The Half-life of Verbs

By Maeve Maddox

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The term half-life existed before the term was applied to the breakdown of a radioactive substance.

One earlier meaning was “an unsatisfactory way of life.” Another was “the size of painting half life-size.”

The radioactive application dates from 1907. Now, the term is also applied to the time required for half the amount of any substance to be “eliminated or disintegrated by natural processes.”

Irregular Verbs
In 2007, a group of Harvard mathematicians developed a formula to calculate the half-life of English irregular verbs. The less frequently a verb is used, the more quickly will it begin to decay.

Irregular verbs are one of my favorite things about English. I see them as a link with the oldest form of the language, living fossils still in use.

Nevertheless, I accept the fact that many of the remaining irregulars are being lost daily to regularization: changing their distinctive past forms to -ed in both the simple past and past participle. This is a normal part of the development of the language.

The Harvard study calculated the half-life of 177 English irregular verbs. According to the findings, many have already reached their half-lives; others are nearing them. The most frequently used irregular verbs, however, look likely to outlast the language.

English has been developing (and changing) for more than 1,400 years. Irregular verbs with a half-life of 700 years are going or gone. Some have been operating as hybrids, with an -ed past and an irregular past participle.

Verbs with a 700-year half-life
Some of my favorites have reached the 700-year milestone.

bid/bade/bidden
cleave/cleft/cloven
slay/slew/slain
smite/smote/smitten
tread/trod/trodden

I’d like to keep them all, but the forms I cherish most are those of slay.

I have nothing against the form slayed in the sense of amusing or impressing people:

They slayed us with the little boy who couldn’t wait for Christmas,

Seth Rogen slayed at the Hollywood Film Awards last night.

With George Fenneman, as his announcer and straight man, Groucho slayed his audiences with improvised conversation with his guests.

A few minutes later, Calhoun went to the podium and slayed a roomful of journos with his usual combination of bombast, wit and defensiveness.

However, I do feel that vampires and dragons should be slain. Likewise, I prefer to read that Buffy slew the Chaos Demon, not that she “slayed” it.

Gone, but not forgotten
I take comfort in knowing that, although the verbs will change, not all the ancient forms will vanish from the language. Bidden, cleft, cloven, smitten, and trodden will remain as adjectives and nouns:

He has a weak cleft chin, a crew cut, weapons for every occasion and no scruples. (adjective)

Each cleft was capable of trapping a single amino acid from the primordial soup. (noun)

He explained that the animal must be kosher, have cloven hooves and a hollow horn (adjective)

One weekend, she visited a girlfriend in Houston and was smitten with the city. (adjective)

Sure, they’re the downtrodden masses of this world, the people to whom many of the benefits of modern life have yet to flow. (adjective)

They championed the downtrodden, teaching and lecturing at schools for the poor. (noun)

A verb may fall completely out of use, but one of its forms may endure. Old English cunnan (to know, to become acquainted with) is long gone, but its simple past form lingers in the couth of uncouth.

The long-haulers
If the researchers have it right, the irregular verbs we use most—be and have—will outlast the language, with a half-life of 38,800 years.

Trucking along with those two, will be come, do, find, get, give, go, know, say, see, take, and think, with a half-life of 14,400 years.

Because I do not wish to see them trodden underfoot, I shall cleave to the old forms of the irregular verbs with which I am smitten until their end comes unbidden and the old forms lie slain on the sands of the past. (Do I hear a chorus of groans from my readers?)

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