R.I.P. Geoff Nunberg

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Geoffrey Nunberg died earlier today after a long illness.

You can sample his writing via his Google Scholar page, all the way back to his 1977 PhD thesis The Pragmatics of Reference. You can read or listen to a sample of his Fresh Air pieces; check out the links on his old Berkeley web page; delve into his Amazon author page; or look for his insights and influences in many other places.

My many memories of Geoff deserve more time and space than I have here. But I can't resist quoting his first Language Log post, "Fenimore Cooper, call your office", 10/7/2003, which starts like this:

The decision of the DC District Court to reinstate the trademark of the Washington Redskins was annoying, to put it mildly. I served (pro bono, for what it's worth) as the expert witness for the Indians who brought the petition to cancel the mark before the Trial Trademark and Appeal Board, which ruled in 1999 that the mark was improperly registered back in 1965, since the Lanham Act forbids the registration of marks that are "disparaging."

But I can't say that the District Court's decision surprised me. I know judges are always spinning the factual background of a case to support the argument they want to make. But when the facts concern an anti-trust matter, say, they're obliged to make at least a pretense of knowing what they're talking about. Whereas when it comes to language, all bets are off.

So it's fitting that he lived to see the Washington Football Team change its mind, or at least change its name:

UPDATE — My previous post ("Metonymy of the week", 8/11/2020), like almost everything else about words, meanings, and communication, has many Geoff Nunberg resonances. I'll cite just one: "Metonymy notes from all over", 10/30/2003, which I've updated to include working links to Geoff's 1977 dissertation and his 2004 paper "Indexical Descriptions and Descriptive Indexicals".

Update 8/22 — the NYT obituary, "Geoffrey Nunberg, Expert on How Language Works, Dies at 75".


  1. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 11, 2020 @ 5:03 pm

  2. Julian said,

    August 11, 2020 @ 7:24 pm

    Love the way he skewers the judge in the linked post on the Redskin issue. It's a joy reading people who know their stuff *and* can communicate.

  3. Neal Goldfarb said,

    August 11, 2020 @ 9:02 pm

    Geoff was an elegant writer and an elegant thinker.

  4. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 11, 2020 @ 11:55 pm

    The Berkeley School of Information is inviting people to share their memories of Geoff here.

  5. Chris Adams said,

    August 12, 2020 @ 1:38 am

    I just finished reading this wonderful piece from 1983, posted as a tribute on Twitter:


    I thoroughly enjoy writing, such as this, which is evidence of serious and considered thought.

    I also enjoyed noticing some of the time capsule elements, in particular the controversy of the day over "lifestyle" (not just commonplace, but now a section on nearly every major news media website in the Anglophone world) and a very pre-hip-hop negative sense of "raise the roof".

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    August 12, 2020 @ 8:29 am

    Not for one moment would I seek to suggest that the late Geoff Nunberg was anothing other than a brilliant linguist who used his talents for the benefit of mankind. But having read Fenimore Cooper, call your office, I cannot help but feel that an American football team using a pejorative term such as "redskin" in its team name must be one of the less egregious sins committed against the native American peoples. Phasing out the use of such names would certainly be "one small step" in the right direction, but restoring their native lands to them, in their entirety, would, to continue quoting Neil Armstrong, be "one giant leap for mankind".

