I was surprised and disappointed to learn that the New York Times Magazine has suspended its On Language column. For decades the responsibility of William Safire (1929–2009), it has in recent times been written by linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer. Ben is no stranger to these pages and will be familiar to regular visitors to Language Log, the Visual Thesaurus, and Vocabulary.com.
Too often we read in a headlong rush for facts, conclusions and essential meaning. With good writers we slow down, savouring the care and craft in their prose. Writing well is not easy, but a skilled hand makes it look effortless. Ben’s writing on language isn’t just well written: it’s reliably interesting and illuminating, sharing language lore with enthusiasm, humour, an awareness of historical development and a sense of future possibilities.
There’s a song lyric I like, by Modest Mouse: “Language is the liquid that we’re all dissolved in – / Great for solving problems, after it creates a problem.” As I wrote in an email to the NYT Magazine editor, many problems and much strife owe to miscommunication and misunderstanding; Ben’s efforts, wherever they appear, stand in direct opposition to linguistic confusion.
I’ve linked to many On Language articles in my Link love posts and on Twitter, and I miss them now that the column is on indefinite hiatus. I hope those responsible see the sense in restarting it soon. The last article was about the future of language. There’s a link in the first line of this post, or you can find it in the archive, which also appears in the sidebar of this blog (down a bit from Word Routes, Ben’s blog at the VT).
If you want to share your thoughts with the editors at the New York Times, their email addresses are here, courtesy of John E. McIntyre. There’s also a Facebook group called Keep “On Language” in the New York Times. There’s a good idea.
Update: Jesse Sheidlower has published, with permission, an email from the NYT Magazine editor.