Here We Go A-Verbing

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An example spotted in the wild at Crozet Library. Photo: Clover Carroll.

As we have acknowledged in the past (albeit reluctantly), language is a living thing, constantly growing and changing, like a puppy or a child. As soon as we think s/he has arrived at a stable state—such as “yogurt is the only food I’ll eat”—they reverse course and decide they HATE yogurt. It is tempting to cling to the past, but more pragmatic—and open-minded—to go with the flow and accept the new normal (except maybe QR codes and self-driving cars). I’m trying! Time was when things like “friend” and “message” were clearly and solidly nouns—that is, things with names, that do actions upon other things: my friend sent me a message to say she’d be late. But the ever-creative human mind has suddenly started turning nouns into verbs—that is, actioning them! We can now friend someone on Facebook or message them with the latest news. Distressing, yes, but I must admit that “text me when you arrive” betokens one of the greatest conveniences of modern life! 

This practice is not new by any means. We did not even notice way back, when working in the garden became gardening, depositing a paycheck became banking, and working at a xerox machine became photocopying. We just went smiling through it all. But with the advent of social media in the early aughts, many grammar rules and conventions flew right out the window, and the practice of “verbing” took off like a kite in the wind. Now, according to an ad for Marcus by Goldman Sachs, “You can money!”

Perhaps we should blame it on Kroger. “Let’s go Krogering” became an obnoxious advertising slogan around the turn of the 21st century, attempting to turn the chore of grocery shopping into a delightful junket, but also leading the way to the practice of verbing that has now reached a breakneck pace. Another culprit, of course, was Google. Remember when that was simply the name of a powerful search engine, which soon took over the online search landscape as completely as VHS swallowed Beta tapes? Was it their fault we started telling our students to google whatever topic they were researching, thus spawning a new verb? Perhaps we have only ourselves to blame.

Linguists call this phenomenon denominalization. Without the de- prefix, nominalization means “the action or process of converting a word or phrase into a noun” (oed.com), so de-nominalization means undoing this process—that is, converting a noun into something else. To complicate things further, Wikipedia reports that “In rhetoric, anthimeria or antimeria (from Greek: antí, ‘against, opposite,’ and méros, ‘part’), means using one part of speech as another, such as using a noun as a verb: ‘The little old lady turtled along the road.’” Such language acrobatics may be unusual, but this one is really catching on—aka trending. “Verbing can be a faster and fresher way to convey tired information,” notes Chi Luu in “Do You Even Language, Bro?” (daily.jstor.org). “And it can do so with a sense of humor and surprise. [These] vivid linguistic shortcuts … enrich the language with new rhetorical imagery.” Or confusion!

As Eve V. and Herbert H. Clark point out in their 1979 study “When Nouns Surface as Verbs,” (Language, vol. 55, no. 4), “the practice of creating innovative denominal verbs draws on a shared cultural knowledge of the original noun.” If you haven’t seen a turtle slowly crawling, you would not understand the sentence above. “The more concrete and unambiguous the noun’s meaning, the more easily it’s accepted as a verb.” Clement Moore’s immortal “and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath” could now become, “His head was wreathed in smoke.” We’ve all seen, or even made, a holiday wreath to hang on our door. But is “I’ve plated her dinner and put it in the microwave” really a more economical way of saying her dinner is served?

The jargon-riddled business world is especially guilty. Let’s table this debate until our next meeting. Such a price change will really impact our bottom line. Maybe we should workshop the idea first. I’ve been tasked with interviewing these candidates. We need to transition everyone to the new protocols. But educators also love jargon. Teachers scaffold the curriculum and dialogue about their next co-teaching unit. But couldn’t they just discuss it instead?

Now people are making fast and loose with those poor nouns, and tossing them around like candy from a parade truck. We noodle our way through the weekend, and athletes medal at sporting events. My daughter-in-law proudly tells my grandson he is stylin’ (with her tongue in her cheek, of course). Shall I foreground your dog in this photo? a photographer might ask. Then we can memeify it. Let’s porch this evening at sunset. We’ll just AirBnB our family reunion…. forget finding or booking one! To get there, our millennial children announce “I’ll just GPS the route”—as they look disdainfully at the paper map I am studying. And while we’re there, we can chill and watch Bob Hearts Abishola on TV. Please allow me to voice my concern over this nonsense—along with Benjamin Franklin, who in a letter to Noah Webster called the practice of denominalization “awkward and abominable.” Or as Bill Watterson’s Calvin points out, “verbing weirds language.” (www.gocomics.com/calvinand hobbes/1993/01/25)

So, if you can’t find an existing verb to describe what you’re doing, just take the easy way out and verbify the nearest noun! As Mae West did when she said “Cigarette me, Cossack!” (Goin’ to Town, 1935), or as the New York Times Cooking app teaches “How to Bulgogi Your Tofu.” Our own Crozet Library recently displayed a poster to celebrate Children’s Book Week, asking “How Do You Book?” Perhaps most cringeworthy of all, one website proclaimed, “Let me librarian that for you.” As a retired librarian, I object to being verbed!  

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