  7. Larry Horn said,

    August 12, 2020 @ 10:48 am

    Geoff and I go way back–to the third grade at Hunter College Elementary School when we were classmates; luckily the very unflattering 1953 class photo is a closely guarded memento. Geoff and I shared other overlaps, from pragmatics to literature to social politics to cancer war stories; I fondly recall watching the parade of tall ships sailing down the Hudson for the 1976 bicentennial from windows in a borrowed high rise on Riverside Drive with Geoff and Annie Zaenen. As a semi-professional career highlight, I would single out my favorite memory of collaborative work in (meta-)linguistics: the summer weeks Geoff and I spent two decades after that bicentennial, burning electrons between Connecticut and California as we electronically revised and re-revised our own and each other's lines for the poem "Greetings, Colleagues" that appears in the 1996 volume of Natural Language and Linguistic Theory (14: 873-878). One last tribute for some other possible world: In connection with Geoff's superb affidativit on why "redskin" is indeed a slur (and yes, the Washington Professional Football Team had hired its own linguistic expert arguing that it isn't), I wrote to Geoff's wife Kathleen Miller a month ago when I heard Geoff was on home hospice care, "I’m glad to see, for Geoff’s sake, that the Redskins have finally agreed to consider changing their name; even though he was a prime mover in supporting the argument that they should dump their demeaning nickname and mascot, the team will probably not be renaming themselves the Washington Nunbergs. Alas." Kathleen replied "I had a fun few minutes thinking about what the mascot for the Washington Nunbergs could be." Any thoughts?

    [(myl) Whatever the new name for the Washington Football Team turns out to be, they'll always be the Washington Nunbergs for me now! As for the mascot, I think we need that 1953 class photo as a basis.]

  8. Barbara Abbott said,

    August 12, 2020 @ 11:15 am

    My husband Larry (Hauser) and I very much enjoyed Geoff's broadcasts on NPR. We were sad to hear of his death.

  9. ardj said,

    August 12, 2020 @ 12:48 pm

    I regret that I have read all too little of Professor Nunberg, and so I am grateful to Chris Adams for the link to "The Decline of Grammar". One sentence there encapsulates the wry vision he could bring to bear:
    In fact, linguists as a class are no more sensitive to nuances of usage than mathematicians or chemists; they tend to regard prose as a necessary evil that serves only to smooth the transition from one formalism to the next.

  10. carlageek said,

    August 12, 2020 @ 2:57 pm

    To Language Log denizens who knew Prof. Nunberg personally, condolences on your loss. I have long enjoyed reading his work here and elsewhere; he'll be missed by readers as well as by colleagues.

  11. In Memoriam Geoffrey Nunberg | Representations said,

    August 12, 2020 @ 2:57 pm

    […] R.I.P. Geoff Nunberg […]

  12. John Lawler said,

    August 12, 2020 @ 4:47 pm

    I don't have a memory to share here so much as a current problem. I went to post Geoff's webpage address (http:www.geoffreynunberg.com) on Facebook and was not allowed to.

    I got the following automatic message:

    "You can't post this
    This URL goes against our Community Standards on spam:

  13. Ellen K. said,

    August 12, 2020 @ 4:55 pm

    @John Lawler

    I just tried because of your comment, and I got:

    Could not scrape URL because it has been blocked.

    I don't even know what that means.

  14. John Lawler said,

    August 12, 2020 @ 9:29 pm

    I think the URL I typed above is incomplete. Try


  15. Stephen Goranson said,

    August 13, 2020 @ 5:10 am

    One fond memory:
    Geoffrey Nunberg recalled a joke from Punch: a woman says she can’t understand Robert Browning and asks for a different poet. The bookseller replied, “Praed?” She says, “Yes, but praying didn’t help!” (Victorian readers would know the poet, Winthrop Mackworth Praed.)
    That got Nunberg thinking. In the 1850 poem “Easter-Day,” he asked (on LL and elsewhere), what does “Semitic guess” mean? The poem is partly about reason versus faith, and the limits of words, and dismisses, e.g., a mummy wrap papyrus with a Bible-related message.
    For the passage “…Of giving a Semitic guess,/Or playing pawns at blindfold chess,” my first—mistaken–guess was that it might refer to a Talmud savant pushing a pin through a page and guessing the word on the other side. But annotations going back to the 1880s or so claim it refers, not to Semitic people but to Semitic language and a philological problem. Geoffrey remarked, in effect, maybe so, but “it's Semitic guesses all the way down.”

