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.
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.
Just a small thing, but I’m grateful for that little interaction, and for how he was continuing to think about how words shape our experience, even in the final months of his life and even — especially — during the crisis we’re all living through. As far as I know he didn't publish anything ruminating on the etymology and history of “pandemic,” but if someone knows that he did I would love to see it. I will miss him.
(By the way, I think he’d want me to mention that “pandemic” is from the Greek “pan-” meaning “all” and “demo-” meaning “people,” so it is “of or belonging to the whole people” and shares a root with “democracy.”)
Things aren’t going to be quite the same without him. I guess there won’t be a Geoff Nunberg ‘word of the year’ this year, and that is just really sad.