12 August 2018


[One afternoon earlier this month, I was riding the New York City Subway to an appointment uptown and I noticed a series of ads in the car in which I was riding.  The ad was for Scentbird.com and the tagline read: “A smarter way to fragrance.”  (Scentbird.com is an on-line company that enables its users to choose and get a monthly supply of sample designer fragrances before buying them.)  So, apparently fragrance is now a verb, like to parent, to dialogue, and to task.  Granted, sometimes turning a noun into a verb serves a useful purpose, like to access, to chair, to debut, to highlight, and to impact, and some are just slang or colloquial expressions such as sports reporters saying that an athlete medalled or someone reporting that a topic is trending on social media.  Most of the time, however, the new use only manages to save time in a TV commercial or space in a print ad where time and space equal money.  The large percentage of these words are both unnecessary and inelegant (though I cop to using them myself occasionally)..

[(The use of nouns as if they are verbs is not, by the way, the same as forming a new verb from a noun where none previously existed: euthanize from euthanasia, incentivize from incentive, opine from opinion, burgle from burglar, or enthuse from enthusiasm or the existing adjective enthusiastic.  Those last three constructions, incidentally, are called ‘back-formations.’)

[Last year, I posted a pair of articles by Henry Hitchings of the New York Times on the reverse phenomenon, turning verbs into nouns, under the umbrella title “Nominalization.”  Published on Rick On Theater on 25 January 2017: Hutchings’s articles were “Those Irritating Verbs-as-Nouns,” posted on the Times’ blog “Opinionator” on 30 March 2013 (at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com) and “The Dark Side of Verbs-as-Nouns,” his follow-up column on “Opinionator,” published in the paper’s print edition of 5 April 2013. 

[I called the phenomenon about which Hutchings’s wrote ‘nominalization’; for the use of nouns as verbs, one writer below, Judy Muller of ABC News, nominates ‘verbation’ as an apt name for the phenomenon and Chi Luu, in JSTOR Daily, dubbed the usage ‘verbing.’  I’ve chosen to call it ‘verbificaion,’ which I’ll define as ‘the making of a verb.’]

by Judy Muller

[Judy Muller’s report was initially aired on ABC News’s World News Tonight on 16 March 2001 (https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/las-vegas-police-release-final-report-oct-shooting-57013319).]

Buckminster Fuller once said, “God is a verb.”

He did not mean that literally, of course, but metaphorically. I think he was trying to say that love is action. He did NOT go on to use that noun as an actual verb, as in “I God you.” That would have been annoying. Supremely annoying, you might say.

And supremely annoyed is just how I feel about an increasing public acceptance of the practice of turning nouns into verbs. Perhaps it’s my brief career as a high school English teacher that makes me so persnickety about this particular mutilation of the language. Persnickety is not an endearing quality, I know.

Cringing About Efforting

But I can’t help it — I cringe when I hear someone say “We’re efforting that.” I took the effort to look it up and yes, there it was in the dictionary — still a noun, just like the good old days. Impact is another one — as in, “his behavior is impacting everyone in the office.” One dictionary describes this use of impact as “common usage,” which is just another way of saying that impact as a verb has gained access to a germ of respectability.

Notice I used the phrase GAINED ACCESS. I did not say “the verb accessed respectability,” as in the horrible but all-too-common phrase “we are accessing your account.” And while we’re talking business, what illiterate ad agency ever dreamed up the slogan “the smarter way to office?”

Suddenly it’s everywhere, this faux verb “to office.” How do you conjugate that, exactly? I office, you office, we office? And is that the same thing as “multitask?” This word is unappealing, even as a noun. But used as a verb — as in, “she is multitasking today” — it’s downright ugly.

Are You Journaling?

Once you become aware of this trend, you start hearing examples all over the place. Overheard at a Weightwatchers’ meeting: “You need to keep track of calories, so be sure you’re journaling everyday.” Apparently the phrase “writing in your journal” is a little too weighty. Overheard at a town council meeting: “We hope to liase with the police department on a regular basis.”

