I wrote about it back in Issue 2, July 1997. But despite my long silence
on this theme since then, it doesn’t mean that the debate has not been
on my wordster’s mind.
In a nutshell, it’s becoming even more popular today than it was in 1997
to draw attention to the widespread misuse of English. Current
manifestations of this trend include recent publications like Eats,
Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss (on punctuation) or Don Watson’s
Sentence: the Decay of Public Language (on “managerial” English).
Another common pet peeve you hear of is the use of nouns as verbs, and I
must come clean: some of these I detest with a loathing you wouldn’t
believe — mainly the ones that exhibit laziness. My hatred of language
laziness, I imagine, must have sprung from those years among Latin’s
nouns and verbs, with their five declensions, six cases, four
conjugations, six tenses, two voices, three moods . . .
But this is
Bikwil, and the editor won't permit naked negativism,
though I’ve heard that I can moan a bit if I at least partly clothe my
complaint in humour. Fortunately, some of these verbalising uses of
nouns are so ludicrous that they are already down on their knees begging
for the “ha-ha response”.
But, lest we mistakenly think that such usage is a 20th-century
non-fictional Newspeak, developed from some Pentagon mind-game, let us
remind ourselves: people have been doing it for ages. What’s more,
language scholars already have a word for it — conversion.
Here is a clear explanation by linguist
The process known as conversion — changing the part of speech of a word
without changing its form — has a very long and honorable tradition in
English. English happens to have no formal markers to tell us which
words are nouns and which ones are verbs (unlike, say, Spanish, French,
Italian, Russian, German, Turkish, and many other languages). This makes
conversion so easy that English speakers have engaged in it for
centuries, to the point where it is hard to think of any noun that
cannot be used as a verb, and vice versa . . . English would not be
English without these words, and without possessing the ability to make
words by the same process.
Examples he quotes, none of which we would ever dream of batting a
pedantic eyelid at, include:
Nouns as verbs:
hand [a package]
book [into a hotel]
table [a motion]
floor [an opponent]
face [up to responsibilities]
foot [the bill]
Verbs as nouns:
[take a] walk
[have a] good cry
[be in a deep] sleep
[make a] run [for it]
Yes, many times we use conversion without realising it. Look at this
quintet of verbs in common use that were originally nouns. (The dates
refer to the earliest verbal usage recorded by the OED.)
David Crystal's take (!) on conversion is worth reading:
Lexemes [i.e. minimal lexical units] can be made to change their word
class without the addition of an affix — a process known as conversion.
The items chiefly produced in this way are nouns, adjectives, and verbs
— especially the verbs which come from nouns (e.g. to bottle) and the
nouns which come from verbs (e.g. a doubt). Not all the all the senses
of a lexeme are usually carried through to the derived form, however.
The noun paper has several meanings, such as ‘newspaper', 'wallpaper',
and 'academic article'. The verb to paper relates only to the second of
these. Lecturers and editors may paper their rooms, not their audiences
(Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, p. 129)
Of course, the older a given usage is, the more likely that it will be
tolerated. But though it takes a while for such unconscious or reluctant
acceptance to become established, anything is possible, I fear, given
time. By now it’s too late for some words. Behold some contemporary uses
of nouns as verbs that you may find as preposterous as I do.
author ("our company authored the documentation")
conference ("please conference with your teacher and report")
dialogue ("let's dialogue")
effort ("we're efforting to work this out")
guilt ("she tried to guilt him into returning the money")
impact [very common] ("this will strongly impact the price of the
interface [almost as common] ("the managing editor must interface with a
variety of freelance editors ")
liaison ("he has agreed to liaison with the Division on behalf of those
with problem cases.")
medal ("she's certain to medal at the Athens Olympics")
task ("I have been tasked with a new project")
I realise I’ve been preaching to the choir here, but there’s so much
word tripe to enjoy out there. So don’t be surprised if you notice me
waxing derisive in a future column.
Incidentally, this issue’s Web Line has some language sites you may be
interested in exploring.