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.”
This semester, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks is back at Yale to teach two courses at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. WKND BLOG’s Foreign Dispatch correspondent Kiki Ochieng was able to catch up with Brooks, liberals’ favorite conservative (especially after his comments on the GOP last year), about the contradictions inherent in teaching a seminar on humility while co-teaching Grand Strategy. Is this meant to be irony or an exploration of two sides of the same coin? Is there any overlap? How do all the egos fit in the room? Brooks chatted with WEEKEND about the lack of moral arguments in contemporary politics, the need for diversity in political thought and America as a “pain-in-the-ass” superpower.
Q.One of your most quoted and referenced articles is your famous 2001 piece for “The Atlantic.” In that article, you describe the generation of college students born between 1979 and 1982 as the “organizational kid.” How do you think today’s generation compares to the students you profiled in that article?
A. I guess the first thing that’s the same is the amount of energy and pressure to succeed. I graduated from high school not in the top 40 percent of my high school class, [and] my GPA was extremely mediocre, but I could still get into the University of Chicago, undergrad. When I look at contemporary student resumes, not only was I not like that, but nobody I knew was like that. The pressures of meritocracy have continued to build, and now, the rewards for energy and early intelligence, or the kind of intelligence that blooms early, are higher and higher. I think those pressures are already ratcheted from when I wrote the article.
As far as the moral challenges that I describe, I think they’re still true. I don’t think this is just a big problem with people until 30 — I think this a big problem with people under 60. We’re sort of morally inarticulate. We’ve grown up in an era without a strong external moral code, and it’s hard to have moral arguments. We’re good at having arguments about neuroscience and how to succeed and how to make wise decisions. The language of virtue and vice and sin — all that has sort of drifted away from us.
Q.How do you think that factors into emotional education? You’ve touched on that subject in other columns.
A. The column about Bruce Springsteen? One of the things that is striking about the field of cognition is that it used to be that people didn’t pay attention to emotion in particular. They paid attention to reason and decision-making, but now we realize that reason isn’t the opposite of emotion. Emotion is the foundation of reason, and our emotions tell us what to value. Our emotions influence all sorts of cognitive processes. The older you get, the more you realize — especially if you’re a guy — the importance of an emotional repertoire. If you ask people, especially men, what they regret most in life, it’s that they weren’t emotionally open with their families. Even as you get into the world I live in, the emotionally avoidant world of politics and economics regimented on growth and budgets, I spend a lot of time myself, I think about emotions and reading novels and going to places like Yale to work on that side of the education.
Q.What influenced your decision to teach a course on “Humility”?
A. Well, the short answer is that I work in the most obnoxious, narcissistic profession ever. I’m perpetually spouting off, so humility is a concern of mine [laughs]. But I think a lot of people are like that, and we’re all forced to market ourselves and brand ourselves and win attention. Second, more generally, I do think over the last 50 years, there’s been a tremendous rise in self-esteem, which is measurable by a bunch of different statistics: the way we perform on narcissism tests, the rise in the number of people who think that someone should write a biography about them, the rising desire for fame. I do think there was a whole moral code 100 years ago built around humility, built around the sense that you’re an underdog, you’re struggling against your own weaknesses. I think we’ve lost touch with that tradition. The course is not designed to turn back the time, but to connect people — including me — with a moral tradition that includes St. Augustine and Edmund Burke and Dorothy Day. I think that it would be part of a good education to be familiar with these other traditions.
Q. Do you think that the lessons of your “Humility” course factor into how you’ve taught “Grand Strategy”?
A. Good question. The “Humility” course is people writing about internal struggles, struggles against your own weaknesses, and the “Grand Strategy” course is the course of that external struggle against enemies. There are some parallels there. Machiavelli believed you could have two moralities: the morality of your private life, where you could be nice and compassionate, and the morality of politics, where you have to be a ruthless bastard. I’m not sure if he’s right about that, but in both cases, you’re talking about how to be a good person in an ugly world.
Q.What place does idealism have in the American political scene, nowadays?
A. I guess I’m a believer in skeptical idealism. I’m a believer that we are all extremely limited creatures. When you do what I do and you spend your time around politicians, you realize that they never have the choice of a really good policy versus a really bad policy. They have a choice between an awful policy and an even more awful policy. They have to make these brutal decisions. Often, idealism doesn’t even come into it. They’re just trying to survive. One of my heroes, Michael Oakeshott, had this theory: Politics is like you’re on a ship, you’re in storm-tossed waters, you’re just trying to keep the ship upright. That’s what politicians are doing a lot of the time. I give them a lot of credit because everyone’s dumping all over them and they are faced with horrible choices and very constrained power. One of the things I observe as I watch, say, President Obama — as all presidents, he learned how the office seems really powerful, but very often their power and their ability to implement change is extremely limited.
