A college tea earlier this week drew nearly the entire Linguistics Department.
Ben Zimmer ’92, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and recipient of the Linguistic Society of America’s first Linguistics Journalism award, returned to Davenport College — his residential college — to discuss his unique career as a language journalist.
Zimmer spent his time in New Haven studying linguistics, Indonesian and writing for the News. Currently, he is also the executive editor of vocabulary.com, a learning tool for new vocabulary and member of the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism.
“Stories [are] waiting to be told, and I wanted to find ways to tell them,” Zimmer said to the crowd as he explained his journey from academia to journalism.
Despite the esoteric nature of his work, he drew a large crowd: Before he began speaking, his audience moved to the Davenport common room because the head of college’s house could not fit everyone. Richard Schottenfeld, head of Davenport College, told the crowd that this was only the second time he remembers having to relocate the listeners from his house due to exceptional interest.
Some people present at the talk, like Darcy Chanin ’20, did not know what to expect as they were not familiar with Zimmer’s career. She said she attended the talk because she took a class in linguistics and was interested in the field. A large portion of the crowd comprised faculty and students from the Linguistics Department.
In his talk, Zimmer characterized his current work as a language journalist as determining the origins and evolution of words and phrases that lead to their recent usages. Elaborating on his passion for this line of investigation, he said that he cannot resist wanting to know where words come from.
Many topics Zimmer touched upon were controversial, including his involvement in choosing the singular pronoun “they” as the word of the year for 2015, the definition of marriage during and after the campaign for marriage equality and the term “upstander” coined by Samantha Power ’92 — also a Davenport alumna — and how two high school girls campaigned to have “upstander” be included in the dictionary. Zimmer defined “upstander” to be the opposite of bystander.
Much to the audience’s delight, Zimmer also touched upon the controversy of “big league” versus “bigly” in Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s general speech pattern. To settle the social media debate, linguists have analyzed the phonetics of Trump’s speech and decided that he actually says “big league,” according to an article published by The New York Times two days ago.
Not all of the talk was politically charged, though. Zimmer cheerfully shared his attempts at analyzing the lyrics of “I Am The Walrus” by the Beatles, and traced the famous lyric “goo goo g’ joob” to a court case between the makers of Betty Boop and Helen Kane on the rights for the phrase “Boop-Oop-a-Doop.”
“Utter nonsense can have its own kind of story to it, and it can cross cultural boundaries, racial boundaries,” Zimmer said.
For Zimmer, his special brand of language journalism is unique because he is not just “spouting opinions.” He said he differentiates himself from a language commentator by the “rigorous research” that goes into his articles and that he strives to remain objective on a subject as elusive as language itself.
Zimmer said that in studying words and phrases, he is tracing elements that have longer and more complicated histories than the average speaker is aware of. However, his main goal is not to persuade readers of his own opinions but rather to conduct objective research.
“I am not there to say these people are using this word incorrectly,” Zimmer said. “I can form an opinion about it, but based on real evidence.”