Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly.
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.
Your article has earthed me!
Is that better or worse than being floored?
Why not use the (often simpler) words that are already widely accepted?
Sometimes verbing doesn’t really add much, but sometimes it does. That’s why we have all those words such as flower that have been converted. And the already-existing words aren’t always simpler. There’s no way of replacing the verbs podium or medal without using a whole phrase. As to the question of what is widely accepted, such usages are already common; and if we banned innovation – use of words that are not already widely accepted – we would deal a blow to the works of Shakespeare and many poets. Innovation in English will not cease until the language is dead. No person is required to like or use all the new usages, but an awareness of the history and nature of the language and one’s reasons for liking and disliking things, plus a sense of fun, may lead a person to think better of spending time fuming about conversions from one word class to another.
Very thoughtful piece, James. You certainly make me examine my own irritation with the way words are re-purposed. I am constantly trying to remind myself that language is a living thing – or ought to be – and that I should just relax. As you point out, there is nothing compelling me to use a word that I don’t like. Thanks!
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