Q.Does America have a superiority complex? If it didn’t, would its actions abroad be different?
A. All great nations have a superiority complex. I really have no taste for nations that don’t think they’re great, so I like the French. Everyone else hates the French and their arrogance. I like their arrogance. I covered Europe for a long time, and grew to respect them because they just think they’re a great nation. I was at dinner last night with a senior foreign policy official and this person was saying that all these theories that we’re in decline, that people don’t respect us as much as they used to or that we don’t have as much influence, are not reality at all. We have our troubles, but every other country has even worse troubles. We’re still the big dog on the block. I think we’re bound to be a superpower for a long time. We’re going to be the kind of superpower we’ve always been, which is a pain in the ass for everybody but genuinely a force for good.
Q.We’ve talked a bit about morality and politics. How does the use of drones change warfare and what new moral perspective does that mean we have to consider?
A. That’s a classic case of what policy is like. When you talk to people in the military, they say that drones are just so damn effective. You’re president of the United States. Every day you get an intelligence briefing that says this person is trying to launch a bombing raid, this person is trying to kill Americans, that person is trying to blow up an airplane. You’ve got a few options. Option A is to do nothing and hope you can stop them at the TSA gate at the airport. Option B is to do some bombing strike. Option C is to send in special forces, but special forces don’t work the way they do in the movies. You can’t just send in eight people. You probably have to send in 500 people. Option D is to send in a drone. Of those four options, Option D seems like the best one — or the least bad. Now, having said that, because I am the sort of person who distrusts myself and others, I would like to see oversight. I’m a believer that we should have a court, overseen and appointed by Congress, that oversees the president’s authority, or at least who gets on the kill list.
Q.Many people complain about polarization and how we don’t see any bipartisan bills being pushed forward. Do you see the polarization of American politics increasing or decreasing as today’s youth move into positions of power?
A. My view is that polarization goes in cycles. For example, the Revolutionary War period was highly polarized. My hero Alexander Hamilton was killed by the vice president, which was a polarized act. The Civil War period obviously was. We’ve had 30 or 40 years of pretty great polarization. I have to think that it’s going to burn itself out. Maybe it’s in the process, with the last election, of burning itself out.
Having said that, there is still a lot of geographic polarization. People moving into neighborhoods of people just like themselves. There’s a lot of academic polarization — people going to colleges filled with people just like themselves. It’s not evident or obvious that the era of polarization is ending. But eventually, you just get sick of it and have a big fiscal crisis which forces you to compromise.
Last week, Paul Goldberger ’72 won the National Building Museum’s 14th annual Vincent Scully Prize — as good as it gets in his field — for his life-long work as an architecture critic, first at The New York Times (where he won a Pulitzer in 1984) and, until last year, at The New Yorker, where he wrote the magazine’s “Sky Line” column. These days, he serves as a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and lectures at The New School in New York, where he holds the Joseph Urban Chair in Design and Architecture. Goldberger’s most recent book, “Why Architecture Matters,” was released by Yale University Press in 2009. Goldberger caught up with WEEKEND and riffed on his former pro- fessor, campus buildings and the contemporary constituency for architecture.
Q. You just won the Scully Prize. Congrats! Vincent Scully was a legendary Yale professor, right, and also your teacher? What should my generation know about Scully?
A. Well, he was an extraordinary professor because he managed to connect architecture to all of culture and all of life. He was a very compelling lecturer. His lectures were famous, they were extraordinary things. He filled up the auditorium — he was a very powerful presence — and would talk about architecture in this way that I’d never heard it talked about before, with incredible passion and energy and connection to the rest of culture. He would read from Wallace Stevens or Robert Lowell or what have you and make connections between architectural ideas and literature and so forth. So it was very exciting and eye-opening, and I think the greatest impact he had over time was not on people who became architects but on non-architects, in making a greater constituency for architecture: in making people look more, in making people care more, maybe making people better clients. For all I know, a thousand bankers over the years took his class and when they became heads of banks made better buildings. We’ll never know for sure, but I really think so.
