Monday, March 19, 2012

Verbification . . . to be or not to be

The English language (both British English and American English) is always in flux. The speed of change is directly related to technology. Stone tablets, clay tablets, papyrus, parchment, vellum, wood based paper, Marco Polo's travels coupled with Chinese inventions, the Silk Road, literacy for the masses, break down of classes in society, moveable type, daily newspapers, telephones, computers, and increased speed of communication all influenced these changes.

Today English language changes are picked up faster due to international chat rooms, message texting, computer availability, iPads, e-books and more leisure time for writing and reading. Chat rooms are big contributors because people from many nations are using one room where English is the common language but the odd foreign word inevitably slides in. Many words are assimilated much to the displeasure of the French who want to keep their language pure. Words like ballet, croissant, glastnost, ramen, safari, tycoon, Zen, futon, blitz, ennui, bikini, incommunicado, angst, armoire, and gestalt are among the thousands of words whose origin is other than English.

The English language structure makes it easy for changes to develop. The Germanic, Chinese and Arabic languages have strict structures that allow little change with the exception of technical words and phrases. These languages have many words which when used as a noun mean one thing but as a verb are different. English has few of these inflections.

One trend in English, verbification, is of great controversy more so now than ten years ago. Sentences like, "I officed him on the second floor," " He podiumed at the Olympics," "Charlie tasked me to garbage this project," "My ask is that you make this change on line two," and "Hollywood farewelled Michael Jackson" are coming under fire. One derogatory or alternately feared term depending upon your stance is "handbagged." It is a reference to the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher. She entered a room, set her Verragamo handbag on the cabinet and one person remarked, "The handbag is here. Let's start the meeting." It now means a tough female negotiator or business woman.

Verbification has been used for centuries. Shakespeare in Richard II, has the Duke of York saying, "Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle." Verbs like armed, painted, questioned, shouldered, faced, emailed, trained, stated, sanded, objected, cooked and kissed all started out as nouns. Now they are common verbs accepted by even those who hold English to the highest standards.

Users of the terms and phrases such as journaling, trending, bookmarking, texting, friending or defriending, golfers paring a hole, or race care drivers pitting, lawyering up/out, tasking, or heirlooming a possession have experienced a lack of acceptance in the business and writing world. People who use them are considered, especially if you are a writer, to be lazy, ignorant or pretentious. Ben Franklin agreed saying verification was "abominable and awkward." Some grammar sites condone using nouns as verbs as a sign of a vibrant linguistic culture while other decry their use. Possibly some of the vogue terms will become so accepted where no thought will be given to them being anything other than verbs. Others may go the wayside just like, "I took a meeting."

Digital photo by anakkmi


Kathy Cooney Dobbs said...

No doubt text & twitter have added to the way verbification & it's use is changing in 21st century. While there's some controversy, my guess is it will prevail. Thank you, Jennifer for another well written & informative post

Jennifer Rova said...

Thanks, Kathy. It is always fun to some and irritating to others when English changes. I still struggle with the less vs fewer trend; it grates to hear "less" used wrong most of the time. I agree that "text" and "Twitter" have added to the rapidity of change. Both started out as nouns and now are verbs well cemented in writing and speaking.