Verbing Family Members

By Maeve Maddox

The other day when I saw the words to an unfamiliar modern hymn displayed on a screen, I stumbled over the word Father used as a verb. My momentary confusion was not because a noun was being used as a verb, but because the verbed noun was capitalized.

Note: Even though the fathering mentioned in the hymn was being done by God the Father, the verb did not require a capital.

I started thinking about the verbing of other nouns for family members.

One often sees father and mother used as verbs.

The earliest OED citation of father in the sense of “to beget” is dated 1483. The earliest use in the sense of “to look after like a father” is dated 1577.

Shakespeare uses father in both senses in Cymbeline (1611). Belarius, reflecting on the nobility of his foster sons compared to the lack of it in others, says, “Cowards father Cowards,” Later in the play, when the Roman general Lucius invites Fidele to be his page, he says he will father him rather than master him.

Note: The character Fidele is a disguised woman, Imogen. As Lucius believes her to be a boy, I’ve used the masculine pronoun.

The earliest OED citation for mother in the sense of “to give birth” is dated 1548. The earliest citation for mother in the sense of “to take care of like a mother” is much later: 1863.

Unlike father, which can still mean beget, mother is no longer used in the sense “to give birth to.” Procreating men “father children,” but women “have babies.”

I’ve often used a line from Shakespeare’s King Richard the Second to illustrate the fact that nouns can be used as verbs: “Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle” (Act 2, Scene 3). However, the Duke of York is not using uncle to describe a manner of behavior, in the way we use father and mother, but as a term of address. He’s telling his outlawed nephew not to look for favors from him by calling him uncle.

York’s use of the word uncle is an example of anthimeria.

Anthimeria (aka antimeria): a rhetorical term for the creation of a neologism by using one part of speech (or word class) in place of another.

Other terms for anthimeria are “conversion” and “functional shifting.” Advertisers do this kind of thing. An annoying example that comes to mind is the Nutella slogan, “Spread the happy,” in which the adjective happy is used as a noun.

I looked in vain for uses of other family relationships that are commonly verbed. A woman can mother someone, but not aunt or grandmother anyone.

A man can father someone, but not uncle or grandfather him in the sense of behaving as an uncle or as a grandfather.

The noun grandfather can be used as a verb. The verbal use derives from the legal term “grandfather clause.”

A “grandfather clause” is a provision in which an old rule continues to apply to some existing situations while a new rule will apply to all future cases. For example, the US Army plans to establish a new tattoo policy that forbids new recruits to have tattoos below their elbows and knees or above their neckline. According to an article in Stars and Stripes Magazine, “Current soldiers will be grandfathered in as long as the tattoos are not racist, sexist, or extremist.”

Although not itself used as a verb, the noun cousin may be the source of the verb cozen.

cozen verb: to deceive by artful wheedling or tricky dishonesty.

Note: Both cousin and cozen are pronounced the same: /KUH-zin/

Some dictionaries cite an Italian source for cozen, but another possible origin is the French verb cousiner: “to cheat on pretext of being a cousin.” This possibility brings us back to York’s use of uncle in the scene in which Bolingbroke attempts to use a title of kinship to further his own ends.

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