- 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:
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.”
For the past year and a half, Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield have been co-hosting the excellent Slate podcast Lexicon Valley, covering many Language Log-friendly topics (and interviewing a few Language Loggers in the process). Now Lexicon Valley has spawned its own blog on Slate, and Language Log has joined up as a partner to supply cross-published posts.
Perfect lexicographical storms don't come along like this very often. On Sunday night, Miley Cyrus egregiously "twerked" at MTV's Video Music Awards, in a performance that quickly became National Conversation #1 (even outpacing Syria). About 48 hours later, Oxford Dictionaries announced its quarterly update of new words — with the Associated Press and others trumpeting the news far and wide — and lo and behold, there was twerk, defined as a verb meaning "dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance."
Here are two anniversarial tweets that appeared Friday evening. The first is from the WhiteHouse.gov Technology account, celebrating the anniversary of the release of the source code for We the People:
— WH.gov Technology (@WHWeb) August 23, 2013
BTW, little secret: TODAY is the 6th #hashtagiversary. I totally punk'd CNBC. DON'T TELL ANYONE!!!!!!!
— Chris Messina™ (@chrismessina) August 24, 2013
(Messina didn't actually coin hashtag on that fateful day in 2007 — that was done a few days later by Stowe Boyd, another early Twitter adopter. See the Spring 2013 installment of "Among the New Words" in American Speech [pdf], which I co-wrote with Charles Carson, as well as Boyd's own recent post on the subject.)
Bradley Manning, just recently sentenced for leaking classified documents to Wikileaks, has released a statement announcing, "I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female." Manning also gave instructions on his-now-her preferred personal pronouns:
I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility).
News organizations are struggling today with the pronominal quandary in reporting on Manning's new transgender identity. On Slate's XX Factor blog, Amanda Marcotte writes:
The transition is already awkward. Earlier today, the New York Times headline on a Reuters story on Manning's announcement danced around gender pronouns: "Manning Says Is Female and Wants to Live as a Woman." Clearing up the grammar for an updated headline just made the situation worse: "Manning Says He Is Female and Wants to Lives as a Woman." Well, if "he" is female, then isn't the word "she"? Manning has finally had a chance to express her gender preferences. Since most journalists had a notion this was coming, using confusion or surprise as an excuse for those headlines isn't an option.
I don't have much to say about the latest tempest in a teapot over the non-literal use of "literally." It started, as such things often do these days, on Reddit, where a participant in the /r/funny subreddit posted an imgur image showing Google's dictionary entry for "literally" that pops up when you search on the word. The second definition reads, "Used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true." That was enough for the redditor to declare, "We did it guys, we finally killed English." As the news pinged around the blogosphere, we got such fire-breathing headlines as "Society Crumbles as Google Admits 'Literally' Now Means 'Figuratively'," "Google Sides With Traitors To The English Language Over Dictionary Definition Of 'Literally'," "I Could Literally Die Right Now," and "It’s Official: The Internet Has Broken the English Language."
The outrage was further heightened by the realization that (gasp!) pretty much every major dictionary from the OED on down now recognizes this sense of the word. So now we get vitriol directed toward the OED's lexicographers, who revised the entry for "literally" back in September 2011, coming from such sources as The Times, The Daily Mail, The Guardian, and The Telegraph. [Update: As Fiona McPherson points out on the OxfordWords blog, the usage was actually noted in the "literally" entry when it was first published in 1903. The 2011 revision reorganized the entry and expanded the historical record.]
In an interview with Talking Points Memo, Barbara Morgan, spokeswoman for New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, called former Weiner intern Olivia Nuzzi all sorts of names after Nuzzi publicly criticized the campaign. While the New York Times only revealed that Morgan used "several vulgar and sexist terms," the TPM report spelled it out: Morgan called Nuzzi a "bitch," a "cunt," a "twat," and most colorfully, a "fucking slutbag."
The Sunday (UK) Times recently revealed that J.K. Rowling wrote the detective novel The Cuckoo's Calling under the pen name Robert Galbraith. The newspaper explained that, as part of their investigation, they sought the assistance of two scholars who have developed software to help with authorship attribution: Peter Millican of Oxford University and Patrick Juola of Duquesne University. Given the public interest in the Rowling revelation, I asked Patrick to write a guest post describing the authorial analysis that he conducted. (For more on the story, see my post on the Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog.)