Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Do you verbify?

The answer is, “Yes, you do.” Can you guess what verbifying or verbing means? According to any number of online dictionaries, either word means to create a new verb based on an existing noun. Who knew?
While I’ve experienced it for years in corporate America, I didn’t know there was a term for it. That gap in my word knowledge led me to my trusty dictionary. As you’d suspect, my 1986 hardback Webster’s does not contain either of these terms. My search, however, did surface a word I’d never seen before--verbicide. To me, that sounds like killing a word, and perhaps there’s some element of that meaning in the definition-- “deliberate distortion of the sense of a word (as in punning); one who distorts the sense of a word.” 

I stumbled across an article on verbifying somewhere in one of my daily news emails.  While googling—yes that’s an example of verbing--I discovered there are quite a few articles out there on the topic, plenty of them disdainful.  It’s hard to say where verbifying starts, but I’m pretty sure corporate America deserves some of the credit or blame. We’ve grown accustomed to impacting a deadline, greenlighting a project, accessing a website and conferencing someone in.

It extends beyond business, though.  In our everyday lives we text, microwave, friend, and TIVO in addition to googling.  I did truly LOL when I read this excerpt from You’ve been Verbed:
Sometimes the results are ridiculous—notably when verbs are minted from nouns which were formed from verbs in the first place. To say “Let’s conference” instead of “Let’s confer”, “I’ll signature it” instead of “I’ll sign it”, or “they statemented” instead of “they stated”, makes the speaker seem either ignorant or pretentious. (The late General Alexander Haig, whose military jargon was so singular it became known as “Haigspeak”, even wanted “to caveat” a proposal, and was duly ridiculed.) Using an elaborate verb when there is a far simpler alternative—such as “dialogue” for “talk”—has the same effect.
I found this blurb especially comical because I’d just heard one of my co-workers use both caveat and dialogue as verbs, much to the consternation of my English teacher soul. Yet, as the article points out, verbing is nothing new.
Some lovers of the language deplore the whole business of verbing (Benjamin Franklin called it “awkward and abominable” in a letter to Noah Webster, the lexicographer, in 1789); others see it as proof of a vibrant linguistic culture. .. Often, though, the dictionary yields surprising precedents: “impact” was used as a verb in the 17th century, and “task” in the 16th.
Tumbling down the rabbit hole of Google, I discovered that in fairness to the poor nouns we verb, we also turn verbs into nouns.  I guess I knew that too, and now I know there’s also a term for the phenomenon--nominalization. I think corporate America is a major culprit in this trend too, as I’ve heard folks say, “What’s your ask, what’s the reveal, that was a big fail.” If you’re a fellow word nerd, you may enjoy Those irritating verbs as nouns in The New York Times, or for a good laugh, consider that even Calvin and Hobbes have something to say on the subject.