Away with words
Ben Zimmer, AM’98, took over William Safire’s On Language column before it was pulled earlier this year. Now where’s a word nerd to turn?
By Steven Yaccino
Illustration by Guido Mendez
Photography by Flora Rocco
In January some of North America’s most brilliant minds in linguistics, lexicography, and related fields gathered at the Wyndham Grand hotel in downtown Pittsburgh to argue about Cookie Monster.
Specifically, they debated whether the Sesame Street character’s chewing noise “nom, nom, nom,” an onomatopoeic noun referring to delicious food (e.g., Let’s go get some nom), should beat the front-runner “app” (e.g., There’s an app for that) in the 21st annual American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year election.
Like any high-stakes campaign, there were vociferous speeches and passionate rebuttals. Childhood nostalgia battled the omnipresence of technology—one woman stood and proclaimed that even her grandmother knows what an app is. As chair of the society’s New Words Committee, Ben Zimmer, AM’98, tallied the final show of hands, declining to cast his own vote.
“App” won, 69–51.
Pervading our everyday lives, technology has become “increasingly important in terms of the way language develops,” says Zimmer, former writer of the New York Times Magazine’s On Language column and executive producer of Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. “The propagation of new forms of language can happen at such a rapid rate, thanks to social media like Twitter and Facebook, that I think we’re still coming to grips with how that might be affecting language.”
While syntax snobs have denounced the rise of social media for its transgressions against the English language, Zimmer frequently devoted his 900–1,000 On Language word count to exploring these neologisms, drawing inspiration and insight from the Internet. In a 2009 On Language column, for instance, he looked at the prefix “un-” (e.g., unfriend or unfollow), exploring how such “instant reversibility is now an inescapable facet of our digitized life.”
As if to punctuate his point, earlier this year Times editors unfriended the 32-year-old On Language column, which Zimmer had officially inherited from the late William Safire last March. It was not the only beloved column cut. The move was part of a larger redesign, “in this moment of technological upheaval,” explained editor Hugo Lindgren in his introduction to the debut March 6 issue, which remade every page except the sacred crossword puzzle.
“[W]e decided to take a breather, at the risk of disappointing many loyal readers, and see what else works in the magazine,” Lindgren responded to a group of disgruntled lexicographers who had written him about the column’s end. “Unfortunately, there is a hard limit on pages, so something has to give.”
In another response to the grammar geeks who flocked to On Language every other Sunday to learn about lasting trends and shameful solecisms, Lindgren kept open the possibility of restoring it. “The column is not part of the mix for right now,” he insisted via Twitter March 1, “but it is not dead.”
The tweet didn’t stop loyal readers from mourning arguably the most popular column about language in history. The Facebook group “Keep ‘On Language’ in the New York Times” had almost 900 members in mid-April. Discontinuing the column is “like chopping down a tree in an old growth forest,” says former Oxford American Dictionary editor in chief Erin McKean, AB’93, AM’93. “You know, one of those huge monsters with a trunk ten feet across? It would take hundreds of years for that tree to come back.”
As a kid, Zimmer remembers, he skimmed a Webster’s New International second edition dictionary from the 1930s, turning its onionskin paper page by page. Born in 1971, he grew up in New Jersey collecting wordplay books and became a member of the National Puzzlers’ League, through which he eventually got to know Will Shortz, who edits the New York Times crossword. In the early 1980s, the preteen Zimmer wrote—but didn’t mail—a letter to the legendary On Language columnist Safire. “I remember writing it in pencil,” he says. “I think I was taking issue with something he said. I wanted to state my opinion, but then didn’t quite have the nerve to follow through with it.”
By then the still-young On Language column had become a staple in the weekly magazine. Zimmer wasn’t the only one itching to interact with Safire. During the column’s three-decade run, letters poured in from readers around the country—Safire called them his “Gotcha! Gang”—with queries and grammatical advice, which Safire often published in his column and in his books.
Many of Safire’s most fervent critics came from the linguistic community. Despite his previous career as a speech writer for Richard Nixon and as a political commentator who’d won a Pulitzer Prize, the self-appointed “Language Maven” had no academic training and claimed meager credentials. “So what if I hadn’t finished college, or even studied Latin?” he once wrote. “In the language dodge, I figured, a cat could look at a king.”
A fierce defender of good grammar, Safire persuaded Safeway grocery stores to change their express-lane signs from “Ten Items or Less” to “Ten Items or Fewer.” With his wit and a healthy addiction to alliteration, he promised to explore “new words, vogue phrases and the intriguing roots of everyday discourse—with occasionally crotchety observations on everything from proper usage to impropaganda,” as he put it in his inaugural column February 18, 1979.
“I think that most people were happy that there was such a bully pulpit for language issues, even if you didn’t always agree with Safire,” says McKean, who writes bimonthly for the Boston Globe’s Word column and founded Wordnik.com. “It was almost like he was running a discussion board before the Internet. He had a place where he could ask a question that thousands of people would see.”
One way Safire encouraged dialogue was by leaning on his “Lexicographic Irregulars.” Named after Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street Irregulars, the group—which Zimmer joined in 2004 after helping Safire track the origins of the phrase “stay the course”—assisted with detective work. Safire acknowledged Zimmer’s sleuthing over the years with sobriquets such as “that etymological Inspector Javert,” “netymologist,” and “longtime capo of the Phrasedick Brigade.”
