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.

Anne Bezuidenhout
Geoff was one of my intellectual heroes. His papers are among the few that I have read and reread, every time with pleasure and always finding some new nugget to ponder. I never met him in the flesh. Although I invited him to visit my university on several occasions, he always politely declined. I was glad, however, when he agreed to contribute to a volume on definite descriptions that Marga Reimer and I edited.
August 13, 2020
john barry
We would hear Geoffrey Nunberg weekly on Fresh Air. He was not "too busy" to help KALW radio. He personally autographed, back around 1990 the American Heritage Dictionary, of which he was the Usage Editor... My daughter, HEATHER PON-BARRY, went on to Stanford and Harvard <Ph.D.>, in linguistics, etc, because, initially, because of the "excitement " Geoff brought to his love of language... May his memory inspire many more generations. I look forward to the future Foundation that will bear his name.
August 12, 2020
Catherine Cronquist Browning
I knew Geoff mostly from his NPR appearances, and only occasionally had the opportunity to interact with him at the I School, but I wanted to share a little recent anecdote about my last conversation with him. He called me on my cell phone on a Saturday in May — a very surprising thing for me to get an unexpected phone call from a faculty member on the weekend! It was pure chance that I answered, as I typically screen calls from unknown numbers. He told me that he was having trouble with his library proxy server access and it turned out that he wanted to read the Oxford English Dictionary entry for “pandemic.” We chatted briefly and he mentioned he was in the hospital, which I knew, and he expressed that it had frustratingly poor WiFi access. I sent him the entry as a PDF and he replied with thanks.

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.”)
August 12, 2020
Steve Weber
Those of us who had the pleasure of getting to know Geoff will always his remember his wisdom, his wit, and his humanity, the very human touch he brought to his work. Geoff loved spending time with the I school community, and he certainly enriched our lives in a whole bunch of different ways. I bet others will also remember how much fun it was to hear Geoff’s occasional commentaries on NPR as well; I used to love to argue with him about this or that aspect of it the next time I saw him around South Hall, and he loved to argue back. That was Geoff.

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.
August 12, 2020
Tia Foss
Geoff was the first faculty member I remember meeting and working with after I started working at the I School in 2012. I was already familiar with his segments on Fresh Air and was so pleased that he was exactly the same in person: funny, smart, and kind. It was always so pleasant to hear his voice when he visited the office. He'll be deeply missed by many.
August 12, 2020
Bob Newsom
I’ve known Geoff for half a century, so sharing memories is beyond the possible. We have spent thousands of hours talking, and at least half of our talk has been about words. And the theme always comes down to the often hilarious tension between the non-prescriptive social scientist and the endlessly eloquent and judicious critic and writer. He was a paragon of both.
August 12, 2020


Last updated:

August 12, 2020