A couple of weeks ago, a reader suggested that I devote an issue of The Habit Weekly to the verbing of nouns and the nouning of verbs. Not a bad idea, I said, except that I have devoted earlier issues to the nouning of verbs (or nominalization), so this one will mostly be about verbification.
Especially in or hyper-technological era, the verbing of nouns seems to be happening at record speed. Email started out life as a noun. In the nineties we used to say things like, “I’ll send you an email,” in which the noun email was the direct object of the verb send. It wasn’t long at all, however, before we started using email as a verb: “I’ll email you.”
[Bonus question for grammar nerds: What grammatical function does ‘you’serve in the sentence, “I’ll email you”? If I say, “I’ll send you an email,” ‘you’ is an indirect object. I’ll send the email (direct object) to you (indirect object). In the sentence “I’ll email you,” it’s as if we have an implied direct object; ‘you’ is still behaving like an indirect object, even though it looks like a direct object. What I really mean is something along the lines of “I’ll email you (indirect object) an email (direct object).”]
When Facebook became a thing, I remember being bothered by the sudden appearance of friend as a verb. On the one hand, it seemed like a misuse of the word, since people were “friending” people they didn’t really know. On the other hand, we already have a verb to describe the process by which a person goes from a stranger to a friend. That verb is to befriend. But the verb to friend has been around for a full decade now.
I suspect the verb friend has survived precisely because we all know that befriending doesn’t describe what happens when you send or accept a friend request on Facebook. It’s also worth noting that to friend has not jumped the Facebook fence to describe what happens when people become friends in the real world. So this new use of friend as a verb is not sloppy but actually quite precise—though you might make the case that this new, precise use of friend as a verb was made necessary by a sloppy use of friend as a noun.
I wonder if all this rapid verbification points to the rapid changes in the ways we “do” life in the Internet era. That is to say, we don’t just need new nouns for new things, but new verbs for new ways of doing things.
When my son’s science teacher asked the class how one might determine the circumference of the earth at the equator. One of the students raised his hand and said, “Google it?” That little anecdote has it all: verbification, neologism, the Internet, a huge generation gap, and maybe even a major epistemological shift.
I try not to be any more old-fashioned than I have to be. I’m not especially bothered by verbification per se. English grammar makes verbing so easy that it’s more or less inevitable: stick the word Google (or any other noun) between a subject and a direct object, and you’ve got yourself a new verb. You may not even have to change the ending.
What bothers me about sentences like “I’ll Google it” or “We should Instagram this” or “They’re going to AirBnB their house for Mardi Gras” isn’t the verbing, but the fact that corporate brands so shape our world now that they can’t be contained by proper nouns. They become the verbs by which we act out our lives. That’s not a language problem but a culture problem. For better or worse, language reflects culture.
I don’t often rush to embrace new verbifications or neologisms of any sort. I would prefer to sound stodgy today than to sound dated tomorrow. It’s hard to know which neologisms are going to look passé in five years. I am happy to report that I have never AOLed anybody. And if I have ever written about dabbing, it has only been the kind that one does with a hankie. I even resisted the term metrosexual, even though it appeared to have a pretty bright future in around 2008.
But if jumping on a linguistic bandwagon too early can make a writer look ridiculous, so can railing too hard against neologisms. Just as it’s hard to know which ones are on their way out, it’s hard to know which ones are going to survive—that is to say, which ones are more useful than you can see from where you sit. There’s a lot to like about Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, but they come across as a tad fogey-ish when they express their dismay over those new-fangled words finalize and moisturize. Kids these days.
The flexibility of our language—including the ease with which we can turn nouns into verbs—is a feature, not a bug. It’s a major reason that the English language is as rich as it is, as Steven Pinker argues in an interesting article in The New Republic:
Through the ages, language mavens have deplored the way English speakers convert nouns into verbs. The following verbs have all been denounced in this century: to caveat, to input, to host, to nuance, to access, to chair, to dialogue, to showcase, to progress, to parent, to intrigue, to contact, to impact.
As you can see, they range from varying degrees of awkwardness to the completely unexceptionable. In fact, easy conversion of nouns to verbs has been part of English grammar for centuries. I have estimated that about a fifth of all English verbs were originally nouns. Consider the human body: you can “head” a committee, “scalp” the missionary, “eye” a babe, “stomach” someone’s complaints and so on—virtually every body part can be “verbed” (including several that cannot be printed in a family journal of opinion).
Used by a good writer, verbing can bring freshness, energy, even poetry to a sentence. Look what Ron Hansen does with the made-up verb (or, more precisely, participle) sheeping:
And below the silos and water tower are stripped treetops, their gray limbs still lifted up in alleluiah, their yellow leaves crowding along yard fences and sheeping along the sidewalks and alleys under the shepherding wind.
Hansen accomplishes so much in that one word “sheeping.” You can just see those leaves moving along, all together, like a herd of sheep moving one direction then another. Isn’t it gorgeous?