Ben Zimmer's latest interviews and other media appearances.
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Musical ‘Covers,’ From Sinatra to Ryan Adams

September 26, 2015

Musical ‘Covers,’ From Sinatra to Ryan Adams
Wall Street Journal, Sept. 26, 2015 (PDF)

This week indie rocker Ryan Adams delivered an unusual release: a full remake of Taylor Swift’s “1989,” consisting of cover versions of all the songs from her top-selling album. While Mr. Adams takes a musical homage to extreme lengths, the “cover” has been a basic bit of music-industry lingo for nearly 70 years.

As the U.S. emerged from World War II, big-band music gave way to pop songs with a focus on vocalists like Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee. Competition heated up among the major labels to capture the burgeoning audience for pop music, as well as for the newly dubbed fields of “rhythm and blues” and “country and western.” The industry magazine Billboard ranked records according to record sales, radio airplay and jukebox spins.

The record labels developed a winning strategy: riding on the coattails of another label’s hit by rerecording it with their own artists. Billboard began referring to this practice as “coverage” as early as 1948, the idea being that labels sought to “cover” the consumer market by peddling different versions of a popular tune.

The term “coverage” soon entered Billboard’s capsule record reviews that attempted to predict which songs would do well on the charts. In 1949, when the Chicago singer and pianist Al Morgan found success on the hit parade with a pop rendition of “Jealous Heart,” Billboard assessed one of the many knockoffs: “ Jeffrey Clay does the solo honors in this good coverage of a current hit.”

As the snappy lingo of Billboard’s record reviewers got even snappier in the early 1950s, they began referring to such remakes as “cover jobs,” “cover versions” or simply “covers.” And the covers themselves were proliferating—now pop artists were covering R&B and country songs as well, as cultural reappropriations gave birth to rock ’n’ roll.

One notable example came in the spring of 1953, when Peacock Records released “Hound Dog,” penned by the young songwriting duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and sung by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. As it shot up the R&B charts, “Little” Esther Phillips quickly remade “Hound Dog” for the Federal label. “This is a cover version of the Willie Mae Thornton disk, which has been one of the fastest breaking hits in some years,” Billboard wrote, adding, “This one will be hard-pressed to compete. It fails to build the same excitement of the original.”

Three years later a new version of the song would build unprecedented excitement, when Elvis Presley released his own rocking “Hound Dog.” It would go on to be one of the best-selling singles of all time.

But was Presley’s version even a “cover”? In her contribution to the 2010 essay collection “Play it Again: Cover Songs in Popular Music,” the sociologist Deena Weinstein argues that one criterion of a “cover” is that listeners know the original, and most Elvis fans were unaware of Thornton’s version. It’s safe to say, though, that anyone listening to Ryan Adams cover “1989” is quite familiar with Ms. Swift’s oeuvre.

‘Authenticity’ in the 2016 Campaign

September 19, 2015

‘Authenticity’ in the 2016 Campaign
Wall Street Journal, Sept. 19, 2015 (PDF)

In Wednesday’s debate of Republican presidential candidates, one word kept coming up as a yardstick: ‘authenticity.’ Where does the word come from, and when did it enter politics?

As observers sized up the Republican presidential candidates at Wednesday’s debate in the Reagan Presidential Library, one word kept coming up as a kind of a yardstick for their performances: Were they “authentic”?

On Twitter, the word often appeared in the running commentary of debate-viewers. “Whoa, first authentic moment of emotion from Jeb Bush in the entire campaign: ‘My brother kept us safe,’” tweeted Steven Mazie, Supreme Court correspondent for the Economist.

Meanwhile, Aaron Gardner, a communications consultant and former managing editor of conservative blog, was concerned about Sen. Ted Cruz: “I don’t know what it is, maybe he is too prepared, but Cruz doesn’t sound authentic,” Mr. Gardner noted.

Going into the debate, pundits spoke of an “authenticity” gap on such venues as CBS’s “Face the Nation”: Outsiders Donald Trump and Ben Carson had it, while the professional politicians lagging in the polls seemed to lack it. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has had her own struggles to appear “authentic”—especially compared to her main rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, as well as Vice President Joe Biden, who may be considering a presidential run.

