Howls of dismay

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Many changes in store for the New York Times Magazine, including the elimination of the "On Language" column — announced in a graceful valedictory column by Ben Zimmer here.

Howls of dismay, from me and many others.

Many expressions of concern for Ben, who (after all) makes a living from work like this (while writing for free for Language Log and ADS-L and the like). No doubt he'll find other venues and continue to flourish. May it be so.

But, to my mind this is a great public loss. Thoughtful and well-informed writing about language will of course continue to be available in many places, especially on the net (contending everywhere with masses of graceless, ignorant material), but the New York Times has an especially prominent role in informing and enlightening the public, and Ben's voice on this platform will be very much missed.


  1. Will said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 12:37 am

    Very graceful exit. The column will be missed. Best of luck in your next venture, Ben.

  2. Barbara Partee said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 3:13 am

    Yes, I'm howling too. I was delighted when the NYT showed the good judgment to bring Ben in to carry on that feature, and I'm terribly disappointed that they're ending it now, when it had started out so beautifully! Ben, I also hope you find some even better venue — you're a great bulwark against language ignorance, and you do it with such grace and style!

  3. Amy West said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 4:26 am

    It's incomprehensible.

    How could it have survived for so long under Safire? By force of personality?

    This is huge, huge loss.

    In the Boston Globe we have a column shared by Jan Freeman and Erin McKean. Maybe they can slide over and put Ben into the rotation.

  4. bloix said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 7:34 am

    Safire wrote a right-wing editorial column masquerading as a language feature. I guess they didn't really want a language column that was just a language column.

    [(myl) Now, now. Though I have no inside information, I've always imagined that the NYT editors were happy to see their Designated Conservative writing about language rather than about politics…]

  5. bfwebster said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 9:49 am

    The NYT is also canceling its "The Ethicist" column, so I suspect these are both just cost-cutting moves as the Times struggles to find a way to make a profit:

    Side note: the iPad autocorrects "its" to "it's", which almost resulted in my looking like an idiot here. I can do that on my own, thank you.

  6. language hat said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 10:08 am

    Needless to say, I strongly agree, and "incomprehensible" is the mot juste. If all they're concerned with is profit, why not just turn the entire magazine over to ads? I hope they come to regret this terrible move.

  7. MattF said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 10:30 am

    It looks like the Times has fallen prey to the 'every page has to make a profit' fallacy. Sometimes the parts do add up to a greater whole. Yes, I know that 'synergy' has (and deserves) a bad reputation, but there are cases in the real world where it does happen.

    It's still true that the NYT magazine is one of the few periodical publications that I actually read more-or-less cover to cover, and I hope it stays that way– but the case is getting harder to make.

  8. Geoff Nunberg said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 10:40 am

    I don't think this is a question of cost-cutting, but of the decision by the NYT Sunday Magazine's new editor Hugo Lindgren to create a "new identity for the front-of-the-book section" that involves replacing most of the features ("The Ethicist," apparently, being the only exception, though with a new writer). One way or the other, dropping the "On Language" column shows very poor judgment — unlike the other features, this has been an American institution, and Ben was giving it a very strong new direction. There's no question that he'll flourish in new venues (I like to think that one of them, at least occasionally, might be the Week in Review section, where his piece on the language of the Egyptian uprising ran last week — not a topic he could have covered as quickly in the Magazine, with its slower turn-around time).

  9. The Ridger said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 11:10 am

    Dang. Their carrier's inability to get the paper to me early enough in the morning had already caused me to cut back to just a weekend subscription. Now one of the delights of the Magazine (among others) will be lost.

  10. Bobbie said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 11:13 am

    If "every page has to make a profit," then how to explain the puzzle page? Or will that, too, meet its demise?

  11. Amy Stoller said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 12:03 pm


  12. MattF said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 12:20 pm


    As a matter of fact, the NYT puzzles earn a profit.

  13. Sili said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

    It’s not all that different from how meteorologists make “forecast models” based on huge amounts of old weather data.

    I'm sorry, but no. That's how old-timey heuristics worked. (“Red sky at night, sailor's delight. Red sky in morning, sailor's warning.”)

    Modern forecasts are built on models of the underlying physics of the atmosphere. Yes, this is initiated with observed data, but the propagation is based on physical laws more than statistics.

