- Website: http://benzimmer.com/
- I am the executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus, 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:
Oxford University Press has published the fourth edition of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. The name "Fowler" has been retained as a source of prestige, but this is really the work of editor Jeremy Butterfield (as the third edition was the work of Robert Burchfield). Butterfield has already been getting some press attention for some of his more curmudgeonly reactions to points of modern usage. From The Times (UK), "Modern language makes dictionary compiler see, like, red" (3/31/15):
Readers fretful about crumbling standards will be relieved, and possibly amused, that the compiler of the latest edition of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage has admitted to being overcome by grumpiness at some of the 250 new entries.
Jeremy Butterfield said that he was unable to hide his disdain while writing entries such as "awesome", "challenging" and "issue" – all of which are classified as clichés. So annoyed was he by the use of "like" as verbal punctuation that he suggested violence may be an appropriate response.
Ooh, violence! Looks like it's the latest episode of word rage.
Two years ago I sent out an "SOS for DARE," that is, a plea for the indispensable Dictionary of American Regional English, which had run into funding troubles. Though DARE was granted a temporary reprieve, the latest news is more dire than ever.
Marc Johnson laid out the situation in an article for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
The end may be near for one of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's most celebrated humanities projects, the half-century-old Dictionary of American Regional English. In a few months, the budget pool will drain to a puddle. Layoff notices have been sent, eulogies composed…
"Crash blossoms" — those ambiguously phrased headlines that encourage absurd interpretations — are flourishing like never before. Here's a roundup of the latest specimens spotted in the wild.
1. "Matt Cassel trade a simple, cheap bandage for Bills QB problem" (CBS Sports, Mar. 4, 2015)
While watching the Danish show Borgen last night I noticed that Kasper, when talking about ordering a smoothie, first said [smu:di] and then later said [smu:ði]. The first form in particular but also the variation pleased me, so I asked Anna Jespersen about it and look at this bonanza she came up with! (What follows is a paraphrase of what she sent me.)
Smoothie is a newly borrowed word, and I think it's the only one we have encountered with a non-initial [ð]. Consequently, there's a lot of variation. [ð] and [d] would be the most common variants but there are lots of other options. Check out these two ads from McDonald's:
i. In the attached print ad, the line below the smoothies reads "Try our new, refreshing smoothies (no matter how you pronounce them)".
Joshua Fishman, a founder of the field of the sociology of language and a highly influential scholar of language planning and bilingual education, died last night at his home in the Bronx at the age of 88.
The following remembrance, written by Ofelia García (Professor in the Ph.D. programs of Urban Education and of Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures and Languages at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York), has been shared on Facebook and the LINGUIST List.
Doc, note: I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.
Is this the best palindrome ever created in English? Many think so. (I agree.) But did you know that it was made by the British mathematician Peter Hilton, while working alongside Alan Turing as an "Enigma" codebreaker during World War II? If you've seen The Imitation Game, you might remember Matthew Beard's portrayal of young Hilton. (The film embellishes his true story, giving him a brother serving on a Royal Navy ship targeted by the Germans.)
Even more amazingly, "Doc, note I dissent…" was actually the result of a palindrome competition held by the codebreakers at Bletchley Park (who, as the movie shows, were quite good at UK-style cryptic crosswords, too). The competition was, like the rest of the goings-on at Bletchley Park, shrouded in secrecy until relatively recently. Now for the first time, Mark Saltveit, editor of The Palindromist Magazine, tells the full story of the codebreakers' palindrome game. Read all about on Vocabulary.com here.
Suzette Haden Elgin, who died last week, was a pioneer of using linguistics in science fiction, creating a whole constructed language in her novel Native Tongue. She was a giant of feminist SF. And she helped bring SF poetry to prominence, while also teaching us to defend ourselves with wit rather than bile.
Elgin had a PhD in linguistics, so it's no surprise that her Native Tongue book trilogy is all about language. The book takes place in a dystopian future, where women have been stripped of all rights when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was repealed in 1996. A group of women, who work as part of a corps of linguists who help to communicate with alien races, develop a new secret language for women to use as part of their resistance to their oppression. This language is called Láadan, and Elgin has a whole vocabulary and syntax on her website.
Bloomberg News headlines, as we've observed in the past, often sound like they've been written by someone with a bizarre journalistic strain of aphasia. Consider, as representative samples, "Ebola Fear Stalks Home Hunt for Quarantined Now Released" and "Madonna Addicted to Sweat Dance Plugs Toronto Condos: Mortgages." The latest specimen is especially inscrutable:
At the American Dialect Society annual conference (held in conjunction with the Linguistic Society of America in Portland, OR), the 2014 Word of the Year was a rather unusual choice: the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. I presided over the voting session (in my capacity as the society's Chair of the New Words Committee). You can read the official announcement here and my recap of Friday night's voting in my Word Routes column for Vocabulary.com here. Read the rest of this entry »
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There's a new linguablog that's definitely worth your time if you're not put off by vulgarities. And if you revel in vulgarities, well, you're in luck. It's called Strong Language, and it's the creation of James Harbeck and Stan Carey.
James and Stan have enlisted a great lineup of contributors (I'm happy to be one of them). As the "About" page explains, Strong Language "gives a place for professional language geeks to talk about things they can’t talk about in more polite contexts. It’s a sweary blog about swearing." Read the rest of this entry »
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This morning, when I checked out the website of The Atlantic, I saw an article by Megan Garber with the headline, "Gifting Is Not a Verb":
Megan has written perceptively about language before, notably in her piece from last year, "English Has a New Preposition, Because Internet," which played a large role in bringing attention to the emerging use of "because" — shortly thereafter recognized as the American Dialect Society's 2013 Word of the Year. (Some might argue that the new "because" isn't a preposition; Geoff Pullum defends that classification here and here but says it actually was one all along.)
The article itself is a seasonally appropriate exercise in word aversion, and Megan quotes one of Mark Liberman's posts on the topic to try to understand the source of her intense dislike of "gift" as a verb. But the headline goes much further, declaring that it is not a verb, despite the fact that the article clearly demonstrates that it is a verb, even if it's one that many people don't care for.
CNN International recently sent out this tweet, linking to an interview with Stella McCartney:
— CNN International (@cnni) November 29, 2014
The headline, which also appears on CNN's website, left some people perplexed. Was Ms. McCartney saying that her parents closed minds, or did they open closed minds?
In recent years, The New Yorker's coverage of the "descriptivist vs. prescriptivist" divide in English usage has been, shall we say, problematic. In 2012, we had Joan Acocella's "The English Wars," critiqued by Mark Liberman here and here. That was followed up by Ryan Bloom's Page-Turner piece, "Inescapably, You're Judged By Language," which I tackled in "The New Yorker vs. the descriptivist specter."
In Acocella's piece, Steven Pinker is set up as a descriptivist strawman on the basis of a wildly off-the-mark reading of an essay he contributed to the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary. (Pinker serves as chair of the AHD Usage Panel.) He ably defended himself in a subsequent letter to the editor and at more length in a piece for Slate, "False Fronts in the Language Wars." Now another New Yorker critic, Nathan Heller, makes a mess of things in his review of Pinker's book The Sense of Style. Read the rest of this entry »
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