The Verbing of the English Language

By Mark Nichol

One of the most inventive aspects of invention-friendly English is verbing, the denominalization of nouns into verbs.

It’s nothing new — verbs have been created from noun forms throughout the life span of Modern English and perhaps even before it evolved from Middle English; what’s been different during our lifetime, perhaps, is the rate at which it occurs.

Denominalizations most of us have grown accustomed to because they’ve been around a while include pencil (“I’ll pencil you in for tomorrow at nine o’clock”), trend (“Stocks continue to trend downward”), and impact (“That’s going to significantly impact our plan”). If those usages aren’t annoying enough, you can make people cringe by using dialogue (“We’ll dialogue about this later”).

Brand names even get denominalized, as was the case with Xerox and, more recently, Google. But verbing isn’t confined to the office. At home, mothers and fathers parent, and people host guests. Active folks ski and skate, while those out on the town get seated, sometimes only after they’re carded.

The primary cause of the recent proliferation of verbing is technology: Before the average person had access to personal computers, programmers were accessing data online. When the Internet went mainstream, we began to bookmark our bookmarks. As many people began to favor text messaging, texting stood alongside phoning or calling. (By extension, overt flirting and text-based phone sex was dubbed sexting.) Social networking gave us the verb form “to friend” (and, inevitably, “to defriend”), as well as a new sense of “to like,” where liking is a deliberate action rather than simply a feeling.

Denominalization is controversial and prompts much antipathy. But why? Some of the most basic words in English — dress, dream, sleep, strike, talk — are verbs identical in form to their parent nouns.

The answer: English encourages neologisms, but many of its users are (often rightfully) averse to upstart words. Many of the denominalizations we take for granted may have struck listeners and readers as awkward and annoying when they first experienced them, but although many others no doubt fell by the wayside for that very reason, numerous ones have long since been granted status as standard English.

There’s only so much you can do to champion denominalization or to choke it, but in the end, it’s a democratic process: If a neologism appeals to you, promote it by using it. If it appalls you, demote it by eschewing it. Not every grating verbification will last, and if one that particularly annoys you goes extinct, you can take partial credit because it has always been absent from your writing.

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22 Responses to “The Verbing of the English Language”

  • Cecily

    I agree with you, Mark. However, I also like the idea that “Verbing weirds language” from this Calvin and Hobbes comic:
    http://www.strangehorizons.com/2006/20060313/verbing_weirds_language.gif
    “Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding.”

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    Good article and I found this amusing after having some interesting debates about doing this. I’ve used “Get Fuzzy” for my ninja verbing by using the “verb” Food to imply I am hungry and need to eat. It certainly sparks discussion and brings to light how things change in the English language.

    I do enjoy a good debate that isn’t targeted at personal attacks and won’t make anyone kill each other. Now if you will excuse me, I must go food my oatmeal. Thanks for the great article!

  • Steve Johnson

    I particularly dislike ‘to medal’ as in ‘John Fastrunner will expect to medal at next years Olympics.’

    I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it, though I’m comfortable with ‘to text’.

    Well, I’ve got to go and dinner now.

  • shirley in berkeley

    “Antiques Roadshow,” on PBS, is a frenzy of verbing, the favorite being gift. No one is ever given anything, they are gifted. “My Great Aunt Susy gifted me this diamond tiara.” “My next door neighbor gifted me his old samurai saber.” This must be thought to be more highbrow than just saying somebody gave you something, similar to crooking a pinkie when you take a sip of tea.

    The substitution of “gentleman” for “man,” even in police reports, is another crime against expression, but that’s for a gripe for a different post.

  • kathleen

    I like the verb “to summer” — it differentiates pretentious folks from regular folks. If you summer in the Hamptons, for example, your net worth is higher than if you enjoy the season summer.

  • Chioma

    Fantastic article. I hadn’t even noticed “to get ‘seated'”, until now. Wow. The things we do to language! Sometimes, the neologisms are quite innovative and interesting…sometimes, they’re downright offensive and gross. It’s all part of our linguistic evolution.

  • Kevin

    Although I personally dislike gift as a verb, my Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Ed., lists gift as a verb and dating back to ca. 1550.

  • shirley in berkeley

    And while I’m up here (on my soapbox), keyboarding sounds downright vulgar to me, but what’s the alternative? Typing would still work, wouldn’t it?