  14. Mr Fnortner said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

    Respectfully, language hat, while publication that consist entirely of ads do exist and endure, I suspect it is not possible to earn the money desired by NYT owners from an ad-only paper. All for-profit companies employ management who are duty-bound to create the maximum wealth for their owners from the assets they are given. NYT management has chosen to run a newspaper to do so. If a feature or combination of features together do not produce profit that exceeds their costs by the required margin, then they will look to other features, or to the removal of the under-performing features. I am saddened by the removal of Ben Zimmer and his column, don't misunderstand, but NYT management must believe (perhaps wrongly) that this is the best economic move.

    One day, when the paper is reduced to the front page, the editorial page, and ads, perhaps they will die. This is how for-profit corporations are punished by the marketplace for their management errors. Perhaps also, Ben's absent column now becomes a business opportunity for enterprising people who want a intellectually stimulating newspaper. There is nothing keeping members of this blog's audience from hiring Ben and others and creating a newspaper of the best of what's now missing from the NYT. Bon chance, and I wish you profits.

  15. Dan Lufkin said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 2:51 pm

    Linguistic sidebar on meteorological equations — The equations deal with a set of physical variables and processes in such a way that you can solve a system of non-linear differential equations fast enough to get a forecast out. The math dates back to the mid-30s and the set of equations most used are called the primitive equations because that's where numerical forecasting started. The anti-climate blogosphere got hold of the term and uses it to attack the establishment — "You admit that the equations you use are primitive! They're nothing but sixth-grade arithmetic!" Google the term and see how "primitive" the math is. But we're stuck with 80 years of literature that the critics will never read.

  16. Aaron said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

    There's a campaign afoot to convince The Times to bring On Language back. Who knows if that's an actual possibility, but it's a good way to express disappointment with the decision to cut the column. On Facebook: (with information on where to send e-mails of protest here).

  17. dan bloom said,

    February 27, 2011 @ 6:13 am

    Geoff Nunberg above said it well, re: "I don't think this is a question of cost-cutting, but of the decision by the NYT Sunday Magazine's new editor Hugo Lindgren to create a "new identity for the front-of-the-book section" that involves replacing most of the features."

    In truth, the OL column really was William Safire's baby, and maybe it i a good idea to retire it under other people's names. It was a legacy column, and long live Bill Safire.

    However, as Geoff rightly says, above, "[Ben will] flourish in new venues (……[for example], .the Week in Review section, where his [CURRENT BREAKING NEWS] piece on the language of the Egyptian uprising ran last week — [and it was] [NOT]a topic he could have covered as quickly in the weekly Magazine, with its slower turn-around time [and three-week advance lead time]).

    So RIP Bill Safire and now On Langage. We will Ben appear in the new Week in Review, often, and on the NYT oped pages and many other places. Things change. As Heralcitus said "we never go down twice to the same river."

    Ben will survive, and prosper, for sure.

  18. Pam Braun said,

    February 27, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

    …the bell tolls for thee… (NYTimes)

  19. Nijma said,

    February 27, 2011 @ 4:16 pm

    So the NYT puzzle makes a profit? I've never had much of an attention span for crosswords, but I always enjoyed listening to Will Shortz on NPR on my way to work. He somehow made the subject accessible and enjoyable.

    Zimmer has the same kind of engaging speaking style—someone posted a link to a video with him here not too long ago, and in spite of having a laptop that is streaming-challenged, I was sucked into watching it all the way to the end. In a perfect world, we would be listening to Zimmer on NPR.

  20. Allison Hart said,

    February 27, 2011 @ 11:48 pm

    It seems just boneheaded to eliminate On Language now when Safire is finally gone and the column, written by Ben Zimmer, is finally good.

  21. richard howland-bolton said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 7:41 am

    Let's hope we haven't just seen one of the best minds of our generation destroyed by madness and starving, hysterical, naked greed.
    (If that's not too uncivil a thing to say.)
    Of course it's all part of that great Plan by Our New Insect Masters to reduce all media to the level of reality shows lacking in both reality and showmanship. Then ONIM'll sup on the slimy soup our brains have become.

    Just saying…

  22. Janice Byer said,

    February 28, 2011 @ 7:26 pm

    HOWWWL –

    It was only last month, courtesy, I think, of an LL link, that Ben's column first appeared on my monitor: A gift from cyber-heaven that promised to keep on giving. I do have the consolation of having his past columns to finish feasting my way through, plus the certainty he'll be called by another port or port, where we fans will soon find him happily harbored

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