In Memory of Geoff Nunberg
Adjunct professor Geoffrey Nunberg passed away on August 11, 2020.
Geoff was a dear colleague, teacher, mentor, and friend — brilliant, generous, thoughtful, witty, and kind. He will be deeply missed.
We invite you to share your memories of and tributes to Geoff Nunberg.
The ethnographer departs for the field
As MALINOWSKI steered his prow,
Lagoonward, in the evening gloss,
Do you suppose he knit his brow,
Uneasy over MS-DOS?
Did EVANS-P., in Darkest A.,
Sunk to his hips in fetid silt,
In base unmanly panic say,
"Oh dear, I fear my disks will wilt”?
In northern forests, dark and brutal,
When did BOAS have to ask,
What the word, in Kwakiutl,
Was, denoting "multi-task”?
Princess! Take this for your moral:
Cultivate your garden (coral)!
When we walked out onto Times Square after the movie, Geoff turned to me and said, “Well, that was better than Logan’s Run.” Maybe you would have had to have seen (now there’s a construction Geoff would have loved) Logan’s Run — which we had, at the same theater, a year earlier — to appreciate the comparison. But I will always remember it as a perfect Nunbergism: witty, skeptical, pointed, and allusive.
Over the course of a friendship spanning nearly a half-century, I often wished Geoff’s throwaway remarks — on language, literature, painting, academic politics, film, food, American and European culture — could have been gathered in a big, fat volume of aphorisms. I’m grateful his ideas live on in his books, but those of us who spent hours talking with him know his published works captured only a snapshot of his lively mind, every brimming with insight.
I’ll miss Geoff in many ways, but never to hear his voice again — expounding the delights of a tongue sandwich or the limitations of Searle’s critique of Chomsky or the pleasures of Zuleika Dobson — is truly to know what it means to grieve in silence.
I am so very sorry that Geoff will not be able to work more of his magic- delighting audiences with the fascinating stuff that he did, but I'm so thankful for his work that has done so much for our field.
Thank you Geoff! And to his family...you will be in my thoughts. This is such a big loss.
While at Stanford, Geoff was part of a Linguistics Dept. blues band, the Dead Tongues, that included Ivan Sag and others. Sadly, I never heard them play, but just walking down the hall they looked, as much as professors could, like rock stars on tour, scruffy, confident, hard living men.
It was a pleasure to study with Geoff, and I'm glad I had that opportunity.
A couple of years ago I ran into him while on vacation in Hawaii. He generously invited my whole family (including my daughter Miya who was then a squirmy baby and my son Kenzo who was 5 to join him and his wife for a drink. He was such a gentleman in every sense of the word.
I remember first meeting him face-to-face at the Linguistic Society of America annual conference in 2006, and he made me feel like we were already lifelong friends. He gave me valuable advice about navigating the landscape of public language commentary, advice that became crucial to me as I began writing regularly for various media outlets (becoming a columnist for the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and now for the Wall Street Journal). We'd meet up after that at LSA meetings or whenever he came through New York, and no matter the topic, he always had brilliant, witty, and well-formed insights. And he was always encouraging me to tackle meaty issues on language and politics -- something I do now as a regular contributor to The Atlantic in pieces that I think of as "Nunbergian."
We were still in touch over the past few months even after treatment for his illness left him grappling with speech and memory problems. The last time I talked to him, he said he just wanted to "noodle." He was trying to figure out if he could continue doing pieces for NPR's Fresh Air, and he wanted to brainstorm about possible topics he could cover. We talked about the language of the pandemic, as well as the language of race since the Black Lives Matter protests were in full swing. It's heartbreaking that he was never able to return to Fresh Air and to language commentary in general, but I'll always remember how incredibly vibrant his mind was all the way to the end.