A-verbing we will go


Benjamin Franklin called it “awkward and abominable” in a letter to the lexicographer Noah Webster in 1789. He was talking about “verbing”: the hijacking of nouns for use as verbs — a practice that dates back many centuries. Even Shakespeare was doing it back in about 1595 when the Duke of York reacted angrily to his nephew Bolingbroke’s greeting: “Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle!”

But just because the Bard himself indulged in a little bit of antimeria (a specific form of word-play that substitutes words from different lexical categories), that doesn’t make it OK, according to a few sticklers. Some language mavens believe that the ancient art of verbing is beginning to get a little out of hand — especially as nouns that grew originally out of verbs are suddenly, inexplicably, becoming verbs again. Take the relatively young and still illegitimate verb “to conference”. I mean, whatever happened to confer? Why are we so ready “to statement” (sic), “to signature” (sic), “to reference” (sic), or “to dialogue” (sic), when we’ve been quite content to state, refer, sign or talk for hundreds of years? As the editor of Britain’s Manchester Guardian complained a couple of decades ago, it’s “a practice which, in the closing months of the year, seems increasingly to be defacing the English language: the pressing of decent defenceless nouns, which have gone about their business for centuries without giving the mildest offence or provocation, into service as verbs, sometimes in their original form but quite often after a process of horrible mutilation.”

Talking of ugly usage, just think how verbally-challenged we would all be if we weren’t able to Photoshop, to TiVo, to Skype, or to Google! (The Oxford English Dictionary added that last company name as a verb in 2006). How could we efficiently bubble-wrap our items and FedEx them without those syllable-saving trademarks? How could the police tastefully taser their suspects? (Actually, how did all those companies trademark their words before there was a verb enabling them to do so?) But this isn’t a modern phenomenon: we’ve been verbing brand names since long before our parents were xeroxing their faxes. What did Brits do before they hoovered their carpets? Before the 1920s, I guess they vacuumed. And before they vacuumed? There was probably no electricity then, so they must have broomed …

But we weren’t just verbing brand names. Ugly and critiqued as it might have been for some time — as exampled, or evidenced, by Benjamin Franklin’s complaint in the late 18th century — the practice itself is a legitimate and historical form of linguistic evolution. The psychologist Steven Pinker reckons that up to a fifth of English verbs are derived originally from nouns; he notes in his book The Language Instinct that “easy conversion of nouns to verbs has been part of English grammar for centuries; it is one of the processes that make English English.” Just think “rain” and “snow”: those ancient nouns must have been verbed way back when we were still dialoguing Old English. There’s no escaping it. (And query this: Which came first: escape the noun or escape the verb?)

Here’s a little quiz to illustrate this point. Which of the following nouns do you think have been used or recognized “officially” as verbs (ie. attested or listed in dictionaries) only in the last half century?

Access; audition; author; bookmark; bottle; chill; conference; critique; debut; eye; exit; fax; friend; gift; guilt; head; highlight; impact; kayak; mail; mastermind; message; oil; parent; party; post; premiere; query; shoulder; showcase; skateboard; stomach; task; text; trademark; transition; trend; verb; workshop.

The answers are below, and some might surprise you. Please feel free to add other surprising established noun-verbs in the comments section below.


Dates of ‘verbing’ (according to the OED and the Online Etymology Dictionary):

To access: 1962 (originally in computing)

To audition: 1935 (trans.); 1944 (intrans.)

To author: 1590s originally. Revived 1940s, mainly in U.S.

To bookmark: by 1900

To bottle: 1640s

To chill: late 14th century (intrans., “to feel or grow cold”); c. 1400 (trans. “to make cold”); 1985 (intrans. “to hang out”)

To conference: 19th century

To critique: (chiefly U.S.: 1969)

To debut: 1830

To eye: 1560s

To exit: c. 1600 [“Those who neither know Latin nor read plays are apt to forget or not know that this is a singular verb with plural exeunt.” — Fowler]

To fax: by 1970

To friend: late 14th century; to defriend (unofficial)

To gift: 16th century

To guilt: by 1995

To head: c. 1200

To highlight: 1861

To impact: 17th century: c.1600, “press closely into something”; 1935, figurative sense of “have a forceful effect on”

To kayak: 1875

To mail: 1828

To mastermind: 1940

To message: 1580s

To oil: mid 15th century

To parent: 1660s

To party: 1630s “to take the side of”; 1922: “to have a good time”

To post: 1837, “to send through the postal system”

To premiere: 1940 (see Glossophilia’s earlier post “To premiere or not to premiere”)

To query: 1650s

To shoulder: c. 1300

To showcase: 1945

To skateboard: 1964

To stomach: 1570s

To task: 1520s, “to impose a task upon”; 1590s, “to burden, put a strain upon”

To text: 2005

To trademark: 1904

To transition: (unofficial)

To trend: 1863

To verb: (unofficial)

To workshop: (unofficial)




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