“Netymologist,” someone who uses Internet databases to search for the earliest uses of words and phrases, perhaps sums up Zimmer’s greatest contribution to On Language. “There are a lot of different ways you can approach linguistics and lexicography, and one of the things he is especially good at was mining data for interesting quotes that are incredibly hard to find any other way,” says Jesse Sheidlower, AB’89, editor at large at the Oxford English Dictionary and president-elect of the American Dialect Society. “There are few people who are particularly good at it, but he’s just amazing.”
Zimmer’s talent for academic research reaches back to his studies as a linguistics major at Yale, where he wrote his senior essay comparing language politics in Indonesia and the Philippines. “It was a sophisticated piece of work,” says Yale anthropologist Joe Errington, AM’76, PhD’81, who taught Zimmer. “He was not one of the most frequent speakers in the class, but he was really good.” By the time Zimmer graduated in 1992, he had worked as a news editor for the Yale Daily News, and he spoke fluent Indonesian and Sundanese and some Arabic. He also had volunteered to read books and magazines about pop music for the Oxford English Dictionary to find interesting uses of words and phrases. “He had a lot of arrows in his quiver,” Errington says.
Zimmer spent a couple years in Indonesia, where he lived in Bandung studying the Sundanese language, before enrolling in the University of Chicago’s linguistic anthropology doctoral program. While working on his dissertation, “Being Sundanese, Speaking Sundanese: The Sociopolitics of Linguistic Differentiation in the Highlands of West Java, Indonesia,” Zimmer received several research fellowships and taught courses on language and culture at UCLA, Kenyon College, and Rutgers before abandoning his PhD to pursue nonacademic interests.
“I was having questions about my place in academia,” says Zimmer, who had been consulting for the Oxford English Dictionary and writing for Language Log, a blog written by linguists, while working as a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania Institute for Research in Cognitive Science. “This other work that I had been doing as a sideline for the whole time, I realized I really wanted to jump into that full force.”
In 2006 he became editor of American dictionaries at Oxford University Press, where he edited dictionaries and thesauruses for both print and online use. He also wrote a weekly column for the publisher’s blog, which he called From A to Zimmer. He left two years later to become the executive producer at Visual Thesaurus, editing its online magazine and writing its Word Routes column. Owned by the visualization-software company Thinkmap, which acquired Vocabulary.com in 2010, Visual Thesaurus maps the connections between words.
In addition to writing for Slate and the Boston Globe, Zimmer subbed for Safire when he went on vacation in 2009. He again contributed to the column later that year when the Language Maven went on medical leave. In September Safire died from pancreatic cancer at a hospice in Rockville, Maryland. He was 79. Zimmer was now tasked with summing up Safire’s legacy that, as he put it in his October 5 homage, “shaped how Americans talk about talk.”
As battles raged between prescriptive grammarians and descriptive linguists and lexicographers, Safire more often than not played both sides against the middle. ... When On Language began, it was a time of great doomsaying. Just five months earlier, in September 1978, Dick Cavett invited [Edwin] Newman and [John] Simon on his talk show to weigh in on the portentous topic “Is English a Dying Language?”
Safire, for his part, saw signs of life everywhere. “I welcome new words, or old words used in new ways,” he wrote, “provided the result is more precision, added color or greater expressiveness.”
Six months later, in March 2010, Zimmer was named Safire’s successor. He signed a one-year contract.
Zimmer’s style wasn’t as pithy or dogmatic as Safire’s, but what it lacked in punditry it made up for in depth of insight and curiosity. “[Safire’s] concern was to tell people what was right and wrong, especially about how they write language,” Errington explains. “That’s not the kind of column Ben writes. Ben picks up on wrinkles that are happening in widespread common usage. He doesn’t say these are right or wrong; he tells you where they came from and how they got to where they are.”
Whereas Safire’s wheelhouse leaned heavily on presidential flubs and harebrained political rhetoric, Zimmer’s year at the On Language helm was inspired by text-message autocorrect, the TV show Mad Men, WikiLeaks, and viral videos. One January column focused on the history of the word “junk” (e.g., Don’t touch my junk!) after the phrase was used in a popular YouTube video.
“It was always my goal with the column to have it speak to 21st-century concerns,” he says. “My point was to look at language that is fresh in many ways by its use in social media, and looking at how it reinvigorates language by using old building blocks in new ways.”
Zimmer’s last dispatch from On Language lacked the sentimentality of a final farewell. Skip the second paragraph, and you would have completely missed the announcement. Yet he couldn’t hide the disappointment in his voice in an interview two weeks before the column ended. “I’m just happy that I had the opportunity to do it for a year.”
He still has his posts at Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com, and he remains a regular contributor to Language Log. Before his last On Language column hit newsstands, he had written one-off op-eds for the New York Times Week in Review section about protest signs in Egypt and for the Atlantic about Watson, the Jeopardy-playing computer.
Next winter Zimmer will return as chair of the American Dialect Society’s New Words Committee and lead another words-of-the-year election. Sometimes the selections live on in widespread usage, such as “truthiness,” coined by Stephen Colbert in 2005, or “tweet,” chosen for 2009. Others quickly fade from memory like “plutoed,” the 2006 winning verb meaning “to demote” (e.g., I just got plutoed).
Zimmer is more interested in studying these trends than enforcing them or fighting them. In January he’ll likely be counting hands again while everyone around him is voting. “My in-box continues to overflow,” he says, with messages from people wondering about new words and where they come from. “I know just from interacting with readers that there is a huge amount of interest for that type of commentary.” Perhaps there should be an app for that.
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