Arnold Zwicky (he/him) is an Adjunct Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University and Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the Ohio State University. He was the founder of the OUTiL (OUT In Linguistics) mailing list, the first out LSA president, and namesake of the LSA Arnold Zwicky Award for LGBTQ+ linguists.

He was interviewed by Martina Gerdts (she/her) who is an MA student in Romance linguistics at the Universität Hamburg, Germany. She does research on adjectives and pronouns in Portuguese and Spanish and works on morphosyntactic models that account for non-binary language.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. If you want to read more of Arnold’s responses, check out his blog.

MG: How did you come into queer/Lavender/LGBTQ+ Linguistics?

AZ: One: It's what was right in front of me.The classic advice for writers is to write about what you know. For scholars and scientists at the beginning of their careers, starting with topics and phenomena you have personal experience of is generally good advice -- understanding that you'll have to make the familiar strange to begin to analyze it, and that your explorations are likely to take you into new and surprising places. So in thinking about phonology, morphology, and syntax, I started with English, especially the phenomena of connected, vernacular speech. And in thinking about social organization and its relation to language, what I had to hand was personal experience with a variety of what were then subterranean gay male subcultures.

Two: I was given to close observation of everything that happened around me. The little notebook in my pocket is famous, but from my teen years on I filled spiral-bound notebooks with (among other things, like math problems, drafts of stories and poetry, jokes, and notes on my reading) real-life examples I found in some way intriguing; these eventually became the inventories of phenomena I used in picking topics for my own research and for offering to students as germs for course papers, theses and dissertations, publications, whatever.

These observations extended to sexual relationships between men in the worlds I inhabited. I examined the nature of my own sexual desires, practices, presentations of self, and self-identifications, and those of essentially every man I came across, including my male lovers, my casual boyfriends, and my tricks. The afterglow period of sex (when the partners are likely to enjoy not only their physical connection but also intimate talk) provided me with an enormous amount of material about men's lives, experiences, attitudes, desires, and views of themselves. From which I eventually concluded that these matters were vastly more varied than people supposed, also vastly more tied to highly specific subcultures than people imagined.

Three: I was given to analyzing everything, from linguistic systems to the folk categorization of plants to the workings of cartoons to the customs of t-room sex to the organization of gay porn narratives. Looking back, I see this passion for conceptual analysis going back at least to my early teenage years, but it was given a big push by the philosophers I studied with at Princeton, among them Carl Hempel, Hilary Putnam, and Paul Benacerraf.

Four: As a perpetual outsider,on several dimensions, from early childhood, I was disposed to look to the outsiders, especially the despised outsiders. I was, in fact, offended by the sociology course I took at Princeton on Deviance and Disorganization (popularly known as Sluts and Nuts), because it treated people like me as a social problem. On the other hand, the course led me eventually to Erving Goffman and his 1956 The Presentartion of Self in Everyday Life and 1963 Stigma. Which transformed my view of these things and focused my attention on LGBT worlds -- as legitimate, even important, objects of study.

MG: How has your identity impacted the direction of your research or how you think about linguistics?

AZ: To start with, identities, multiple identities. And multiple presentations of self. This is important, the details are important. My sexual desires have been for a long time entirely focused on men. As for object choice, my sexual practices have been more complex, my affectional attachments even more so. As for specific sexual practices, I am versatile orally, largely receptive anally, but the emotional texture of my bottoming is not at all submissive. My everyday presentation of self is neutrally masculine (I would now characterize it as masculinate, parallel to effeminate), but far from normative masculinity (I do tend to take charge, but I'm notably unaggressive, unless provoked, and uncompetitive; profoundly unathletic and disengaged from sports; artistic / creative in many ways; and, from childhood, given to close friendships with women).

There's more, lots more, but what's important here is that I don't take the normative to be the benchmark, against which all other variants are judged. Nor do I take the norm, the most common variant, to be the benchmark. For me, all variants are valuable, and deserve attention. In linguistics as in matters of sex, sexuality, gender, etc. It all matters, all the minority stuff, all the exceptional stuff, all the "peripheral" stuff, all the socially devalued stuff; it all has a place, it all fits in somewhere.

MG: What has been a source of solidarity, belonging, or support in linguistics for you (in the past or more recently)?

AZ: First, the people I worked with at the MITRE Corp. while I was in grad school, who formed a loose professional, intellectual, and friendship community that was both stimulating and supportive. A family where I had a place.

Then by a series of accidents that led to my being pressed into service as a linguistics department head in 1966, a year after I defended my PhD dissertation, at the age of 26, I moved quickly into positions of responsibility in the formal organization of the field, in the LSA. (I somehow wrestled with coming out while all this was going on.) Startling indeed to feel that this was a place where I truly belonged. And through these associations I picked up (largely unbeknownst to me), champions who advanced my career through their support. Most spectacularly, my department chair at Ohio State, Ilse Lehiste, who smoothed the way to a series of honors and advancements. (I realized early on that I had a responsibility to perform similar services for others, as unobtrusively as possible. And have tried to live up to that responsibility.)

Then came mailing lists -- the quirky community of the American Dialect Society -- and, quite spectacularly, the even quirkier newsgroup soc.motss (for members of the same sex -- roughly, gay people -- and their friends). Which is where I finally found a gay community where I had a place. Where I practiced writing absolutely as openly as possible about every damn thing, no matter how personal, as matter-of-factly as possible: because I could (with only modest repercussions), and because not many

people were doing that, and because people should learn as much as possible about what's out there.

