Ben Zimmer: What I Read

Linguist, lexicographer, and self-professed word nerd Ben Zimmer takes in an admirable amount of information daily, across all forms of media, new and old. It's not just about words. 

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Linguist, lexicographer, and self-professed word nerd Ben Zimmer takes in an admirable amount of information daily, across all forms of media, new and old. It's not just about words. 

Most mornings I wake up to the dulcet tones of Soterios Johnson, WNYC’s morning anchor. WNYC remains my default listening choice throughout the day (I compulsively switch between FM and AM programming) when I’m near a radio or when I feel like listening online. For music and free-form weirdness, my go-to station is the mighty WFMU, broadcast from Jersey City, where I’ve lived for the past decade. Even ’FMU’s pledge drives can be surprisingly listenable: the most recent marathon included Yo La Tengo performing caller requests live from Berlin while on tour, and a Star Trek nerd-off between John Hodgman and Cory Booker (wherein Mayor Booker charmingly referred to the Cardassians as the Kardashians). Fordham’s WFUV is often worth a listen, especially when Vin Scelsa is on.

On my commute into Manhattan I’m usually checking email and Twitter on my phone while catching up on podcasts. Along with the usual NPR suspects, my podcast staples include WTF with Marc Maron, The Bugle, and Slate’s various gabfests. Not surprisingly, my listening tastes run to the wordy side of the spectrum, so when I can I check out the public radio shows A Way With Words, The World in Words, and Ask Me Another, along with Slate’s Lexicon Valley. BBC Radio 4’s Word of Mouth is enjoyable, though not available as a podcast, unfortunately.

I find myself listening to podcasts more than my own omnivorous music collection these days. And though I’ve put my music library of about 18,000 songs in the cloud with Google Play, streaming services like Spotify and Pandora frequently offer more of a sense of discovery (and the joy of rediscovery). But I do worry about artists getting shortchanged by the streaming model.

After attending to pressing emails, my inbox triage involves scanning the mailing lists I subscribe to (mostly in digest form, except for important ones like the American Dialect Society listserv), automated alerts of blog posts and scholarly articles, and Google News alerts on a variety of language-related topics (and, I’ll freely admit, my own name). Newsle has been useful in keeping up with the latest articles by and about colleagues I care about.

I’m happy that people know my peculiar interests well enough that they’ll often email me (or tweet at me) about a notable blog post or news article. And my writing for Language Log over the years has guaranteed a steady stream of emails from people bringing linguistic oddities to my attention, particularly eggcorns, snowclones, crash blossoms, and cupertinos. Thanks, folks, keep ’em coming.

For online media, I start with The New York TimesThe Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The New Yorker, Slate, and The Atlantic Wire, along with their associated blogs (Artsbeat and Bits from the Times, Ideas Market from the Journal, Brainiac from the Globe, etc.). I rely on Romenesko, Poynter, and Media Decoder for meta-news from the world of journalism; Wired, The Atlantic, and The Verge for tech; and Deadspin, Yahoo, and Grantland for sports. I get my pop-culture fix from Vulture, The AV Club, Entertainment Weekly, and Gawker.

In the rich and sprawling lingua-blogosphere, I check in on my colleagues at Language Log and also make sure to see what’s happening on Language Hat, Lingua Franca (from The Chronicle), Johnson (from The Economist), and a raft of other blogs. I never miss the latest from fellow word-watchers such as Michael Quinion (World Wide Words), Paul McFedries (Wordspy), and my predecessor as Globe language columnist, Jan Freeman (Throw Grammar from the Train). Linguistically sensitive copy editors can be wonderful bloggers: see John McIntyre (You Don’t Say), Stan Carey (Sentence First), Merrill Perlman (CJR’s The Language Corner), and Jonathon Owen (Arrant Pedantry), for starters. And there are blogs that explore a language-y niche particularly well, be it branding (Nancy Friedman’s Fritinancy), etymology (Anatoly Liberman on OUPblog), lexicography (Kory Stamper’s Harmless Drudgery), or trans-Atlantic dialect differences (Lynne Murphy’s Separated by a Common Language).

The list goes on and on — I haven’t even gotten to such non-linguistic bloggy delights as Josh Fruhlinger’s Comics Curmudgeon, Faith and Fear in Flushing (manna for the literate Mets fan), or my brother Carl’s science blog The Loom. I’ve never really figured out an adequate way to keep up with all the RSS feeds I want to follow. Google Reader (R.I.P.) and its kin never quite clicked for me, and instead I’ve ended up relying on Firefox’s live bookmarks as a rather unwieldy way to scan for new posts. (I tend to have multiple browsers running to suit my needs — Firefox, Chrome, and Safari are typically all open on my Macbook, though my attempts at tab management usually fail miserably.)

But it’s really Twitter that has filled the breach as my primary alert system for good blog posts, news articles, Tumblr memes, and other choice tidbits I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Twitter is a constant presence for me now, with Facebook a distant second in my social media diet. Whether I’m checking in my browser (via Tweetdeck’s many columns) or on my phone, Twitter promises a steady stream of low-level diversions that I both cherish and dread.

More often than not, you can find me immersed in old media brought to life by new media, as my research on words and phrases requires heavy-duty use of historical databases of digitized texts. I search on Google Books so much that I often get CAPTCHAs demanding that I prove I’m not a robot. The Ngram Viewer for Google Books is indispensable and endless fun. But much of what I’m looking for is locked away in newspapers beyond the scope of Google Books, so I turn to pay services such as Readex, ProQuest, and Newspaperarchive. On the free side, the Library of Congress has been slowly adding to its Chronicling America collection of newspapers predating the 1923 copyright wall, and Google News Archive is defunct but still useful. For tracking trends in American English, the corpus collection maintained by Mark Davies at BYU is fantastic (and free), though the interface takes some getting used to.

For reference sites, I almost always have the online OED at the ready, as well as Onelook, which helpfully aggregates the best free online dictionaries (including the one I work on now, from When the digital version of the Dictionary of American Regional English launches, I’m sure I’ll have a tab devoted to it. And of course there’s Wikipedia, another constant companion.

I haven’t given myself up entirely to e-reading, as the unruly stacks of books at home and office attest. But I can’t deny the ease of finding the Kindle version of a book on Amazon, downloading it with a click, and commencing right away with reading and highlighting. I tend to use the desktop Kindle app for books I consult while writing; though my wife sometimes reads on a Kindle, I still prefer print books when reading for pleasure. We have an iPad, too, though I tend to use that for browsing and streaming video rather than book-reading.

We don’t get out to the movies as much as we’d like, and our TV-watching habits have dwindled to a handful of beloved shows. When my 6-year-old son is calling the shots, it’s Jeopardy!, Adventure Time, The Amazing Race, and various Science Channel shows involving celestial objects violently colliding into each other. With the baseball season underway, my wife and I may flip back and forth between games as we negotiate our mixed marriage (a Mets fan with a Yankees fan). We end the evening with The Daily Show and Colbert, and catch up on other shows via DVR, On Demand, or Netflix. The Americans is our current favorite. I’m elated for the return of Mad Men and Veep, resigned to a long wait for more Girls and Louie, and saddened by the loss of 30 Rock and Enlightened. Oh, and we’ll be watching the heck out of the new Arrested Development episodes when they hit Netflix.

I’ll admit I have trouble “turning off” when it’s time for bed. My natural nightowl tendencies are not at all helped by the endless distractions of various media devices. Reading a book with actual pages does help soothe the brain, I find.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.