The Word Is Out: A New Voice For 'On Language'

Ben Zimmer i i

Ben Zimmer studied linguistic anthropology at the University of Chicago. He is a consultant for the Oxford English Dictionary and the executive producer of visualthesaurus.com and vocabulary.com. Monico Rabara hide caption

itoggle caption Monico Rabara
Ben Zimmer

Ben Zimmer studied linguistic anthropology at the University of Chicago. He is a consultant for the Oxford English Dictionary and the executive producer of visualthesaurus.com and vocabulary.com.

Monico Rabara

When William Safire died last September, the veteran columnist for The New York Times left vacant a post that he had filled for more than 30 years. Safire originated the "On Language" column in The New York Times Magazine in 1979 and continued to write it until his death.

This week, the Times Magazine announced the name of the man who would take over the role of exploring and increasing the vocabularies of Americans: Ben Zimmer.

The name should be familiar to word fans already. Zimmer is the executive producer of two Web sites, visualthesaurus.com and vocabulary.com, that cater to word freaks. After Safire died, Zimmer wrote the column remembering his colleague's contribution to linguistics. Still, Zimmer admits that his predecessor's shadow is long.

"It is a little intimidating, I have to say, especially because I can't reproduce William Safire's very distinctive voice," Zimmer tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "I'll put my own stamp on it. I'll come at it in some ways in a more scholarly way because of my background in linguistics and linguistic anthropology. But also, I will be casting a wide net. You know, everything from technology to pop culture, high-brow, low-brow, everything in between. I'll be on the lookout for all sorts of new developments that are happening in language."

Zimmer has already spent some time documenting the ways pop culture has infiltrated our language. He talks about one new word whose usage was crystallized in a particular moment: when Kanye West rushed onto the stage at the MTV Video Music Awards and took the microphone from winner Taylor Swift to announce his preference for a different video.

"It was such a watershed moment that his name, Kanye, became a verb: 'to Kanye,' or sometimes 'to pull a Kanye,' meaning to interrupt someone when they're giving a speech, like at an awards show," Zimmer says.

The world didn't have to wait long for the new word to become useful. During the Academy Awards ceremony earlier this month, Elinor Burkett rushed up onto the stage a few steps behind her co-producer for the winning documentary short, took the microphone out of his hand and proceeded to give a speech of her own.

"Right away people are saying, 'She Kanye'd that guy,' " Zimmer says. "That new word got a new lease on life from very similar circumstances."

For the first "On Language" column of his official tenure, Zimmer writes about one of the first words many people learn: "no."

And like Safire often did, he chose to examine the word's contemporary political context.

"Blocking the road to yes on health care and other initiatives," Zimmer writes,

is the Republican Congressional minority, which has been painted by Democrats as 'the party of no.' It's been a common refrain since the early months of the Obama administration, when the Democratic National Committee introduced a 'Party of No' clock on its Web site, tallying the time Republicans spent criticizing Obama's budget plan without offering their own alternative.

"Funnily enough," Zimmer tells Renee Montagne, that particular phrase "goes back to Ronald Reagan criticizing the Democrats as 'the party of no' back in 1988. And since then, it's sort of been a pingpong ball back and forth. Whoever is the party in charge calls the opposition 'the party of no.' "

In addition to the column, Zimmer will answer one question from Times Magazine readers online every other week. Asked if he's ever been stumped by a request for the history or meaning of a word, he reveals one major way the beginning of his stint at "On Language" will be different from Safire's: the Internet.

"These days it's possible to do research on these things much more easily than we could before," Zimmer says. "I remember being asked about [the phrase] 'You're not the boss of me.' People might think it comes from the '80s or the '90s, but in fact it's quite old. You can find examples from the late 19th century in very similar situations, like a petulant child complaining about an older sibling.

"That's a kind of a hidden history that — because we have these great tools at our disposal now — we can uncover this history and tell a new story about words and phrases that might be familiar with us, but we don't know where they come from until we do this detective work."

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