172. Verbing

“Verbing” (or denominalisation) is the practice of turning nouns into verbs. For example, Matt Damon in The Martian saying “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.” The noun “science” here becomes a verb.

My enquiry into the habit began when I queried the use of the verb “to mirror” in a friend’s novel set in the early nineteenth century. I wondered if this was a modern habit, perhaps derived from the compressed speech of texts and Twitter.

Verbing is old. Really old.

Some verbing is so old, we no longer recognize it. We are unfazed by “rain” as a verb, or by the act of “buttering bread”. And the practice goes even further back. The verb “enchant” is a borrowing from Old French.

Techniques for verbing

As with enchant, putting the suffix “en” in front of a noun is a common way of making new verbs. Shakespeare was a great one for doing this. For example, Iago says to Othello “Do but encave yourself”. Many other examples of Shakespearean coinages can be found in David Crystal’s article Verbing: Shakespeare’s linguistic innovation.

Substituting a name for an action is another common technique. Hence we get the verb boycott (after Charles C Boycott, an English land agent in 19th century Ireland who refused to reduce rents for his tenants and was, in consequence, ignored by local residents). We also get the verbs hoover and google in this way.

Finally, of course, a noun can simply become a verb. Consider these lines from Shakespeare’s Richard II “Within my mouth you have enjailed my tongue, Doubly portcullised with my teeth and lips.” There are two examples here: enjailed and portcullised.

A powerful and direct, if not creative, example of this previous technique comes from the exasperated threat of parents to importuning children.  “Can I have an ice cream? Please?” “Ice cream? I’ll ice cream you.”

Why do we verb?

One motive may be impact. Compressed expression has an immediacy that a full exposition may not. For example. Burt Lancaster’s demand for a light, “Match me,” in the 1957 The Sweet Smell of Success. The brevity of the line conveys the contempt and power of Lancaster’s character for the character he’s addressing. Much more so than had he said, “Will you light my cigarette, please?”

The desire for brevity has two sources, a linguistic shortcut and the attempt to collide words together, as if in a particle accelerator, to study what new meanings come off. The shortcutting (the word is itself a verbing) is most evident in acronyms. LOL is a text abbreviation for Laugh Out Loud (and not, as David Cameron believed. Lots of Love). Like verbing, acronyms have a long history. Consider, for example, the ancient Roman SPQR (Senatus Populsque Romanus—the Senate and People of Rome) added as a stamp of anything official.

But, finally, let’s consider the particle-smashing element of verbing. When a noun (a thing) and a verb (an action) are smashed together, we get something new: a process, a thing that changes and evolves in time. Nouns and verbs (as well as pronouns, conjunctions, prepositions, adjectives and adverbs) are just convenient ways of cataloguing our linguistic world, not necessarily a reflection of the real world. It’s possible everything may be a process rather than an object or an action.  What would our world be like if we saw it this way? Here’s to the catting sitting matting!

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