Overheard in a conversation among teenagers: “My mom is trying to guilt me into it.” And at an education conference, of all places, “We need to dialogue on that issue.” Not that the news business is immune. When we talk about transcribing interviews verbatim, or word for word, we talk about verbating them.

For the record, verbate is not a verb. It’s not even a noun. But if you wanted to INVENT a word to describe this onerous trend of rendering nouns into verbs, “verbate” would do quite nicely.

I realize this persnickety rant is not likely to change a thing. But I figured it couldn’t hurt to ONPASS my displeasure.

[Judy Muller  has been a correspondent for ABC News since 1990, contributing reports to such programs as Nightline and World News Tonight.  She’s a regular contributor to National Public Radio’s Morning Edition program.  Previous to her employment with ABC, she worked for CBS News, contributing to CBS News Sunday Morning and the CBS Weekend News on television, as well as a regular radio feature, First Line Report.  She joined the faculty of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in August 2003 and now serves as professor of journalism.  As part of the Nightline team, she received an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for coverage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots and an Emmy Award for coverage of the O. J. Simpson case.  She has written a book entitled Now This: Radio, Television—and the Real World (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2000).

*  *  *  *
by Chi Luu

[Luu’s essay was published on the JSTOR Daily of 9 March 2016 (https://daily.jstor.org/in-which-we-science-why-nouns-become-verbs-because-language/).]

Understanding the phenomenon known as “verbing”–where nouns are turned into verbs.  

Ah, the topsy-turvy world of language innovation, where the lion lies down with the lamb, nouns suddenly become verbs, and “verbing weirds language.” Consider popular internet memes like “Let me librarian that for you” and ”Do you even science, bro?” in which ”librarian” and “science” are nouns weirdly disguised as verbs. So is this a playful new linguistic construction or is it time to roll our eyes at the internet, again?

The dicey practice of turning a noun into a verb has long been a square on the language pedant’s bingo game. Take examples like dialoguing, actioning, efforting, or transiting. (No really, please take them away.) It’s easy to see why these awkward constructions might elicit, as Fowler put it, “cries of anguish.” Why use these nouns as verbs at all when there are already perfectly good verbs like talk, act, etc. that mean the same thing? Is the jargon-riddled business world impacting (first used as a verb c. 1600) how we speak now? Can we just boycott (thanks, Captain Charles Boycott) them and Houdini our way out of this mess?

The conversion of nouns into verbs is not actually a new phenomenon. Some call it “verbing,” which sounds like a new dance craze, while linguistic nerds call it denominalization. Benjamin Franklin preferred to call it “awkward and abominable.” (And many modern language pundits apparently are still fighting the good fight on his behalf). But before you join them and “out-Herod Herod” over denominal verbs, know that Shakespeare was also quite the inveterate verber—one among many—because nouns have been verbing their way all over the English language for quite some time. While some examples might be questionable, denominal verbs can also be useful. We shouldn’t write them all off just yet.

The Common-Or-Garden Denominal Verb

Some people are only happy with denominal verbs when it rains. We’re also not fazed by them when buttering our bread, lacing our shoes, elbowing our way out of a crowd or petitioning the president to stop bombing villages. We can now email, text, friend, and blog without difficulty. These everyday denominal verbs have long been accepted as ordinary verbs through their frequent usage.

But denominal verbs are also extraordinary—they act as vivid linguistic shortcuts. By just converting a noun to a verb, unique information is conveyed (and enriches the language with new rhetorical imagery). This works because if you know the properties of the noun, you can quickly determine the likely meaning of the verb. Rain rains, emails are emailed, and if you bike somewhere, you’re not exactly traveling in a car. Using the noun instead of a verb would otherwise require a longer expression. Compare “We got out by nudging others out of our way with our elbows” (more literal) with “We elbowed our way out” (more figurative). It’s remarkably economical, following Gricean principles of conversation, since denominal verbs are really more like verbalized sentences, Eve V. Clark and Herbert H. Clark explain in their 1979 study, “When Nouns Surface as Verbs” [Language (Linguistic Society of America, Baltimore) 55.4 (Dec. 1979): 767-811]. The more concrete and unambiguous the noun’s meaning, the more easily it’s accepted as a verb. After considering over 1,300 examples of denominal verbs from TV, radio, newspapers, and novels, it’s no surprise that Clark and Clark found that the majority of them come from nouns that “denote a palpable object.”

