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On probation

When a new word pops into the language, or an old one acquires a new sense, there is a probationary period during which it either lodges itself in the language or fades away. As with electronic gadgets, the early adopters latch onto these words eagerly, the Luddites fiercely resist them, and the rest of us stand uncertainly in the middle.

I’m reminded of the process by a comment a friend posted on Facebook:

When did "parent" and "vision" become verbs? Ugh
I also hated "to grow a company" but I lost that one, I think.

Another friend pointed out that parent as a verb dates back to the mid-seventeenth century.

This sort of back-and-forth can seesaw forever. Remember back in the Seventies and Eighties when Edwin Newman and that crowd carried on about hopefully as a sentence adverb (meaning “it is hoped that” rather than the traditional “in a hopeful manner”). They thought it a vulgar new usage, though Cotton Mather used the word in just that sense in 1702. (Thank you, Oxford.) Some claimed that an adverb of emotion could not be used as a sentence adverb. Sadly, they were mistaken.

What is going on here has little or nothing to do with etymology, grammar, or historical usage, but everything to do with what we think of the people using the words.

When he was editor of The Sun, John Carroll, whose tastes in language are conservative, disparaged parenting but reluctantly gave into it for lack of a simple equivalent. Child rearing didn’t seem adequate to the purpose. The purpose was to indicate an attitude toward bringing up children that involved father and mother equally, emphasized nurturing over smacking the little creatures, and generally reflected Yuppie culture. Probably still does.

As publisher of The Sun, Mike Waller roared every time someone submitted a memo to him about growing the business, a cant phrase of the Nineties. I have to say that my own distaste for the phrase, after sitting in meetings listening to people tell how they were going to grow the business over ten years of a steady decline in the newspaper industry, remains intense.

Hopefully, after a long period of inoffensive uses, got to be a vogue term in the Sixties and Seventies, probably in advertising and business circles, and the starchy types reacted more to the people using the word than the word itself. Previously, scorn was directed at the same classes over their indulgence in contact as a verb. The latter scorn has faded away as the usage has become commonplace. We have lots of ways now to get in contact with one another, and a single broad-sense word is useful.

We know the people who embrace linguistic novelty, just as we are quietly amused at the people who experience tachycardia or Cheyne-Stokes breathing every time Apple introduces a new product. But if we are serious about words, we will hesitate about rendering judgments until we’ve had a look at how new ones fit historically and how much our own social and class prejudices may be coloring our reactions.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:26 AM | | Comments (14)


Well said. I read a revealing comment recently that seems relevant. It was about a "gripe of the day", and it began: "People who spell..." The object of this person's scorn was apparently not the misspelling but the people who make it.

We should get together and dialogue this issue.

When I took a swipe at Edwin Newman this morning, I had not heard of his death. Please consider him retroactively nil nisi'd.

Vision has become a verb? I missed that. Is it business jargon, I'm guessing? I'm curious about the context in which one would vision something.

"Vision" as a verb? Ick. "I'm visioning..." "Let's get together and vision..." Nope, it just sounds like a mistake.

You might be amused to learn your "limn" headline has been noticed at the Merriam-Webster site after a lot of people went there to find out what the word meant:

"Some claimed that an adverb of emotion could not be used as a sentence adverb. Sadly, they were mistaken."

Well played, sir.

At my first job as a professional writer, many decades ago, I was forbidden to use the word "access" as a verb. One had to "gain access." I have no idea when it became acceptable as a verb, but I now access the Internet every day.

A local idiot, to whom managment mistakenly has given a radio talk show, uses the non-word "Efforting." I thought this was an isolated artifice, until I heard a little anchorette on CNN use it. Really. No wonder some of us despair.

Nicely said, John. Grow the business (In nonprofit world, Grow the donor base. In religious world, Grow the church.) will always sound clunky to me. I used to envision a huge watering can. Now I just try to pretend I didn't hear it.

I've recently come across a bunch of people who forbid "host" as a verb. I have never, never heard anyone say "play host to." I have never seen anybody write "play host to" except under fear of chiding from one of the "host with the least" people.

About the verb "to vision" -- I once heard a middle manager say "We have finished visioning and we have consensed." (I may have already submitted this in some other context, but MelissaJane wanted an example.)

mae, it sounds like they were conducting a seance.

My first full-time job came with a boss who had a horror of "loan" as a verb. She insisted that I write "We cannot lend you our medieval manuscript, but we will gladly make a microfilm at your expense and lend you the positive."

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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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