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'Verbing weirds language'

This happens to be post number 666, so you might want to take whatever precautions you customarily resort to for warding off the Evil One.

A listener to Midday at WYPR-FM on National Grammar Day sent in this comment, which we lacked time to get to:

No discussion on the phenomenon pointed out by Calvin in Bill Watterson's comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes." Verbing, or the process of making nouns into verbs (such as "access" or, as you discussed, "graduate") is a phenomenon of English that doesn't really exist in other languages. In the words of Calvin, "Verbing weirds language."

I can’t speak for other languages, but the transformation of nouns into verbs and verbs into nouns is certainly commonplace in English. The Oxford Companion to the English Language describes this particular category of word formation as conversion or functional shift. In functional shift, a word extends its grammatical category. Oxford mentions the verb run becoming a noun — go for a run — and the noun position becoming a verb — positioning people.

An allied phenomenon is called back-formation, which Oxford describes as “creation of a simpler or shorter form from a pre-existing more complex form: edit from editor. …” And you’ll notice that edit can be a verb, for the action, or a noun, for the result.

The ambiguity resulting from this grammatical two-facedness enriches the possibility for wordplay. It also increases the headaches of headline writers, who are forever stumbling into some unintended double entendre:

Minneapolis bars putting leaves in streets (bars as a verb for prohibits and as a noun for saloons).

Governor offers rare opportunity to goose hunters (goose as a noun for the bird being hunted or as a verb for a familiarity that should not be encouraged in governors).

Textron Inc. makes offer to screw company stockholders (Textron was angling to buy a company that manufactures screws).

Proceed with caution.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:11 PM | | Comments (39)


How about "Proceed with joy, edit with caution." The bottom-up evolution and absence of top-down authority make English rich, flexible and fun. I wouldn't want to be stuck in a frozen language.

Perhaps part of the reason other languages don't exhibit such a phenomenon is that, at least for inflective languages, it's not possible: nouns have different endings from verbs. Russian, for example, certainly does do such a thing semantically, but the words are necessarily different morphologically. The only example I can think of off the top of my head is the verb (transliterated) tykat', meaning, roughly, to use the familiar second-person singular pronoun when speaking to someone, rather than the formal second-person plural pronoun. The verb is derived from the second-person singular pronoun (transliterated) ty. Because the pronoun does not have the verbal ending, it cannot, by itself, become a verb. Same with nouns: their endings are different from verbs.

I would imagine that languages that exhibit full verb conjugation and noun/pronoun declension schemes are also less prone to the delicious ambiguities illustrated by the example headlines. Word order is less important because the declensions do the work of telling you the function of the adjectives and nouns in a sentence (subject, direct object, and so forth). (I know—case endings, yuck!)

You gotta love English for its flexibility. Many years ago, as a young academic, I wrote an essay titled: On the verbing of nouns and the nouning of verbs. And I still got tenure.

One of the joys of English is how many words do have multiple meanings. If I were to tell you I was going to Africa to serve my fellow man, you would probably want to know whether I was a missionary or a cannibal before congratulating me.

Until this post I would have said I hated verbing nouns. I had not considered the examples as being offenders. Now as I refine my thinking, I realise that it's the verbing of nouns where a perfectly good verb already exists that is the problem. I suppose this is one where we can blame the lawyers: gifting. Why? Give is a perfectly good word. It hasn't offended anyone I can think of. Why not use it? To my ear, I gifted her that for Christmas is jarring; I gave her that for Christmas does not offend the ear. And whilst I will acknowledge my ear is not the final arbiter in such things (all though Ear thinks it should have that position) gifted is just wrong.

"Gift" is used by lawyers as a verb with a technical meaning: it means "to transfer property by gift," as distinguished from a transfer for value by a sale or exchange. That's an important distinction in some contexts--a distinction which "give" doesn't really convey. "To gift" is jargon, to be sure, but it can be useful. I doubt even a lawyer would say "I gifted her that for Christmas" unless the lawyer were emphasizing that a formal legal transfer of title occurred, and in that case "for Christmas" would likely be irrelevant.

Gift as a verb is simply one further example of the isatiable taste for novelty that has marked English from its beginnings. Slang comes and goes. Neologisms spring up like weeds, and most of them die off. Existing words take on new senses and shift grammatical properties; this is bewailed but eventually accepted.