“Authenticity” has become a major buzzword of the campaign season, representing the culmination of a decadeslong political trend. “Before the latter half of the 20th century, the question of whether a candidate was ‘authentic’ was rarely raised,” wrote Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman in their 2004 book, “The Press Effect.”

That all started to change with the 1976 election of Jimmy Carter, who had campaigned as a genuine, average guy, according to Erica J. Seifert, author of “The Politics of Authenticity in Presidential Campaigns.” “By 2008, it was a dominant theme in political television and print media,” she writes.

Along the way, such politicians as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush scored major “authenticity” points. Reagan’s authenticity transcended his background in the world of movies. Even as a Hollywood actor, he was seen as the real deal, since he always seemed to play one role: Ronald Reagan. “Because he acts himself, we know he is authentic,” commented Garry Wills in his 1987 book, “Reagan’s America.”

While we routinely judge politicians to be “authentic” or “inauthentic,” these words have become attached to people rather than to objects relatively recently in their history. The roots of “authentic” lie in the Greek “authentikos,” meaning “original” or “primary,” and in its early use in English, the word described genuine articles rather than false imitations.

But what we call “authentic” underwent a rapid transformation in the 20th century. A hundred years ago the most typical nouns to follow “authentic” were “information” and “history,” according to the Google Books Ngram Viewer, an online tool that tracks word usage patterns based on the texts of millions of digitized books. By the 1980s, “authentic” most often modified “voice” and “self,” as the word became associated with a more human kind of genuineness.

“Authenticity” thus came to stand for the honest expression of one’s “true” inner self—or at least, in the realm of political image-making, the ability to appear emotionally sincere. As the old theatrical saying goes, the main thing is honesty; if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

Moment Magazine, “A Yiddish Word Goes Galactic”

September 18, 2015

Anna Isaacs, “A Yiddish Word Goes Galactic” (Moment Magazine, Sept. 18, 2015)

Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer uncovered the missing link between radio and space during the debacle, penning a column on the subject in The Wall Street Journal. Before taking on cosmic significance, glitch passed through television. Zimmer found a 1955 Bell Telephone ad in Billboard describing the company argot: “And when he talks of ‘glitch’ with a fellow technician, he means a low frequency interference which appears as a narrow horizontal bar moving vertically through the picture.” A 1959 trade magazine piece about tape-splicing explains: “‘Glitch’ is slang for the ‘momentary jiggle’ that occurs at the editing point if the sync pulses don’t match exactly in the splice.”

Zimmer delights in the historical happenstance. “Glitch becomes entrenched among radio technicians, then television technicians, and then space technicians, and then computer technicians,” he says. Most of its existence, he adds, has been “under the radar as this technical term.” But no longer. Thanks to the ubiquity of crashing computers and freezing smartphone screens, the word has even inspired an artistic style that embraces error as an aesthetic ideal. But its Yiddish root is subtle enough that it often falls victim to the “backronym”—an apocryphal acronym retroactively applied to a word of mysterious origin. Such gems include “Gremlins Loose In The Computer Hut” and “Gremlins Lurking In The Computer Hardware.” Says Zimmer: “People have a lot of fun trying to explain where things come from.”

Read the rest here.

Morning Edition (NPR), “A Vocabulary Lesson From The Republican Presidential Debate”

September 18, 2015

Interview on NPR’S Morning Edition, “A Vocabulary Lesson From The Republican Presidential Debate” (Sept. 18, 2015)

Renee Montagne talks to Ben Zimmer, executive editor of, about some of the presidential and not so presidential words that came up during this week’s Republican debate.

(Show page, audio, related post)

Observer, “The Presidential (and Not So Presidential) Vocabulary of the Second GOP Debate”

September 17, 2015

Observer, “The Presidential (and Not So Presidential) Vocabulary of the Second GOP Debate” (Sept. 17, 2015)

At the second Republican presidential debate, held last night at the Reagan Presidential Library and aired on CNN, the candidates jockeyed for the attention of primary voters. There are many ways of judging their performances, but what better way than to analyze their choice of words?

