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James Harbeck

Does Verbing Impact the Language?

Flowers or Weeds?
Copyright: hedgehogvector / 123RF Stock Photo

A favourite crank for language cranks to crank is the demon of verbing. It wrecks our language, they protest! They target such usages as impacted and referenced in business-speak and medalled in broadcasting. While liberal-minded linguists may see these words as just more of the odd flowers that bloom in the spring (and spring up throughout the year, for that matter), the grumblers want to weed them out.

Just recently, for instance, the Guardian gave column space to one Jonathan Bouquet, who fumes at such conversions and would like to bin them all. He welcomes loanwords, he protests, but “there are some constructions that still grate”: impacted and reference, for two, and “Only yesterday, I heard a business reporter on TV use ‘headquarter’ as a verb.” He especially dreads “the fullest flowering of such manglings” during the Olympics, with medal and podium used as verbs.

I honestly can’t tell whether Mr. Bouquet sincerely believes what he writes, or whether he’s taking the, uh, mickey. Although his position is extreme, there are many who hold the same views. But it’s not really the movement of words from one class to another that nettles them — it is the movement of people from one class into another. They dislike the words because they dislike the self-important upstarts who use them: barbarous posers putting on airs and commandeering the language.

I state this with confidence because when they air their grievances they nearly always characterize the sources of these usages peevishly, and because they inevitably use — without comment, without even noticing — words that are the product of exactly the same process: verbs that were nouns first, nouns that were verbs first, adjectives that were nouns first, and so on. They accept and use the fruits of conversion, except when someone they don’t fancy uses a word that looks new to them.

Do I overstate my case? Consider verbs Mr. Bouquet used gladly: grate, flower, mangle. If I look at the rest of his brief rant, I see also — used ingenuously — the verb monitor and the noun import. But take a look at the rest of what I’ve written here. How many words can you count that are regularly used as multiple classes of word? Let’s see: crank, wreck, protest, target, broadcast, mind, flower, mangle, bloom, weed, matter, fume, bin, welcome, protest, dread, hold, class, nettle, like, start, air, pose, state, peeve, comment, process, fancy, rant, look… Look, whenever you scan a book (or book a scan), you’re sure to spy some verbing. English would not be English without it.

And if you’re fine with all those but not with impact, reference, medal or podium as verbs, why is that? Is it because those latter four could be rephrased using existing words? Consider how many of the words you’re fine with could be paraphrased reasonably well. This is English. We are the ancient spice shop of languages. We have far more words than we need — but we can use them all to good effect. When we take dislikes to words, it’s almost always related to our ideas of the people who use them.

This doesn’t mean you have to use a word you don’t like. But it’s best to be clear on why you don’t like it.

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Previous post from James Harbeck: A Macaronic Feather in Our Cap.

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7 Comments on “Does Verbing Impact the Language?”

  • Anita I. Jenkins

    says:

    Whenever this topic comes up, I remember with embarrassment how in the 1970s I told my students that « party » was not a verb!

  • Very interesting. All languages evolve, don’t they? New words are needed for new ideas and new inventions. How can you stop it? It’s all part of the richness of the English language.

  • Karen Limbert Rempel

    says:

    Thanks for this beautiful insight, James! I’d also be very interested in your take on recent trends among, say, my children, who use « english », « math », and « adult » as verbs, mostly to describe their (perceived) incompetence in such areas. Or, more accurately, to excuse themselves from trying too hard. Aside from being funny, can this also be seen as part of the richness and evolution of the language? I try to keep an open mind!

  • Well, the voice of reason. I’ll admit that « impacted » used as a verb still makes my teeth ache.

  • Emmy Ezzell

    says:

    I would love to see you write about the death of the verb in public speech, especially news readers. I mean the kind of speech that says « The President driving us all nuts today » instead of « The President drove us all nuts today. »

  • Stacey Atkinson

    says:

    Always entertaining and informative. Thanks for the post, James!

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