Bolster, Explicate and Amplify Your Vocabulary

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Ben Zimmer, linguist, lexicographer, and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, quizzes us on what words mean and explains the often misunderstood history of common words in our lexicon. He’ll also answer listener questions. Zimmer is the executive producer of and the Visual Thesaurus.


Ben Zimmer

Comments [21]

DB from downtown

Leonard is showing his true colors more and more... why would someone with an accent be 'afraid' to answer a question about the English language? If he called you evidently he's not, and probably didn't call to be insulted. And he would like for an attractive female guest to say 'thank you for HAVING me? (he he)'. What's an obscure word for dirty old man? I'm no PC vigilante, but I'm so over him.

Aug. 20 2014 02:17 PM
Keith Danish from Bergen County, NJ

Didn't WC Fields once say "ah, a mere bagatelle" in one of his films?

It was frustrating for me to see the name "Terry Teachout" (the writer) in print for years but never hear it spoken until recently. And now there is "Zephyr Teachout", who is running against Gov. Cuomo. Does she also pronounce it "Teach-Out"? And what about NY Times columnist Ross "Douthat"? How to pronounce? I usually disagree with his opinions so I refer to him as "Doubt That".

Aug. 20 2014 02:15 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Pat from NYC: Look up "Noah Webster."

Aug. 20 2014 02:03 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Aw, looks like I'm not getting on the air! Callithump = parade! & I knew that from playing Free Rice (, an online vocabulary game that gives away rice through the World Food Programme--10 grains for every right answer. Bonus: it makes it much less annoying to be on hold (like just now!).

Aug. 20 2014 01:59 PM
Ed from Larchmont

What are we going to do when Leonard Lopate retires, he is irreplaceable.

Aug. 20 2014 01:59 PM
Ed from Larchmont

Thanks for teaching me bagatelle. Thrown out the window.

Aug. 20 2014 01:55 PM
genejoke from Brooklyn

"Defenestration." That's an easy one. To throw someone out the window.
Ex: Al defenestrated Harvey the Wonder Hamster.
Anyone familiar with Weird Al (esp on "AL TV" on MTV in the 80s) would know that!

Aug. 20 2014 01:52 PM
Katie from Brooklyn

Fishes historically (or archaically) for groupings of types of fish. Fish for singular and plural individual(s).

Aug. 20 2014 01:49 PM

What about the word notorious, which seems to be losing its original meaning?

"Famous or well known, typically for some bad quality or deed."

Aug. 20 2014 01:48 PM
Phoebe from Bushwick

I use the word perseverate to mean focusing on and worrying about something unrelentingly. Someone told me that its not a word and now I'm not positive I'm using it correctly....

Aug. 20 2014 01:47 PM
Katie from Brooklyn

Throw him out the window!

Aug. 20 2014 01:47 PM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

I'm surprised that more people don't know these words, though perhaps I shouldn't be. It's hard to have a proper conversation these days because the words "like" and "y'know" are used more than any other.

In any event, you did use the word bagatelle, but used a definition I was unfamiliar with. I know it as a piece of music, so please don't forget to add that definition for listeners.

@ WB from Upper East Side:

"Leonard, can you ask Mr. Zimmer what are the types of fields linguists are needed in."

The sentence should read: "Can you ask Mr. Zimmer in what fields linguistics are used?" No ending sentences or interrogatories with prepositions, despite some peoples' assertion that it is okay to do so.

Aug. 20 2014 01:47 PM
Ed from Larchmont

hairy. used to beautify??

Aug. 20 2014 01:47 PM
Ed from Larchmont


Aug. 20 2014 01:45 PM
Ed from Larchmont

Comestibles. Bloviated.

Aug. 20 2014 01:43 PM
Pat from nyc

What's the history with the US spelling of some words. Such as leaving out the 'u' in favour or neighbour and the 'a' in paediatrician? Reminds me of the US not adopting the metric system.

Aug. 20 2014 01:43 PM


As in, the leaves are soughing.

Aug. 20 2014 01:41 PM
Ed from Larchmont

Parlous - dangerous.

Aug. 20 2014 01:40 PM
Liz Adams from Central NJ

The first example given, for parlous, which is not a difficult word at all, who the heck doesn't know it relates to perilous? was a series of poorly chosen choices. The only one that came near was the cruise ship, but for pr reasons I imagine that couldn't be the one they wanted! the one chosen, about some medical procedure, sorry, doesn't come close.

Aug. 20 2014 01:38 PM
tom LI

My new favorite word - contumelious. The GOP has shown nothing but contumelious behavior towards all things Obama.

Aug. 20 2014 01:14 PM
WB from Upper East Side

Leonard, can you ask Mr. Zimmer what are the types of fields linguists are needed in. Basically, how can you turn linguistic expertise into a career?

Aug. 20 2014 09:54 AM

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