As with the first debate, has conducted a rapid-response survey of the candidates’ vocabulary, showcasing their most relevant words according to an analysis of the debate transcript. “Relevance” is determined by comparing the frequency of words used by the candidates with those words’ frequency in the corpus of texts. The corpus consists of 3.2 billion words from a variety of English sources, and it is continually growing with new sources added every day.

The analysis reveals some common themes related to serious-minded policy discussions: among the top relevant words overall were immigration and amnesty, autism and vaccine, destabilize and nuclear. But there were also some not-so-presidential words that Rand Paul might deem sophomoric.

Read the rest here.

Minnesota Public Radio, “When is Someone a ‘Refugee’?”

September 15, 2015

Interview on Minnesota Public Radio, “When is Someone a ‘Refugee’?” (Sept. 15, 2015)

The European migration crisis has many wondering whether people seeking a safer life should be called refugees. Linguist and language columnist Ben Zimmer says the term “refugee” carries a lot of baggage.

(Show page, audio, related Wall St. Journal column)

The Academe Blog, “Speaking American as Americans Speak It and Speaking English as Jesus and St. Paul Spoke It”

September 13, 2015

Martin Kich, “Speaking American as Americans Speak It and Speaking English as Jesus and St. Paul Spoke It” (The Academe Blog, AAUP, Sept. 13, 2015)

Recently, I posted an item on Sarah Palin’s abuse of the English language, which included her observation that if immigrants don’t want to be stigmatized, they should start “speaking American.” Very coincidentally, later on that same day, I came across an item in the discussion list for the American Dialect Society that included a link to a much lengthier item posted previously to Language Log. The two items are re-posted here with the permission of the author, Ben Zimmer. They demonstrate concretely that Palin’s nativist sensibility has deep historical roots in American life.

Read the rest here.

New York Observer, “Zimmer Down, Boys”

September 8, 2015

Matthew Kassel, “Zimmer Down, Boys” (New York Observer, Sept. 8, 2015)

Brothers (and newspaper columnists) Ben and Carl specialize in making esoteric subjects compelling for the everyday reader.

On a recent afternoon at Pete’s Tavern, Carl and Ben Zimmer were reminiscing over pints of ale. “It’s been a while since I’ve been here,” Carl said, taking in the scene. The Zimmers were roommates on the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn Heights in the early ’90s, when Ben, fresh out of Yale with a degree in linguistics, had his first job as a program assistant at the Social Science Research Council. Carl, who had also graduated from Yale, was working as an editor at Discover magazine, and Pete’s was a haunt, as was Cedar Tavern, which has since closed.

The usually bespectacled brothers don’t get together for beers as often anymore, now that they’re busy as wonky columnists at the city’s dueling dailies.

Read the rest here.

Monocle Daily, “What Does It Mean to ‘Speak American’?”

September 7, 2015

Interview on UK radio program The Monocle Daily about “speaking American.” (Sept. 7, 2015)

Episode 996: Monocle’s editor in chief Tyler Brûlé brings us the latest news from Vienna as Europe’s refugee crisis unfolds. We then look at how Latin America and North America are responding. We discuss why Russia and the US are concerned about Greek airspace; plus linguist Ben Zimmer breaks down what “talking American” sounds like.
[Interview begins at 50 min.]

(Show page, audio)

Time, “Why Dropping ‘Anchor Baby’ Is a Problem for Politicians”

August 26, 2015

Katy Steinmetz, “Why Dropping ‘Anchor Baby’ Is a Problem for Politicians” (Time, Aug. 26, 2015)

“There’s nothing specifically about the words themselves that makes them offensive,” says linguist Ben Zimmer, executive producer of, “but the idea that people are trying to find a devious way to get into the country by having children here basically dehumanizes everyone involved.” …
Regardless, the phrase has stuck. And, while debate over its use can actually lead to discussion of important issues like candidates’ positions on birthright citizenship (Bush is for it; Donald Trump, who also uses the term, is against it), that stickiness is just one more reason for conscientious politicians to steer clear of it, says linguist Zimmer. “The difficulty is that those pithy words and phrases are much more memorable and work their way into the public consciousness,” he says. “And once they’re there, they are difficult to dislodge.”

Read the rest here.

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