    BTW, Mark, a beautifully conceived article!

  • Alexsandro

    Awesome! The article just met my impressions. As a Brazilian visiting US, I noticed this phenomena when a friend of mine said: “my wife text messaged me”.
    Also, years ago, I thought about the practicality of English language, as one just has to use a noun to get a verb, like in “shampoo”. In Portuguese, we would say some long sentence like “I will apply shampoo in my head”. In English we can have “I will shampoo my head”

  • Deborah H

    Befriend must be one of the most archaic of denominalizations, then.

  • thebluebird11

    Loving it! I’m not problemed by the verbing phenom. I love “Get Fuzzy” and am old enough to remember that Calvin and Hobbes comment quite well. Ah, I miss the little tyke!

    I never heard the word “defriend”; I have always said “unfriend,” as someone can do to you when they shut you out of their Facebook account. Along those lines, you can invite someone, but then it’s difficult to disinvite them.

    “Gifting” and “giving” would seem, to me, to have slightly different connotations. Someone might give you a pencil or some cheap trinket, may or may not expect you to return it, and might not care what becomes of it if you don’t. However, if someone GIFTS you something, it would more likely be something of value (monetary or sentimental), and they would expect you to treat it as a gift, not a loaner or a casual throw-away.

    The issue of calling every man a gentleman is a stretch, for sure. That comes under the heading of being PC (or perhaps acceptably snide), not verbing. I prefer verbification to PC-ness!

  • Chris

    “Verbing”; sweet.

  • Peter

    This must be thought to be more highbrow than just saying somebody gave you something, similar to crooking a pinkie when you take a sip of tea.

    By whom? I’d interpret it as “gived it me”, and assume the speaker was speaking some pidgin language.

  • Kimi

    I must admit, I do tend to make nouns into verbs, and was commenting recently on how much that’s happening now, like “googling” some information. In fact, we’ve verbed one of our people at the home office who gets worker’s comp paperwork. We now ask each other “Did you Sobaje the paperwork over yet?”

  • Lorraine Kennedy

    In NY we call this “verbizing,” even while we recognize our complicity by saying it.

    But the English language has the largest and fastest-growing vocabulary in recorded history, so pick the nits from your own carefully unruffled feathers, and bask in your solitary perfection, or crow with the rest of us….

    Hm, “crow,” is an oldie; where is the temporal line?

  • thebluebird11

    @Kimi: Love it! I have a rescue dog, a greyhound named Jake, and you know they’re not brought up like regular dogs when they’re bred and trained for racing. He’s a wonderful dog, but there are some things that are kind of missing from his education, and one of those things is leash-walking. It was something he had to get used to when I got him at the old age of 5. He has a habit of just sort of wandering, right, left, right, left, from one piece of grass to the other (the grass on the swale and the grass on the lawns), which I think of as “Jaking” (as in, “I was out with the dog and he was Jaking”). When my mind starts to wander from one thing to the next, back again, forward again, not really getting anywhere…I’m Jaking too!

  • shirley in berkeley

    Peter — Ditto! But just listen (if you want to have your teeth set on edge). Gifted seems a hopelessly lowbrow attempt to sound highbrow, and it’s said all the time now Ugh..

  • Pamela Beason

    One of my favorite sayings I learned somewhere along the way is:

    There is no noun that cannot be verbed.

  • Janice Heck

    Hmmm. Good article. I thought of “That’s freaking me out.” But turns out that freak is also a verb in its own right. Webster freak: vt [rare] to streak or fleck.
    I’ll keep listening. I know I will hear a number of examples of verbing today.

  • Janice Heck

    I tweeted about this article and Twitter notified me that someone “favorited” it. I had to laugh about that one.

  • Vince

    I understand the need for it if the verb does not exist, such as in the case of many new tech terms, but when there are perfectly good verbs for it, it becomes a form of laziness.

    “Impact” as a verb is one of the worst because there are so many alternatives available.

    If this trend continues, I’m going to start dumping my own made up words to help this stupidity along. “This is headaching me so much I’ll backburner everything until I can succesfully outcome it.”

  • Caylith Creator

    Just an observation: Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, a woman for the ages, said about Octavius Caesar’s blandishments, “He words me girls, he words me.”

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