You don't have to use gift as a verb, and you're free to scorn those who do; but if it sticks in the language, there's nothing that you or I can do about it.

Besides, gift-as-verb has given us regifting, a handy term for a phenomenon that did not previously have a name.

"Give" means "hand over" while "gift" means "make a present of". They're not the same. Hate "gift" if you must (there are better things to hate) but don't argue that it's just "give" all over again.

English has always - since we lost our inflections, oh, CENTURIES ago, done this. I imagine old timers sat around bitching "What's all this about fielding and arming? In my day we PUT an army INTO THE FIELD, and we GAVE ARMS to soldiers, thank you very much!"

The best thing about English is how unpredictable it is. Example -- color verbs. You can blacken someone's name, your face can redden, you could (when it was the thing to do) blue or whiten your laundry or brown your onions, your lawn can green up in spring, old papers yellow, but can you purple anything? orangen something?

You can say that someone was "empurpled with rage."

Today I heard "lawyering up" on NPR, no less.

Sorry, The Ridger, I'm with RtSO on "give" and "gift"--they are the same thing, or ought to be, so there is no need to offend delicate ears by using gift as a verb.

Google also gives some hits for bepurpled -- "Thus they fought two hours and more, till the ground where they fought was all bepurpled with blood." by Thomas Bulfinch. Love that inconsistency!

An excerpt from the entry on "gift (v.)" in the Oxford English Dictionary (as I rather like using it as a verb and am willing to defend it). Note the dates of the cited usages:

1. trans. To endow or furnish with gifts (see chiefly GIFT n. 6); to endow, invest, or present with as a gift.

1608 W. SCLATER Malachy (1650) 197 See how the Lord gifted him above his brethren. 1621 SANDERSON 12 Serm. (1637) 396 If God have not gifted us for it, he hath not called us to it. 1749 FIELDING Tom Jones I. v, Nothing but the inspiration with which we writers are gifted can possibly enable anyone to make the discovery. 1834 T. MEDWIN Angler in Wales I. 290 How admirably Nature had gifting it [the salmon] with a form of all others the best adapted for [etc.]. 1844 MRS. BROWNING Rom. Swan's Nest, The world must love and fear him Whom I gift with heart and hand. 1884 ROGERS 6 Cent. Work & Wages I. 126 Many settlements, which afterwards grew into towns, were gifted subsequently with parliamentary representation.

2. To bestow as a gift; to make a present of. Const. with to or dative. Also with away. Chiefly Sc.
1619 J. SEMPILL Sacrilege 31 If they object, that tithes, being gifted to Levi, in official inheritance, can stand no longer than Levi [etc.]. a1639 SPOTTISWOOD Hist. Ch. Scot. v. (1677) 278 The recovery of a parcel of ground which the Queen had gifted to Mary Levinston. 1711 in A. McKay Hist. Kilmarnock (1880) 98 This bell was gifted by the Earl of Kilmarnock to the town of Kilmarnock for their Council~house. 1801 RANKEN Hist. France I. 301 Parents were prohibited from selling, gifting, or pledging their children. 1829 J. BROWN New Deeside Guide (1876) 19 College of Blairs..having been gifted to the Church of Rome by its proprietor. 1878 J. C. LEES Abbey of Paisley xix. 201 The Regent Murray gifted all the Church Property to Lord Sempill.

"Gift as a verb is simply one further example of the isatiable taste for novelty that has marked English from its beginnings."

"An excerpt from the entry on "gift (v.)" in the Oxford English Dictionary . . . Note the dates of the cited usages:

I've only seen the word "empurpled" once before, and that was in the book The Witches of Eastwick which I had to read for a class in college. I won't go into what "empurpled" discribed, but those who read that book might recall to what I am referring.

The nouning of verbs is common-place in Sanskrit.

There's a common link in Italian between nouns/verbs. The first- and third-person singular forms of verbs are often nouns, e.g. studio (n. study) from studiare, guida (guide) from guidare, and lavoro (job) from lavorare (to work), even vicino (neighbor) from avvicinare (to approach). It's ubiquitous.

That's interesting, Chris. Truth is, I think, that we only bridle in English when it's the infinitive being verbalised. We have, after all, a complete noun-making procedure in the gerund (if I can use that expression without Professor Pullum emerging from the shadows).

What absolute nonsense, Picky. You mean nominalised, not verbalised, you twit.