How We Understand “Innovative” Verbs We’ve Never Heard Before

Denominal verbs are even more interesting than you think. One amazing feature of language innovation is our ability to invent and understand words we’ve never heard before. Enter ”innovative” denominal verbs: they’re created on the fly and can somehow be understood by a non-mind reading listener instantly. Some examples include, “Will you cigarette me” (Mae West), ”We all Wayned and Cagneyed” (New York Times Magazine), or “My sister Houdini’d her way out of the locked closet.”

Invented verbs from proper nouns are a linguistic phenomenon that YOLO [‘you only live once’; this is not only a verbification, but also an acronym] for the moment. They rarely last long enough to make it to a dictionary (except as idioms separated from the original noun, such as ”boycott” or “lynch”). For that reason many might discount these neologisms as insignificant ephemera, but the fact is that this kind of creative verbing is prolific in modern speech, particularly in internet culture—and it’s changing how we all use language.

So how are we supposed to understand verbs we’ve never heard before when they’re not even in the dictionary? Somehow we manage to figure it out. As Matt Damon might say: “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.

According to Clark and Clark, when it comes to creating innovative denominal verbs, you need to draw on a shared cultural knowledge of the original noun. Verbing works if you can reasonably assume that the salient features of the noun are so obvious that the verb sense would be easy to figure out. The context provides additional semantic clues. So, if you know the stereotypical properties of a noun like brick (it’s an inert rectangular block), you can reasonably figure out what it means to say “I bricked my phone,” even if you’ve never seen the word used like this before. (To emphasize: “I did something to my phone to render it as useless as an inert rectangular block,” meaning it’s “like a brick,” which becomes a stand in for “I broke my phone”).

Proper nouns as verbs are trickier. It seems weird to use a person’s name as a verb, but we do all it the time. In order to understand expressions like ”My sister Houdini’d her way out of a locked closet” or “He Kanye Wested me before I could say anything,” we need special information about who Houdini or Kanye West are and what they’re best known for in popular culture. While brick has a well-defined sense, a name refers to a person who might have any number of potential senses that could change over time. Proper noun type verbs have to be constructed carefully because a listener has to juggle multiple theories in order to reach the intended meaning, even with context clues. Kanye West might be famous for many things, but you’d have to both agree that contextually, it’s probably that notorious incident involving Taylor Swift that has emerged as a salient pop cultural reference.

So innovative verbs can have a “shifting sense and denotation—one that depends on the time, place and circumstances of their use.” Contextually, we understand that the verb in “bricking a phone” can be different than in “bricking a fireplace.” If your listeners don’t share the same cultural knowledge, you might end up bricking your shiny new denominal verb. A pre-1979 example like ”General Motors was Ralph Nadered into stopping production of the Corvair” might refer to one thing, but unless Ralph Nader has always been up to the same old trick, “To Ralph Nader an election” after the 2000 US presidential election might mean something else entirely to the next generation.

Why We Verb On the Internet

Verbing can be a faster and fresher way to convey tired information. And it can do so with a sense of humor and surprise. The internet and social media have made it easier than ever to share neologisms, but it’s not just about creating new words. It’s also about creating new forms. The internet loves linguistic shortcuts, because memes. (This new construction of because + noun has become popular online and replaces having to explain something in a longwinded fashion). Verbing likewise thrives in a fast-paced, short attention span internet culture, which is all about the viral sharing and remixing of pop culture memes. If you get the reference, you too can be a member. After all, punchlines are no fun if they have to be over explained.

