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Does Verbing Weird Language? [Sep. 19th, 2007|08:52 pm]
So, as you have probably noticed, in colloquial English, people will often use nouns as verbs. This practice is frequently decried and sometimes sounds strange. As Bill Watterson's Calvin put it, "Verbing weirds language."

On the drive into work the other day, I realized that, actually, I don't think it does weird language. Not in English, anyway.

You can use just about any noun or adjective as a verb in English and be understood. "I'm gonna X it," is generally taken as meaning to make something X-like or into X, or, depending on context, to do whatever is conventionally done with X.

Now, that doesn't always make a lot of sense out of context, but it's not too hard to come up with a context for any particular X where it would make sense, and where someone would understand exactly what you meant, even if it were a bit nonstandard.

Some examples: There's the almost-standard "Beer me" or "Coke me", meaning "get me a beer/coke" (so I can drink it, presumably). Which could apply to most consumables. Substances are verbed to indicate covering or the like: if we're talking about remodeling the kitchen and I ask if you think we ought to "linoleum the floor", it's pretty obvious what I mean, right? Verbing an implement denotes usage: "DVD that data for me, wouldja?" is a request to burn the data to disc. Modes of transit become travel: "I'm going to BART over to Oakland."

Sometimes you need a kind of weird context: the simplest I could come up with for "palace" was that if I were playing a SimCity kind of game, I might say "I'm gonna palace this set of hills" to indicate that I planned to build palaces there. But still, in that context, it makes perfect sense.

So now I'm wondering: what nouns and adjectives don't work as verbs? The most problematic ones I've come up with so far are animals. Probably among people who know a lot about warthogs the statement "I'm gonna warthog him into the ground" would be understood relatively clearly, but to me it only sounds generically aggressive. OTOH, we do have plenty of well-established animal verbs like "wolf down", "cow", "rat", "pig out", "chicken out", and so on.

What else works or doesn't?

[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2007-09-20 04:40 am (UTC)
Ethnicities are a lot like animals in that respect -- they work if everyone agrees about the stereotype. We still kinda know what welsching on a debt means, and there are communities where jewing a deal is still interpretable, but once the stereotype dies, the phrase loses a lot of its punch.

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[User Picture]From: dcseain
2007-09-20 08:31 am (UTC)
I learned of the word 'jewing' just 18 months ago, from a Jewish friend who used it. Were it not for him using it, i may never have come across it. Welch/Welsh i've not heard in decades. Both terms are archaic, at least in my world.
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[User Picture]From: kev_bot
2007-09-20 12:35 pm (UTC)
And don't forget, "he gypped me out of all that money." People forget it's racial!
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[User Picture]From: dcseain
2007-09-20 12:49 pm (UTC)
Good point. That's another one that dropped from my lexicon decades ago. Mostly due to my dealings and negotiations with the Rómani in Spain. They make quite lovely lace.
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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2007-09-20 02:37 pm (UTC)
"Jewing" is archaic in my world. "Welshing" is kept alive by movies and television, though I'm not sure I've ever heard it used in real life. (Even on TV, it's a noticably blue-collar thing.)

"Gyp" still has currency, though.
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From: detailbear
2007-09-20 05:24 pm (UTC)
Some people I have met have thought that "gyp" came out of "gypsum" or "gyp-rock" (the construction material).
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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2007-09-20 05:33 am (UTC)
More generally, I would think that the more abstract a noun/adjective, the more difficult it would be to make sense of its verb form. Sure, one can have exchanges like "You're not terribly astute, are you?" "Oh yeah? Well, astute this!" in which "astute" is a verb, but... well, something is lost.

I'm also reminded of a story I was telling the other day that started with "So, I was Policaring the other day on the subject of cheese-melting, and..."

All that having been said, though, I think it's important in conversations like this to keep track of the difference between language and communication.

I can communicate the idea that I want you to to paint your toes green by pointing at a can of green paint and at your toes and making some hand gestures, if those contextual elements are present. But a shared syntax that lets me do something a little more interesting than that -- it lets me communicate the idea that I want you to paint your toes green even when no such contextual elements are present. (I'm not claiming here that the message is completely context-independent, that way lying madness, but I do claim that the range of contexts suitable for transmitting the message is MUCH wider when we share a language.)