Picky, you are forgiven. You brought back sweet memories of Robert the Single One (come and gone before you joined us).

Yes, Dahlink. Yes.

Yes, Dahlink. Yes.

It's Chris you need to thank, Dahlink, but thank you for your forgiveness.

I understand RtSO was a much-admired contributor here, and even from those few lines anyone can see the attraction of his presence.

"Gifting" does offend the ears - even those ears that have suffered through Stockhausen. And there is not - nor should there be - any infinitive 'to suicide.' Frankly I'm not surprised that tenure was bestowed for that topic. This is how too many people in the humanities are awarded tenure.

In Italian, vicino is also used as an adverb, as in 'vicino a la Casa." As most of us here know English better than other languages, we are naturally more consumed by the assaults on it. Medieval French doubtless has its oddities, but Beckett isn't around to dispute them.

Oh heck, yes. Dependent on whether it is the sort of French bespoken by them French, or the sort spat by those bastards the Norman French, whom, and I speak as a tolerant chap, the Lord preserve. Bless 'em.

And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe.

OK, so, tolerant as I am, I am less tolerant than GChaucer. Or the W o B. French is not, after all, their fault.


The Frenssh of Parys is no longer unkowe in those parts, incidentally: not now that Stratford International is a major London station on the cross-Channel rail line.

And anyone turning up for the 2012 Olympics (please bring hard currency) is very likely to be in a fine position to pick up the Wife's French, because the new Olympic Stadium is in Stratford. If you come from across the Atlantic (and please do!) you might find French easier to comprehend than the language of the locals. (North of the river: strange folk).

@Picky, old boy, so you're basically implying that the motley Stratford local yokels aboding north of the river Avon, perchance, may still be speaking a mongrel variant of the great Bard, Will Shakespeare's flowery prose, or more than likely some polyglot melange of Norman French, Old Norse, Old English, Latin, and Monty Python-ese (HA!) which I would agree could really throw off most visiting foreign folk who would be coming to England to take in next year's summer Olympics competition at the various Stratford sporting venues?

I surmise that your "Wife's French" was a nod to the parlance of Chaucer's bawdy Wife of Bath? Quite the lively wench, indeed! (A medieval prototype of our '60s hippie earth-mother, I'd say. I could see the late bluesy singer Janis Joplin, as the raunchy W. of B., in the film version of Chaucer's Tale. Sadly, not to be.)

I gather that in Chaucer's time, in the town of Bromley, south-east London, the nuns at St. Leonard's convent taught the 'proper' young girls of the day an archaic courtly form of Norman French. I would guess, in preparation for a well-rounded, balanced, godly, (bilingual) adult life in 'civilized' society.

Hmm........ me thinks Chaucer's rough-around-the-edges Wife of Bath, as a wee lass, may have missed out on the holy sisters of St. Leonard's moral and linguistic tutelage, judging by her lusty, wenching ways as evidenced in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Of course, here in North America we have two rather interesting bastardized variants of the so-called 'proper' Parisian French-------namely Québécois French and Cajun French. Les (snobbish) Parisiennes would likely deem both these offshoot 'outliers' of 'their correct' French as perhaps a few rungs above the grunts and murmurings of the most articulate Neanderthals.

Laissez les bons temps roulez! HA!

As a non-Francophone, English-speaking Canuck, yet w/ a fair ability to speak, read and comprehend French, I must admit that even to my half-trained ear, the common colloquial Québécois pronunciation of the word "oui" ("yes", en anglaise), is annoyingly grating....... too guttural, and nasal for my taste, having the air of a porcine oink. But i digress.

Ducky "Truffles" Isaksson............... and hold the mayo.

Hellfire, Alex, it was of course the Prioress, not the Wife - what a noddy I am. Extreme old age, I'm afraid.

But no, the Stratford in the Chaucer quotation is not the one on Avon, but Stratford Bow, north of the Thames, and the Bromley, similarly, is not the one in South East London, but Bromley-by-Bow, again in the East End, north of the River.

Meanwhile I hang my head in shame. What do they teach kids in school these days?

Blimey, Picky old lad, you're not the only one who might need a 'refresher' read, or two, of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. (Reference to Prof. McI.'s latest BBC required book list post.)

Indeed, it WAS the Prioress, and not the naughty Wife of Bath who spake those immortal lines cited earlier by 'the McIntyre'. When in doubt, best alway go to the source. Oh well, live and learn, I say.

