What do these words and phrases have in common? Friend, Google, TiVo, log in, contact, barbecue, unlike, concept, text, Photoshop, leverage, party, Xerox, reference, architect, parent, improv, transition, diligence, host, chair, gift, heart, impact?
They’ve all been declared–by someone, somewhere, whether a usage expert or just a self-appointed language cop–”not verbs.” It doesn’t matter whether they’re useful, interesting, or entertaining as verbs; to many people, if a word began its life as a noun, then ”verbing” it (like I did there) is just wrong.
This visceral reaction is the motivating force behind the recently popular loginisnotaverb.com, one man’s impassioned plea against this kind of verbing. The site’s elaborate (and funny) arguments against login’s verb status really boil down to a simple denial. ”I will repeat the important part for clarity: ‘login’ is not a verb. It’s simply not,” he writes.
The history of English, however, suggests that the language is remarkably flexible in terms of what can be verbed. Almost any word can be drafted to serve as a verb, even words we think of as eternal and unchanging, stuck in their more traditional roles. It’s easy to think of scenarios where ”She me’d him too much and they broke up” and ”My boss tomorrowed the meeting again” make sense.
(Linguists discussing this process sometimes avoid the nonstandard word verbing by using the technical terms denominal derivation or conversion instead. Rhetoricians are even less likely to use the word verbing and use the general term antimeria to describe any use of a word in a different part of speech.)
Objections to verbification in English tend to be motivated by personal taste, not clarity. Verbed words are usually easily understood. When a word like friend is declared not a verb, the problem isn’t that it’s confusing; it’s that the protester finds it deeply annoying.
Some of the outrage might be connected to verbing’s popularity as a feature of business jargon: Liase, incentivize, leverage, and status are often cited as horrible bizspeak to be shunned at all costs. (Why are businesses supposed to be superefficient in everything but their use of language? ”He didn’t have a chance to status us before he left” is four words shorter than ”He didn’t have a chance to give us a status update before he left.”)
Some not-a-verb declarations are made for reasons that are more financial than linguistic: Google, TiVo, Adobe, and Xerox want to defend their trademarks, and one way to do that is to announce loudly, and at every opportunity, that Google, TiVo, Photoshop, and Xerox are not, repeat NOT, verbs. Xerox occasionally runs ads in major magazines (most recently in the Hollywood Reporter this past May) reminding people that Xerox is still a trademark, and asking writers not to use Xerox the trademark as a verb.
Given the outrage, why do people verb? Often, it’s a shortcut: There comes a point where text is just a shorter way to say ”send a text message.” And there’s a kind of cultural currency to verbing, which might be a reason that it’s a staple of television writing. (There’s an episode of ”Seinfeld” where Kramer says ”Let’s bagel!”; and ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer” used proper names as verbs on multiple occasions, including Keyser Soze, Clark Kent, and Scully.)
But something deeper is going on, too: When done well, verbing delights our brains. Philip Davis, a professor at the School of English at the University of Liverpool, devised a study in 2006 that tested just what happens when people read sentences with verbed nouns in them–and not just any verbed nouns, nouns verbed by Shakespeare. (Shakespeare was an inveterate noun-verber; he verbed ghost, in ”Julius Caesar, I Who at Phillipi the good Brutus ghosted”; dog, in ”Destruction straight shall dog them at the heels”; and even uncle, in ”Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle.”)
So what did happen? When people were confronted with verbed nouns (in sentences such as ”I was not supposed to go there alone: You said you would companion me.”) EEGs measured their brains recognizing a syntactic anomaly, but not a semantic one. In other words, the subjects understood–in a time measured in milliseconds–that something cool and new was happening. And they immediately got what it meant. Their double-take was measurably different from the one caused by hearing nouns or verbs unrelated to the context of the entire sentence (”you said you would charcoal me” ”you said you would incubate me”).
Granted, it was just one study, and using Shakespearean language to boot. But if there’s even a slight chance that verbing attentions people, wouldn’t it be a shame not to take advantage of it?
Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com.