I would argue that when I first start to verb a noun, I'm doing something extra-linguistic... I'm communicating by pointing abstractly to words, and counting on you to pick up my meaning from context. The word I'm using is part of a language, and importantly so, as is the act of constructing a clause that has a space for a verb in it, but the act of my putting that word in a verb-slot is more like pointing to the green paint with my finger than it is like referring to it in a sentence.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2007-09-20 05:56 am (UTC)
Totally -- at first. The fascinating thing is how quickly the verbed noun becomes an actual verb and it shifts from communication back to language...
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[User Picture]From: eto_theipi
2007-09-20 07:10 am (UTC)

Not an answer to the question.

I recently found out that there's a word for this:
(particularly the first comment)
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[User Picture]From: dcseain
2007-09-20 08:14 am (UTC)
I own a Spanish-language version of Evita. In it is the verb "christiandioriazarme" from the English "Christian Dior me".

In English, it's obvious it means to dress/cover her in Christian Dior-designed clothes. In Spanish, it's clear, but much more awkward, as one can verb a noun, but it's not done as often as in English, in part because their nouns and verbs are more clearly differentiated than ours.

One finds examples of fluidity of parts of speech in English going back at least 600 years at this point. The demise of declension and the minimal conjugation in English makes such usage easy.
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[User Picture]From: quirkstreet
2007-09-20 12:52 pm (UTC)
Huh. I think Pinker talks about this in The Language Instinct and mentions what classes of verbs are and are not suited for this in English. "Suited" in the sense that verbs in one class routinely get turned into nouns, although many don't, while NO verbs in another class EVER do, it would just sound wrong to anyone, let alone linguistic "purists." But I don't recall what the classifications are.
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[User Picture]From: thedragonweaver
2007-09-21 03:51 am (UTC)
I don't know why, but the use of the word "impact" as a verb just bugs the hell out of me, though it's been used that way for at least the better part of my lifespan. Of course, it used to be used in the pure physical fashion (i.e. "She impacted the tree") whereas now it is used in more of a business-speak fashion (i.e. "Our marketing plan should impact the consumer.")

Anything that ends up as business-speak should be regarded with deep suspicion.

And now, a quotation:

"First they arrived for the verbs, and I said nothing because verbing weirds language.
Then they arrival for the nouns, and I speech nothing because I no verbs."
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2007-09-21 05:04 am (UTC)
I think that has nothing to do with the verb impact itself and everything to do with how BizSpeak users use it. Pardon me, utilize it. To proactively impact their mindshare and synergize new opportunities.

Viz, the follwing perfectly reasonable exchange, which we all know and love:
"Did it go in?"
"Negative. Just impacted on the surface."
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[User Picture]From: srotu27
2007-09-22 12:51 am (UTC)

My two cents

I'm also not going to answer the question. I agree that it's a functional language equivalent--- the verbing thing--- but I think it's laziness in language, much the same way that overuse of cursing is. It's not that nouns used as nouns don't adequately convey the information, it's just that we're too lazy to use them. It's not even that nouns used as verbs are more effective--- they're just faster. You can say "palace those hills," but the meaning is not as intuitively clear. And for what it's worth, outside all but the friendliest and most casual circumstances, anyone who told me "beer me," would find himself soaking in it, for the effort he'd made toward courtesy.

I agree that language is a living and evolving thing, but I don't think every possible evolution serves us, and I'd have to say the verbing thing falls in that category for me. The only exception I'd make would be for poetry, in which unconventional use of language shocks us into seeing in a different way. I'd argue that it wasn't true for casual use--- people who use language that way always sound like they should be wearing gaudy shirts and too much jewelry, to me. Also, when we make unconventional use conventional unnecessarily, I hate to see some of the power drained from poetry and other art forms, the way that seeing Picasso on t-shirts can blind you to the power of the vision in his art. But I'm sleepy, grumpy, and sneezy (I can continue to name dwarves...), so that could be affecting the way I see this.
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