Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Stay Tuned for Language Mavenry

It's been a whirlwind week since the official announcement that I would be taking over the "On Language" column in the New York Times Magazine, the old stomping grounds of the late lamented Language Maven, William Safire. I'm grateful for all of the warm messages of congratulation I've received, and I also remain cognizant that in taking over Safire's column, I have extremely big shoes to fill.

The Times has publicized the news of my arrival with a generous introduction from Magazine editor Gerald Marzorati, and I've also been making the media rounds, with appearances on public radio stations from Boston to Southern California. Today (Friday the 19th), I close out the week with an NPR twofer, appearing on "Morning Edition" nationwide and "The Brian Lehrer Show" here in New York. New Yorkers can also can catch me this weekend on the NY1 show "New York Times Closeup."

My debut as "On Language" columnist also appears today on the Times website today — all about how the elemental words yes and no can come to stand for much larger forces, from getting to yes to the party of no. In the weeks that my column appears, I'll also be answering reader questions online. The first question I have selected to answer is, "If avuncular means 'like an uncle,' what word means 'like an aunt'?" It allowed me to delve into a topic I first looked at here on Word Routes last year, when I wrote about Walter Cronkite, the avuncular anchorman.

As mentioned in the announcement, I'll be writing the "On Language" column on a biweekly basis. (That's once every two weeks, by the way — fortnightly, as the Brits would say — not twice a week, which would be semiweekly.) This arrangement allows me to maintain my job as executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com, and as part of that I'll continue to write my Word Routes column here on a regular basis. For a word nerd like me, it's a dream come true to be able to cultivate an online community of like-minded linguaphiles. And now, being able to continue Safire's legacy of language mavenry in the Times — well, that's just the icing on the cake.

[Update: the audio for my "Morning Edition" interview is now available online.]


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday March 19th 2010, 5:27 AM
Comment by: Tom C. (Haarlem Netherlands)
Congratulations on the NYT column, though I politely suggest that to fill those 'big shoes' the level of accuracy will have to be better than today's Word of the day description (though I realise may not have been written by you personally): I wonder whether many readers of this column, or indeed dictionaries, would agree that staid "works as an adjective of a lofty kind, characterizing people, things, or behavior as dignified and proper". Unless I'm very wide of the mark, while staid means sedate, it generally describes behaviour that is boring, dreary and/or pompous, and the connotation is nearly always pejorative.
Friday March 19th 2010, 6:51 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
VT articles do have International currency. We in the Old World have some difficulty in recognising words like "maven" which, no doubt because of their Yiddish origins, are chiefly or exclusively used in North America.
Friday March 19th 2010, 7:03 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
My apologies for this follow up but, as Ben Zimmer was editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary, I saw fit to look in the online OED (free from my public library) for "mavenry" - it wasn't there. Another neologism?
Friday March 19th 2010, 8:55 AM
Comment by: Tom W. (New York, NY)
Anyone who knows the true meanings of biweekly and semiweekly and takes the time to point them out gets my vote. I'm looking forward to reading your column.
Friday March 19th 2010, 11:37 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Ben, I'm so happy for you! And for us, too, that you can continue here. Now if we had smilies...

The heritage is in good hands, semiweekly, bi-weekly or whenever!
Friday March 19th 2010, 11:38 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Oops, I didn't need the hyphen! And I'm not normally a hyphening sort of person, either.

Is there a chance that we'll have a link to the column here, Ben?
Friday March 19th 2010, 12:38 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Tom C.: Thanks for your comments about our Word of the Day. The WotD blurb can't always encompass the shades of meaning of a word as you so ably laid out for staid -- sometimes, as in this case, there's only room to talk about etymological points of interest. The full definition of the word is, of course, always available by clicking on it.

Geoffrey: Yes, mavenry is a bit neologistic, playing on Safire's self-appointed title of "Language Maven." See my Safire tributes in Word Routes and The Times for more on maven.

Jane: The column (along with my response to the avuncular question) is now available online here.
Friday March 19th 2010, 3:56 PM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
"The Times", Ben?
Friday March 19th 2010, 4:02 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Geoffrey: Stateside, at least, "The Times" is a standard shortening of "The New York Times," and I thought my referent was obvious in this context. But you remind me that I should be careful with my shortening when addressing an international audience to avoid confusion with the estimable London broadsheet. (Or is it no longer a broadsheet?)
Friday March 19th 2010, 5:21 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Ben, regarding gender appropriate kinship words, for that one, if 'avuncular' is the male word, my suggestion would have been avauntular.

Seems logical.

Thanks for the link.
Friday March 19th 2010, 6:11 PM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
Ben, you were perfectly clear, but I thought a nudge from the International readershp would not come amiss. And no, it is no longer a broadsheet; nor is the front age filled with classifieds ;-) (Are septuagenarians allowed to use smileys?)
Friday March 19th 2010, 6:21 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
We would be if there were any. loling politely here, avauntularly
Friday March 19th 2010, 6:42 PM
Comment by: Esteban (pittsburg, CA)
Ben Z. You are one of my favorite writers for VT.
Many congratulations to you!

@Geoffrey BH and Jane B. you are both making me laugh. (no smileys please.hehe)
Saturday March 20th 2010, 6:29 PM
Comment by: Syzygy
It is good to know that I was schooled by the very best. Thank you.

Congratulations on your NYT post. I wish you the very best.

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The news was made official by the New York Times a week ago.
Magazine editor Gerald Marzorati provided the introduction.
Ben's personal remembrance of William Safire, after his death.