Friday, February 25, 2011

On Language is turned off - The Old Grey Lady ain't what she used to be

Ben Zimmer was one of the first language bloggers to notice Wishydig and occasionally direct readers this way. I still remember that almost 4 years ago he was kind enough to mention one of my posts to Mr. Verb. It was a post I had written in response to one of William Safire's not very careful On Language columns on word history. Mr. Verb, writing with the same frustration I felt, remarked that it was time someone take over for the Times' resident Language Maven. Little did we know that in only a few years, the column would be Zimmer's.

Earlier today, Zimmer announced that his On Language column, "at least in its current incarnation," is being dropped from the redesigned New York Times Magazine. He has been trusted with that space for the past year, and he repaid that trust with careful, relevant, reliable, and interesting commentary on language. To make his columns interesting he didn't resort to making up facts, exaggerating claims, or stoking fears. He's a linguist who knows that language is fascinating on its own when represented accurately and analyzed reasonably.

I don't need to speculate about the business reasons for cutting On Language from the Times Magazine. I don't like it. Rational and insightful discussions of language are rare enough in mainstream news outlets. There are too many dilettantes and dabblers who go no further than to complain about variation and throw tantrums against change. Zimmer, on the other hand, provides calm and informed commentary. I'm sure he will continue to do so at Language Log, and the Visual Thesauraus. This is a coda, ending no syllable articulated by Zimmer, but by the New York Times.


  1. Very well said. I'll miss Ben's column; it was consistently fun, informative, and relevant. I hope some other publication has sense enough to see an opportunity here.

  2. It really is a pity that Ben Zimmer’s articles should not entertain readers anymore. It was a great opportunity that he would answer to reader’s questions as well. I especially liked this column on “We- The perils of a presumptuous pronoun”. Another interesting article I found was on language learning in “chunks”. According to Zimmer, native speakers pick up those chunks in their childhood, whereas foreigners are challenged with all those collocations that not necessarily seem logical, later on. Especially when it comes to translation, it is extremely important to stick to these collocations to make the text sound fluent and natural. Language with a different structure and way of thinking like Chinese translation is a particular challenge.


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