Group Letter to Hugo Lindgren

Several colleagues and I recently wrote to Hugo Lindgren, the new editor of the New York Times Magazine, to protest the cancellation of the “On Language” column, which began in 1979 under William Safire, and was continued after Safire’s death by Ben Zimmer. Lindgren had recently commented publicly that he had not ruled out the reappearance of the column in the future, and we hoped that he could be convinced that “On Language” was too important to be eliminated.

Despite the fact that the first issue under his editorship was about to appear, Lindgren took the time to write a thoughtful response that same day. With his permission, I reproduce both letters below. The only change has been to obscure Lindgren’s e-mail address.

Thank you for your interest.

Jesse Sheidlower, 8 March 2011

Date: Fri, 4 Mar 2011 09:41:17 -0500
From: Jesse Sheidlower <>
Subject: Group letter on "On Language"
User-Agent: Mutt/1.5.20 (2009-06-14)                                      

Dear Mr. Lindgren:

It was very reassuring to read your recent comment that the fate of the
"On Language" column in the New York Times Magazine has not yet been
decided. As leading lexicographers, we urge you keep the column going.

Popular interest in language has always been very high, but at the
present time it seems especially pronounced. We are all constantly
approached for language advice, and the Internet is full of discussions
(often inaccurate) of such issues as new words, etymologies, proper
usage, and the like.

It was a surprise to the originator of the column that it had staying
power it did. William Safire, though not a linguist, was a marvelous
writer who constantly reached out to linguists and lexicographers for
advice, ensuring that his entertaining and witty column was also wholly
accurate. His wonderful successor, Ben Zimmer (who is, it must be noted,
friends with all of us), is not only a trained linguist, but is also
deeply familiar with both popular and high culture, able to write
knowledgeably about politics and pop songs, academia and football. He is
doing a fantastic job, and should be allowed to continue.
We write not just in support of a colleague and friend, but because we
feel that a serious discussion of language is an important thing, more
relevant today than ever. The New York Times is the ideal place for this
to be published, and it would be a shame if this great resource were
allowed to disappear.

Thank you for your attention.

Yours truly,

Jesse Sheidlower
Editor at Large, Oxford English Dictionary, and President-Elect,
American Dialect Society

Joseph P. Pickett
Executive Editor, American Heritage Dictionaries

Steven R. Kleinedler
Supervising Editor, American Heritage Dictionaries

Peter Sokolowski
Editor at Large, Merriam-Webster

Hugo Lindgren's Response

Date: Fri, 4 Mar 2011 18:01:27 -0500
From: "Lindgren, Hugo" <[XXXXX]>
To: Jesse Sheidlower <>
Subject: Re: Group letter on "On Language"
user-agent: Microsoft-Entourage/    

Jesse (et al)

Thank you for this wise, thoughtful note.

The suspension of On Language is part of a broad rethinking of the habits
and routines of the magazine. After 32 years of On Language, we decided to
take a breather, at the risk of disappointing many loyal readers, and see
what else works in the magazine.  I feel strongly that in order to survive
and prosper, magazines have to allow for experimentation and improvisation.
Unfortunately, there is a hard limit on pages, so something has to give.

AS you know, we have kept open the possibility of restoring some version of
the column, and in the meantime, I hope you will find other aspects of the
redesigned magazine to your liking. Week to week, there will be many

Please distribute this note to whoever you wish. I have responded to many of
the On Language fans who have written me, but not all, and I don't want
anyone to think their concerns are going unheard.

Sincerely, Hugo