Geoffrey Nunberg, 1945-2020

Tributes paid to a ‘sparkling intellect’ celebrated for his radio talks and books on language

September 17, 2020
Geoffrey Nunberg, 1945-2020

A linguist who won huge audiences with his analyses of changing language usage, conservative rhetoric and swearing has died.

Geoffrey Nunberg was born in New York in 1945 and raised in Manhattan. He studied for a BA at Columbia University and a master’s at the University of Pennsylvania before going on to a PhD at the City University of New York (1978). He spoke perfect Italian, French, German and Spanish and taught at the universities of Rome and Naples as well as the University of California, Los Angeles and Stanford University.

For many years, Professor Nunberg left the academy to work as a principal scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, developing linguistic technologies such as an early autocorrect function named “Trollope” after the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope. Yet he ended his career as an adjunct full professor at “the I School”, the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Information.

“He was a sparkling intellect who brought humanity and humour to his teaching and scholarship,” said Anno Saxenian, the school’s former dean. “His collegiality and wisdom helped to shape the School of Information for more than a decade.”

Although he also did technical research in fields such as “semantics and pragmatics”, “text classification” and “normative grammar”, Professor Nunberg found a far wider audience with his language commentary on National Public Radio over more than three decades. This included his much anticipated “Word of the Year” segments, which on different occasions flagged up “selfie”, “normal”, “nationalist” and, in 2019, “disinformation”.

His lively and popular books on language included Going Nucular: Language, Politics and Culture in Controversial Times (2004), Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show (2006) and Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years (2012).

Often called as an expert witness in court cases involving matters of language, Professor Nunberg appeared for the plaintiffs against the Washington Redskins American football team, where he offered evidence that the term “redskin” was “inevitably associated with contempt, derision, condescension or sentimental paeans to the noble savage”. He served as chair of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary and produced entertaining analyses of the pros and cons of Wikipedia and the many flaws of the Google Books metadata – “a mishmash wrapped in a muddle wrapped in a mess” – where, for example, Sigmund Freud was listed as the author of a guide to an internet interface.

Professor Nunberg died of brain cancer on 11 August and is survived by his wife Kathleen and daughter Sophie.

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