March 17, 2009

Verbing Weirds Language

A colleague recently made a startling announcement.

He reported that on a short-hop flight, an attendant had apologized to her parched passengers because time had not allowed them to be “beveraged,” but not to worry, for they would be “beveraged” on their connecting flights.

Bemused, he announced, “I got verbed.”

Now he didn’t know it, but he was echoing Calvin, who once informed Hobbes, “I like to verb words,” referring to an unaccountable tendency among speakers of contemporary English to convert nouns into verbs. [Sidebar: Having been an English teacher, I know from sad experience that any mention of anything having to do with grammar immediately induces either extreme narcolepsy or feelings of total inadequacy, for when I would reluctantly ’fess up to people at cocktail parties that I taught English—and oh, how I’d try to avoid doing so—I’d get a vacant nod, then the person would drift away, leaving me to find another victim who would likewise be convinced he’d commit some unspeakable grammatical faux pax and I’d immediately crack his knuckles with the ruler I undoubtedly carried at all times in my pocket for that very purpose, ready to pounce censoriously on any molestation of the mother tongue. But this ain’t rocket science, folks. A noun is a thing—like “tree.” A verb is an action, as when my dog “trees” a cat. And he’s a smart dog, so even he knows the difference.]

Calvin concluded that “Verbing weirds language,” but does it?

The plain fact is, I don’t know. Fads and fashions come and go in English usage, just as they do with clothing; yesterday’s paisley shirt evolves into today’s Patagonia vest. I’m not an English teacher anymore, partly because I’m not sure I speak English anymore, at least not the English spoken by others, like the flight attendant. I feel a sense of disequilibrium when I watch TV cooking shows and food gets “plated”—not electroplated (like covered in chrome), but meaning, I think, that “a minuscule portion of food gets arranged artfully on a plate by a tony sous-chef.” Then, I know I speak a different tongue.

Lots of words that started out as nouns—as things—have gotten verbed. Take knife, spear, lance, gun, club, torpedo, and torch, all nice martial words. We raise nary an eyebrow when we read that a person has been knifed, speared, lanced, gunned (down), or clubbed, or when a ship is torpedoed and a building torched. But can someone please explain why the nouns “arrow” and “blunt object” can’t similarly be verbed so that an elk is “arrowed” or a crime victim “blunt-objected”? If a building can be bombed with a bomb, why can’t one be missiled with a missile? I have no explanation.

English purists, and I guess I’m one, like to skewer those who commit what they see as outrages on the language, like “beveraged.” [Brief sidebar: Notice that the noun “skewer” has gotten verbed into “to skewer.”] There’s something business-jargony and big-city new-fangled about a lot of contemporary verbing, as in “to task” or “to impact” or “to access.” Some of it just seems lazy, like “to garage” a car. But if we can “sheathe” a sword, or “holster” a weapon, or “bottle” wine, or “can” peaches, or “box” Christmas presents, why can’t we “garage” a car? If we “fish” for fish, why don’t we “deer” for deer? If our toddlers are “teething,” why aren’t they ever, say, “hairing”? Can’t help you there.

And this raises a whole swarm of other questions that make English ultimately unknowable. We “breakfast” and “lunch,” but we don’t “dinner.” We do things “nightly,” like snack on snacks (though we don’t chip on chips, but we do chip golfballs but try not to chip china). So why don’t we ever do anything “morningly,” or “afternoonly,” or “eveningly”? Can’t help you on that either.

Hobbes thought he had the final word: “Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding.” Yet somehow the mother tongue will endure, growing and adapting with each new generation. True, she’s a fickle mistress, a creature of crotchets and quiddities. But that’s what makes her enormous good fun.

Michael J. O'Neal is the author of Crazy Bett, a novel about Civil War espionage. The book is available at www.crazybett.com, or on Amazon.

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