But this isn’t your gran’s verbing—instead of a single noun or name, it’s the internet meme itself that provides the contextual framework. In the line, “She houdini’d out of a locked closet,” it’s the phrase “locked closet” and the subject’s name recognition that helps a listener understand what “houdini” means. But without knowledge of the well-known expression “Let me Google that for you,” the phrase “Let me librarian that for you” is harder to understand. If you don’t know the internet meme “Do you even lift, bro?” (which expresses skepticism for someone’s knowledge), you won’t really get the “Do you even science, bro?” meme. These memes tell us exactly how we’re supposed to understand these new verbs, as though we were dealing with a more concrete noun.

While many of these verbs may not last, it’s evident that verbing under the influence of memes has changed the way we talk. It may be weird, but somehow it ends up working. Because language.

[JSTOR is a digital library for scholars, researchers, and students.  JSTOR Daily readers can access the original research behind our articles for free on JSTOR.  Chi Luu is a computational linguist, a researcher concerned with the statistical or rule-based modeling of natural language from a computational perspective, and NLP (natural language processing, a branch of artificial intelligence concerned with automated interpretation and generation of human language) researcher who tinkers with tiny models and machines to uncover curious mysteries in human language.  She has worked on dictionaries, multi-language search engines, and question-answering applications.]

*  *  *  *
[William Safire (1929-2009), who served as speechwriter for President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew before becoming a journalist and columnist, used to write a weekly feature for the New York Times Magazine called “On Language” from 1979 until his death at 79.  He wrote, among other topics, on word usage, sticky points of grammar, and the etymology of words and phrases, including slang and neologisms.  I disagreed with Safire’s politics—he was a pretty unreconstructed conservative—but I read “On Language” regularly and with relish.  I wrote in response to his columns several times—and he even published my comments on occasion, either in his Sunday feature or in the books he compiled from his columns and the letters he received from readers.  In the Times Magazine of 26 October 1980, Safire wrote a piece called “When Out Is In” which, in part, was about what the columnist dubbed “the ‘out’ construction”—phrases in which the preposition is used as a “combining form that turns any bit of slang in noun or adjective form into a useful, with-it phrasal verb.”  He offered examples such as chicken out, zonked out, spaced out, pig out, veg out, and others. 

[Soon after “When Out Is In” was published, I wrote to Safire with some suggestions of another sort of “verbification” by combining form.  (I don’t know when I actually sent the letter because I don’t have a file copy of it—and this was at least three years before I got my first word processor.  My letter was published in Safire’s 1982 book, What’s The Good Word? [Avon].)  I’m also trusting that Safire printed my letter as I wrote it since I can’t prove otherwise.  In any case, I wrote the “language maven” (as he often called himself—people like me who wrote in and others Safire consulted were his “Lexicographic Irregulars,” a take, I assume, on Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street Irregulars), and I quote:

Your column on “out” as a combining form reminded me of a similar locution we used in college in the sixties.  It seems to have completely disappeared from common usage, but we used it ubiquitously to turn nouns into verbs: the use of “it” as a compounding element.  For example, “to flick it” meant “to go to the movies”; “to book it” was “to study”; “to pig it” was our equivalent of today’s “to pig out”; “to juke it” was “to dance” (or “to juke,” which meant specifically “to do the current dances of the moment”).  Frequently “up” was added as an intensifier, as in “to tube it up,: or to watch a lot of television.  The locution was used indiscriminately to make verb phrases out of any noun, even proper names.  If your psych teacher’s name was Jones, “to Jones it” meant either “to study for Jones’s class” or “to go to [his class].”  To go to Buena Vista (the location of the closest girls’ school) was “to BV it.”  It also meant, by implication, that one was dating a girl from that school that weekend.

[It’s not quite the same as simply using a noun as a verb like “to fragrance,” of course.  But back half a century ago, we thought it was hipper!]

No comments:

Post a Comment