It appears that at least I got the St. Leonard's Priory association correct. The home base of an order of Norman French-literate Benedictine nuns going back to Chaucer's era.. It's locale, although noted by Chaucer in his 'Tales' at Stratford-Atte-Bowe (not Stratford-on-Avon as you pointed out), in modern times the priory site has morphed into Bromley-by-Bow, and indeed, as you indicated, is situated in London's East End........ not further to the south-east in the actual town of Bromley.

Well, now that I may have muddied up the waters even more, maybe we should just move on to other more burning issues of the day. HA!

Picky, you may be many things to many people, but for me, hardly a "noddy". With growing 'maturity' (and ear and nose hairs HA!) aren't we at least entitled to a few brain-farts, or more politely, 'senior moments', on occasion?

Hmm..... I wonder if Dante's Divine Comedy was on that Esquire magazine recommended 'must read' list of classic literature? (Always loved Gustave Doré's incredible illustrations (dry-point etchings) of Dante's most celebrated work.)

(Parenthetically, back in the early '70s, on my first visit to Florence, Italy, I made sure to check out Dante's actual 'walkup' villa; sadly, just the very ordinary facade from la strada. Didn't get the interior grand tour. I thought it might be a three-storied affair, reflecting the three main structural divisions of his Divine Comedy, but alas it was your typical Florentine urban, upscale vila, w/ the courtyard opening up from behind the solid wood front doors, and such. Fierenza is still my favorite italian city. So much great art, so much storied history. Always felt Dante's unrequited love, the alluring Beatrice, was going to suddenly appear striding languidly along the cobble-stoned banks of the Arno. Never happened. HA!)

Ducky "Ever The Romantic" Isaksson.............. got gelato?

It's no good, Alex, I am inconsolable. There is nothing, nothing at all, that can comfort me. Unless ... Now, where did I put that bottle ...

Cue the violins. (Sob! Sob!)

Picky, i have my doubts that drowning your current sorrows in the Laproaig spirits will cure your alleged 'noddiness'. Now "naughtiness", on the other hand, might be enhanced by the Islay isle's popular potent potable.

If it's any consolation, my usual cure for self-flagellation, or the woe-is-me funk, is indulging in humor. Whatever floats your boat, mate, in this regard. Watching old Fawlty Towers episodes generally works for me------John Clease (& Co.) as the hen-pecked, dimwitted Basil Fawlty at his comedic best.

Communing w/ Mother Nature----a walk in the woods, or a visit to an arboretum, or botanical garden------can also be a good antidote for the blues.

"If music be the fruit of love, play on, give me excess of it...". Personally, a little dose of Purcell, or Vivaldi's Baroque fare usually tends to lift my spirits. (Curiously, Hagen Dais strawberry ice cream has a similar ameliorating effect, but admitted w/ ore calories than the music. HA!)

Ducky "Ode To Joy" Isaksson............... buck up, old chap!


I sure butchered that final line in my last post.(Ugh!)

Should have read "but admittedly w/ MORE calories than the music."

Ducky "To Err is Human" isaksson............... to forgive, sublime.

If you think the Lads North of the River (Thames or Mersey would that be?) are guilty of Murdering the Language, you clearly haven't heard the assaults of the denizens of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and other provincials in and around New York City. And to think those nice tidy Dutch owned NY for a time. Oy!

You mean that isn't Dutch they speak? Astonishing! (Although in truth my knowledge of NY dialects does not extend far beyond the Bowery Boys and Hoppy Uniatz.)

As with the truism about social distinctions - it's not the manners of dukes or downandouts that exercise me, but those of my neighbours half an inch above or below - so with dialects.  Those from thousands of miles away are fascinating.  Those from two blocks away are like fingers scratching against a chalkboard, etc etc. (Did you like the "blocks" and "chalkboard" stuff? Just to make you feel at home.)

Those of us who claim to be able to tell a North London accent from a South London one are lying most of the time.  But North Londoners tend to regard us from south of the River as a bunch of barbarians, living in the boondocks (that right?) where taxis won't travel at night.  It was ever thus: it must have been hell getting home from The Globe.  Knowing we are inferiors, we are honour-bound to make feeble sallies at North Londoners' expense.  It's all unreal - a very dimmed down, dumbed down Napoleon of Notting Hill.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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