Nouns and Verbs
[ Issue 43 ]

Emily Bronto is definitely one of Edith Sitwell’s many fans

Bikwil celebrates Edith Sitwell

Nouns and Verbs

Harlish Goop waxes strong on conversion.  Not religious conversion, but the use of nouns as verbs, and vice versa.
 

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'.

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop

Copyright


Yes, 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 Death 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 Steve Seegmiller:

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.)

contact (1834)
focus (1807)
house (1000)
libel (1601)
parent (1663)

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 or readers.
(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 company’s stock")
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.

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