups. He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together.

    Brian Stelter noted the typo on CNN.

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    "North Korea best not…"

    Donald Trump's "fire and fury" warning to North Korea, we now know, was unscripted, not the product of speechwriters and advisers. As some have suggested, Trump's aggressive language may have been (at least unconsciously) modeled on Harry Truman's announcement that the U.S. had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945.

    Truman: If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.
    Trump: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.

    Beyond the echo of Truman, Trump is particularly fond of the hyperbolic construction, "like the world has never seen," and variations on that theme. In the Toronto Star, Daniel Dale details Trump's past use of the phrase and wonders if "the president bumbled into the threat because he did not understand the ramifications of a favourite phrase he had in his head." (See also Mark Liberman's post from last year, "This is the likes of which I didn't expect.")

    But what about the opening of the threat, "North Korea best not…"? Ben Yagoda said on Twitter that it "sounds like something from a bad Western." John Kelly thought it sounded more Southern. I was reminded of a famous line from the character Omar Little on the HBO series The Wire: "You come at the king, you best not miss."


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    Dialect maps get surreal

    Everybody seems to enjoy sharing dialect maps displaying the boundaries of different American regionalisms. So it was only a matter of time before this enticing form of data visualization got satirized. On Twitter, Josh Cagan takes it in an absurdist direction.

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    The N-word Yet Again

    The following is a guest post by Tony Thorne of King's College London, originally appearing on his blog. It provides an alternative view to that expressed by Geoff Pullum in his post, "Tory uses N-word… not."


    On July 10 Samir Dathi tweeted: "Anne Marie Morris suspended for using N-word. Good. But why is someone who called black people 'picaninnies' our foreign secretary?"

    Morris, the Conservative MP for Newton Abbot's use of the phrase 'nigger in the woodpile' provoked widespread condemnation and resulted in her suspension and an abject public apology, but the UK public and media have a very short memory. It was far from an isolated instance of this crass archaism being invoked by British politicians, as this website records.

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    On the short periods of Trumpian time

    On Friday, at a joint press conference with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, Donald Trump begrudgingly took questions from Jon Karl of ABC News. Karl asked whether there are indeed recordings of Trump's conversations with former FBI director James Comey, as Trump once suggested on Twitter. Here is how he replied (emphasis mine):

    KARL: And you seem to be hinting that there are recordings of those conversations.
    TRUMP: I'm not hinting anything. I'll tell you about it over a very short period of time. Okay. Do you have a question here?
    KARL: When will you tell us about the recordings?
    TRUMP: Over a fairly short period of time.

    In his response, Trump used "over a very/fairly short period of time" to mean "soon." It's a peculiar choice of preposition — why over rather than in?

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