Mothers and fathers used to bring up children: now they parent. Critics used to review plays: now they critique them. Athletes podium, executives flipchart, and almost everybody Googles. Watch out—you’ve been verbed.
The English language is in a constant state of flux. New words are formed and old ones fall into disuse. But no trend has been more obtrusive in recent years than the changing of nouns into verbs. “Trend” itself (now used as a verb meaning “change or develop in a general direction”, as in “unemployment has been trending upwards”) is further evidence of—sorry, evidences—this phenomenon.
It is found in all areas of life, though some are more productive than others. Financiers are never lacking in ingenuity: Investec recently forecast that “Better-balanced autumn ranges should allow Marks & Spencer to anniversary tougher comparisons”—whatever that may mean. Politics has come up with “to handbag” (a tribute to Lady Thatcher) and “to doughnut”—that is, to sit in a ring around a colleague making a parliamentary announcement, so that it is not clear to television viewers that the chamber is practically deserted.
New technology is fertile ground, partly because it is constantly seeking names for things which did not previously exist: we “text” from our mobiles, “bookmark” websites, “inbox” our e-mail contacts and “friend” our acquaintances on Facebook —only, in some cases, to “defriend” them later. “Blog” had scarcely arrived as a noun before it was adopted as a verb, first intransitive and then transitive (an American friend boasts that he “blogged hand-wringers” about a subject that upset him). Conversely, verbs such as “twitter” and “tweet” have been transformed into nouns—though this process is far less common.
Sport is another ready source. “Rollerblade”, “skateboard”, “snowboard” and “zorb” have all graduated from names of equipment to actual activities. Football referees used to book players, or send them off: now they “card” them. Racing drivers “pit”, golfers “par” and coastal divers “tombstone”.
Verbing—or denominalisation, as it is known to grammarians—is not new. Steven Pinker, in his book “The Language Instinct” (1994), points out that “easy conversion of nouns to verbs has been part of English grammar for centuries; it is one of the processes that make English English.” Elizabethan writers revelled in it: Shakespeare’s Duke of York, in “Richard II” (c1595), says “Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle”, and the 1552 Book of Common Prayer includes a service “commonly called the Churching of Women”.
There is a difference today, says Robert Groves, one of the editors of the new “Collins Dictionary of the English Language”. “Potential changes in our language are picked up and repeated faster than they would have been in the past, when print was the only mass communication medium, and fewer people were literate.” So coinages can be trialled around the world—and greenlighted—as soon as they are visioned.
What makes these leaps so easy is that English, unlike other Indo-European languages, uses few inflections. The infinitive does not take a separate ending, so while in French the noun “action” has to become the verb “actionner”, English can use the same form for both. In German (apart from “essen” meaning “food” or “eat”), such words are virtually unknown; the same is true of Chinese—though the noun meaning “thunder” can be used as the verb “to shock”. In Arabic such formations are not found at all.
What’s the driving force behind it? “Looking for short cuts, especially if you have to say something over and over again, is a common motivator,” says Groves. So fund-raisers say “to gift-aid” rather than repeat “donate using gift aid” all day long, and CIA agents looking for suspects to kidnap find “to rendition” handier than “to subject to extraordinary rendition”.
Sometimes the results are ridiculous—notably when verbs are minted from nouns which were formed from verbs in the first place. To say “Let’s conference” instead of “Let’s confer”, “I’ll signature it” instead of “I’ll sign it”, or “they statemented” instead of “they stated”, makes the speaker seem either ignorant or pretentious. (The late General Alexander Haig, whose military jargon was so singular it became known as “Haigspeak”, even wanted “to caveat” a proposal, and was duly ridiculed.) Using an elaborate verb when there is a far simpler alternative—such as “dialogue” for “talk”—has the same effect.
On the other hand, verbing can be entertaining—especially when applied, with a touch of mischief, to a proper noun. A classic example is “Gerrymander”, dating back to 1812, when—under Governor Gerry of Massachusetts—political boundaries were redrawn so tortuously that one district acquired the shape of a salamander. In 2004 a smear campaign against John Kerry, the Democrats’ nominee for president, gave us the verb “to swiftboat”, derived from the type of naval vessel Kerry had commanded in Vietnam. Nor should we forget “to Bobbitt”, the verb coined when an irate Lorena Bobbitt took a knife to quite a specific part of her husband’s physique.
Some lovers of the language deplore the whole business of verbing (Benjamin Franklin called it “awkward and abominable” in a letter to Noah Webster, the lexicographer, in 1789); others see it as proof of a vibrant linguistic culture. Certain words seem to bring people out in a rash—among them “actioning”, “tasking”, “impacting”, “efforting”, “accessing”, “progressing” and “transitioning”. Often, though, the dictionary yields surprising precedents: “impact” was used as a verb in the 17th century, and “task” in the 16th. Other verbs have managed to escape linguistic ghettoes (“to access” was recognised by the “Oxford English Dictionary” over 20 years ago, but only as a computing term), or acquire new meanings: “to reference”, originally meaning “to supply with references”, has now become a near-twin of “to refer to”.
Coinages that seem to bend over backwards invite derision. You may not be rushing “to boilerplate” (automatically include) material in a document, or “to demagogue” a political subject (discuss it in a rabble-rousing manner). Locative verbs are particularly clumsy: “I’d like to showcase/front-stage/hothouse/workshop this.” A few simply appear crass—none more so than “to incest”, meaning “to force into an incestuous relationship”.
Not every coinage passes into general use, and with luck “to incest” will quietly fade away. But as for trying to end verbing altogether, forget it. You’d simply be Canuting.