  16. Stephen Goranson said,

    August 13, 2020 @ 5:17 am

    Sorry, my typo. "*at* blindfold chess."

  17. Stefan Müller said,

    August 13, 2020 @ 7:35 am

    He was a great person, linguist and also musician. Here he plays with the Dead Tongues back than at the Ivan Fest.


  18. Steve Hartman Keiser said,

    August 13, 2020 @ 12:11 pm

    In 1993 I was driving to a meeting and happened to tune into Geoff Nunberg's commentary on Fresh Air. I'm pretty sure it was the one titled "Uber and Out" in his book The Way We Talk Now. When he was done, I had two thoughts: "Wow!" and "I should go to grad school in linguistics." Thank you, Geoff!

  19. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 13, 2020 @ 12:13 pm

    Terry Gross remembers Geoff here.

  20. Edward L. Keenan said,

    August 14, 2020 @ 4:37 pm

    In Memorium: Geoffrey Nunberg
    Edward L. Keenan

    I begin today with a moment of silence for Geoffrey Nunberg, a friend, a fellow linguist, an erudite and witty companion, and an absolutely fine human being. Geoff and I met often when he resided in Los Angeles, (late 70s, early 80s). He had an interest (among many others) in natural language philosophy. Here is an enlightening observation of his (which may seem esoteric to non-linguists and non-philosophers) but it typifies his gift for noting the general in the particular, the unusual, even quirky in the mundane: Semanticists distinguish between extensional and intensional (with an ‘s’ not a ‘t’) occurrences of referential expressions.
    Consider the sentence John thought that the person who won the race was Greek. An intensional interpretation of the person who won the race is given when we think of the sentence as meaning “John thought that whoever won the race was Greek”. He may have no idea who the winner actually was, perhaps he just knew that only Greeks were allowed to enter. An extensional interpretation of the same expression is given by “The man who won the race is such that John thought he was Greek”. Here John may not even know that the person he was thinking about won the race, he is only convinced that that person is Greek.
    Geoff and I discuss this distinction and I remark that demonstratives – words like this and that that refer to something given in the context of utterance, just have extensional interpretations, a snap judgment that many linguists would share. Geoff ponders a nanosecond and says: Imagine you go into a restaurant that was quite high class but has now fallen on hard times. You pick up a paper napkin from a set table and pointing it out, say “These used to be linen”. This is an intensional usage – we don’t mean the particular piece of paper I’m holding used to be linen, rather it is whatever played the role of the current paper napkin in the old days that was made of linen.
    Many years later I reminded Geoff of this example, but he had forgotten it. I propose that we linguists henceforth refer to intensionally interpreted demonstratives as Nunberg phrases.

  21. Breffni said,

    August 14, 2020 @ 6:04 pm

    Deepest condolences to all those who knew Geoff. I’ll miss his witty and illuminating Language Log posts.

  22. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 14, 2020 @ 7:33 pm

    Here is the Berkeley School of Information's tribute to Geoff. I contributed some of my own remembrances.

  23. Annie zaenen said,

    August 14, 2020 @ 9:09 pm

    Geoff was a dear friend and we exchanged ideas on many linguistic issues drinking cheap French wine. But i am most grateful to him for pointing me to many treasures of late 19th – early 20th century English literature. Being attuned more to French literature and not particularly interested in the late 19th century, I wouldn’t have discovered Trollope or Beerbohm without Geoff.

  24. Scott Parker said,

    August 16, 2020 @ 7:53 am

    The Washington Post had a quite good and informative obituary here https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/geoffrey-nunberg-who-explored-how-language-shapes-politics-and-insults-dies-at-75/2020/08/13/3e0384b6-dd6e-11ea-8051-d5f887d73381_story.html

  25. Sophie Nunberg said,

    August 17, 2020 @ 8:21 pm

    These tributes have been wonderful to read. It's such a gift to be able to see all the kinds of lives my dad led.

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