Q. When you were a student at Yale, did you appreciate the campus architecture?
A. Yeah, very much. It was one of the things that attracted me to Yale. I first saw some of the modern buildings in magazines, and that got me very excited. And then when I actually arrived, I had the sort of weird experience of discovering that I also liked the Gothic architecture, and all the old stuff, which, if you were serious about architecture in those days, you weren’t supposed to like. And coming to terms with all that was actually one of the interesting things of my years at Yale — just discovering that it was okay to like very different kinds of things. That sometimes buildings got surrounded by a set of ideas that were almost too much, and that made [the two] seem inconsistent — as if they didn’t belong together. In fact, architecture and morality didn’t make a very interesting argument. In the end, I think it’s much more about visual pleasure and about ideas of use and, potentially, aesthetic excitement.
Q. What goes unnoticed about Yale’s architecture?
A. Today, I don’t know that anything goes unnoticed, because, over the last generation, there’s been so much more attention paid to it. Also, so many of the great Yale buildings have been beautifully restored. Yale’s put a huge amount of money into taking care of the great architecture it has. And now a lot of the modern buildings are half a century old, and they’re getting rehabilitated as well as the older ones. The last set of the Rick Levin years have been an amazing time in terms of just taking care of what Yale has. But the thing that is so subtle about those buildings is the way they come together to make a larger place. Yale is an urban campus — it’s not off in some beautiful countryside somewhere. It’s in the middle of a city, and yet those buildings are so powerful and they come together so beautifully to make a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts. That’s what great urban architecture is supposed to do — it’s supposed to come together to make a larger whole. That wasn’t appreciated once. In the ’50s and ’60s, when the modern buildings were being built, every building was kind of a prima donna of its own, and the idea that these buildings should defer to a larger whole to give the place coherence was just not something people got or cared about. I think now they do. I think now people recognize that’s part of the virtue of the Yale buildings.
Q. As an architecture critic, can you ever truly isolate one structure?
A. Well, you can. I think you have to look at buildings in both ways at the same time. I think that’s part of the excitement of architecture: it’s many things at once. Every one of those buildings can and should be looked at as a building unto itself and also as part of a larger whole. And I think the modern buildings, too. The modern buildings are usually more successful as buildings unto themselves and less successful as parts of a larger whole. The older buildings, a lot of them are successful both ways, which is in some way the greater accomplishment.
Q. Does that apply only at Yale?
A. Well, it’s an ideal that applies everywhere. It’s not always achieved. And I’m certainly not going to say older buildings are always better than new ones. In fact, it’s important that architecture continue to invent, and be a living, changing art — like painting and literature and music. Understanding and appreciating and respecting what’s come before is the foundation of invention.
Q. But as an architecture critic you don’t just focus on buildings, do you?
A. No, I’m interested in cities, in city planning, in historic preservation; in design of objects, too. I’m interested in going both bigger than buildings, with urban design, and smaller than buildings, to objects. I’m sitting at my desk looking right now at an iPhone and an Apple computer. Those are amazing objects that show we’ve come an extraordinary distance in terms of the design of consumer objects in the last generation.
Q. Is there a difference between an architecture review and, say, a book review or a theater review?
A. Yes and no. I think an architecture review is less of a consumer guide. With a movie review, part of the function is to tell you: should you or should you not bother to go to the movies to see this? An architecture review is not about buying a building. It’s about: “What role does that building have in the culture? What role does it have in the city? What role is it going to have not only for the people who use it every day, but for the people who pass it and never go in? What’s its presence? What’s its meaning?” It’s not a consumer guide in that sense. Though maybe it is, because maybe the way we consume buildings is by looking at them.
Q. Architecture is at once functional and aesthetic; so are essays. Do you see any similarities between crafting an essay and designing a building?
A. An essay has a certain kind of structure and logic to it. Hopefully, it’s a beautiful piece of writing, so it has some degree of aesthetic accomplishment or quality to it, but it also fulfills a function in that it conveys an idea. So yeah, in that sense, an essay does exist in all those different realms — in some of them, at least.
Q. One last question: did you write for the News?
A. I never did write for the Daily News, no. I wrote for The New Journal, which truly was new when I was there. It started a year or two before I came to Yale, but it was still a pretty new thing. And I just kind of fell in with the people running it, and I was particularly interested in magazine writing, and I’d done a bit of it already. I wasn’t trying to avoid the News; it’s just that I started writing for The New Journal and eventually I became an editor of it. So I never did write for the Daily News. My son, who’s in the class of ’08, did. He was a sports reporter for several years. You got one Goldberger