Ben Zimmer

A language detective on the mysterious meaning of words.

Class of 1998 | A.M. Linguistic Anthropology

Ben Zimmer has always played with words. Throughout his childhood, he found himself turning to the dictionary again and again for amusement. “I was a dictionary buff,” said Zimmer. “When I was a kid I’d look up these obscure words in beautiful dictionaries from the 1930s, words like ucalegon that you could never use in a conversation.”

Currently, the executive producer of Visual Thesaurus and Vocabularly.com as well as former New York Times “On Language” columnist, Zimmer (AM’98),  continued his pursuit of words at Yale, where he studied linguistics, and then the University of Chicago, where he studied linguistic anthropology. While working on his masters, he traveled to Indonesia to study a local language and became fascinated with how folklore and word play affected its usage. Yet some of his favorite memories of that time take place in Haskell Hall, “bonding with my cohorts in Systems,” a.k.a. “the Anthro grad students’ boot camp.”

Later, Zimmer worked as the editor of American dictionaries for the Oxford University Press as well as a consultant for the Oxford English Dictionary. He currently serves as Chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. In addition, Zimmer is on the committee’s Executive Council, and organizes the selection process of its Word of the Year (this year occupy is a strong contender). In November, Zimmer returned to campus to participate in a panel discussion celebrating the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style.

Style over Standards

Despite his vast expertise and packed resume, Zimmer does not consider himself a “Usage Dictator,” the title his “On Language” predecessor William Safire jokingly gave himself. Zimmer is far more interested in the way that language changes (and what those changes indicate about culture) than in imposing his own preferences.

“Part of that is my training in linguistic anthropology,” said Zimmer. “I’m sort of a fascinated spectator of the way people get worked up over punctuation. I’m fascinated with the very strong emotions that go along with usage debates—the idea that language is going to hell in a hand basket often result from anxieties over generations getting projected onto language.”

Although he considers the Chicago Manual of Style a bible in terms of academic writing, Zimmer does not view it as the be all and end all. “I never take any style guide as some part of holy writ—intelligent writing can be informed by a style manual, but it should never dictate what you’re doing.”

Technology and Language

Moreover, Zimmer is not the sort of guy who bemoans texting and social media as the downfall of spelling, grammar, and all that is decent.  The fact that “w” instead of “with” might slip into a paper fails to daunt him. Instead, he notes that some studies suggest cell phones and social media actually increase literacy by exposing children to modes of self-publishing earlier.

“The consumption of texts and creation of texts is a way to develop literacy in young people,” said Zimmer. “As you learn to navigate these new literacies, you learn how to navigate what is appropriate.”

It’s not that people are less literate, Zimmer argues, but that with the introduction of the Internet and all of its capabilities for self-publishing, people are increasingly exposed to non-standard usages. He (figuratively) points to blogs dedicated to the misuse of the word “literally” as well as other linguistic pet peeves. Zimmer finds that increased umbrage at an “incorrect” usage often suggests that the language itself is changing.

“Current anxieties have to do with our increased exposure,” said Zimmer. “The volume and speed of change can be a bit daunting. With the advent of social media, there’s the possibility for language to go viral.”

The Case of the Common Word

Zimmer’s taste in words has changed since he was young. He still appreciates obscurities, but he’s more interested in common words and the ways their meanings are compounded and altered. He has traced the history of words like “rock,” from noun to verb, its transitive and intransitive uses.  Similarly, he sees Twitter as great way to gauge how words spread and change in real time. In November he even formalized a book deal to write about language and technology—tentatively titled Language Detectives.

And in many ways, that’s exactly what Zimmer is: a language detective.  He has been searching for the meaning of the meaning of words since he first looked up ucalegon (it refers to neighbor whose house is on fire), since he sat in Haskell Hall with other eager anthropologists in the making, since he traveled to Indonesia and immersed himself in a new language and culture. The meaning keeps changing, though, as culture maintains its state of flux. And as these meanings alter and technology evolves, Zimmer will continue using the latest gadgets to play with words.

By Jessen O'Brien, Class of 2012, Senior New Media Editor

Photo by Avi Schwab, SB'03

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