MG: What’s your favorite new paper that you’ve read recently?

AZ: At this stage of my life (where I've been mostly withdrawn from social life for, oh 15 to 20 years, and where access to journals is very difficult), I'm keen on writing that brings me news of language and social structuring in subcultures, including fresh insights into subcultures I`'m familiar with, but especially writing that provides entry into subcultures unfamiliar to me. In this vein, the now-classic academic work is Rusty Barrett's 2017 book From Drag Queens to Leathermen: Language, Gender, and Gay Male Subcultures. More recently, a keenly observed non-academic book, Jeremy Atherton Lin's 2021 Gay Bar: Why We Went Out.

MG: What aspect of your work are you most proud of?

AZ: I'm probably best-known for my writing on illusions about linguistic variation, especially the Recency Illusion and the Frequency Illusion. Ultimately about attention and memory.

I'm fond of some of the fun pieces, like Zwicky & Zwicky on "America's national dish", and of some of the meticulously reasoned ones, like "Quicker, more quickly, *quicklier" and "Some choices in the theory of morphology".

But some aspects of my work that I'm most proud of: the conceptual analyses and the analyses of forms of argumentation; the emphasis on full coverage of data; the anchoring of material in its full context, linguistic and sociocultural; the mining of data from all sorts of language in use (in telegraphic registers, in jokes and cartoons, in inadvertent errors, in song lyrics, in poetry, in cheers and mantras, in advertising, whatever); the attention to tradeoffs between brevity and clarity. Go to my blog ( and look at the list of Pages that runs down the right-hand side.

Then, over the past two decades I've abandoned traditional publication for postings on my blog that I now think of as intellectual entertainments, aimed at a general audience, mixing writing about language with writing about g&s (gender & sexuality), plus all sorts of other stuff that happens to come within my view. The pro here is that this isn't like anything else you'll find on the net; it is, as people have said about my work since the 1960s, idiosyncratic. And that's pretty much the con too; what you get is me, in all my playful and highly personal rambling over all sorts of stuff, which many people will find weird or distasteful or both.

MG: Do you have any advice for young scholars in the field?

AZ: Here I have to remind you that I entered the field in 1962, 60 years ago, two generations ago, in a world vastly different from today's world. The world in general was different; the academic world was different; linguistics, specifically, was different. I can offer grandfatherly platitudes: question authority; take all advice, including this advice, with a grain of salt; don't let the bastards grind you down; be kind, be generous, be fair; welcome the unexpected; find a place in your life for pleasure and play; follow your enthusiasms; persevere; open your life to the novel, the strange, the exotic; be willing to change your mind; recognize your deficiencies, inabilities, and bad instincts, and try to work around them. That sort of thing. For genuinely useful advice on practical matters -- like getting through grad school, finding a job, preparing courses, getting grants, getting your voice heard in the field -- you need to tap the experiences of colleagues a bit older than you, people who know the territory. Not some old guy.

MG: Looking ahead, what do you think is some important work that remains to be done for LGBTQ+ justice in linguistics?

AZ: We can't all be social justice warriors -- some of us would have our lives ruined by becoming visible, and many others would pay a high price, and in any event not everyone has the temperament for social combat or public theater. I realized, when I came out to the world at large, 50 years ago, that I had both the freedom and the temperament, so I felt obliged to put on the armor (and my man Jacques, who didn't have the temperament, slipped into a role as my enthusiastic supply corps). There follows a long history of involvement with protest groups, support groups, and academic-interest groups. Up to and including COZIL.

But issues of social justice remain, about the fair and equitable division of resources, opportunities, and privileges in linguistics, as in academia in general, indeed as in society in general. The current remedies for social injustices -- in particular, diversity training, and more broadly, DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) programs -- curdle into quasi-legalistic institutional procedures (insert here the venting of my rage over hours lost in enduring enforced, but utterly ineffective, diversity training at Stanford) and strikingly fail to function as remedies for injustice, nurturing for the excluded, or agents of social change.

Practices do need to be changed, of course, but, crucially, minds need to be changed (humane beliefs and attitudes have to spread); people need healing (some kind of therapy); and they need models and nurturing (some kind of mentoring). That means lots of us have to act: being willing to serve as visible examples (I still find it troubling that I, with all of my evident imperfections and deficiencies, should be serving as an example of how to live, but there it is); to provide encouragement one-on-one to those in need of it; and to provide practical advice.

As it turns out, I believe that nothing I have done in my life has advanced public attitudes towards LGBT+ folk more than the 12 years I spent as a highly visible caregiver for Jacques as he slipped to death from dementia. It served as a demonstration of common humanity that almost anyone could identify with.

Meanwhile, I have done whatever I can to normalize LGBT+ lives (in all their variety, but especially my own life) by talking about them in some detail, matter-of-factly, and by freely citing LGBT+ sources in my writing and using data from these sources for analysis. Any random linguistics posting on my blog will probably have LGBT+ content in it, unremarked upon; fairly often such material is the object of analysis. Conversely, hardly any raunchy posting (featuring men's bodies and man-on-man sex) goes by without some deftly inserted references to linguistic phenomena. (As I sometimes put it, I actually do recruit for linguistics -- and for Sacred Harp singing).