Monday, July 26, 2010

Verbing Weirds Language

I don’t know whether Calvin and Hobbes (who coined my chosen subject line) were in the brain of Erin McKean when she penned this masterful yet subtle slam on a certain recent Shakespeare-wanna-be in the news about how the English language evolves the right way.  (In truth, the timing may purely be coincidental, as Mrs. Palin is not mentioned at all in the article.  But I like to think it was deliberate…)

The subject? Verbing.  That is, the use of nouns as verbs.  English allows for it, whether you like it or not.  I have a blog, I blog things.  I also have a table, and I can table things.  I look around my office and spy a wall, and technically I could say that I was going to wall my calendar, although what that means might be ambiguous – am I going to hang it up? If I walled my buddha statue that might mean I threw it at the wall.  Or I suppose I could lure my enemy down into my wine cellar with the promise of Amontillado and then wall him up down there, too. Grammatically, all valid sentences.

Verbing is also at the center of an old grammatical puzzler:  “Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo”.  I think I got the right number of Buffalo in there.  Because the word happens to work as a noun (the animal), an adjective (the place from which they come), and a verb, you get such a valid sentence.

It’s often hated, no doubt.  We all google things and xerox them without too much thought, but sit in a meeting with too many MBA project managers talking about statusing each other or incentivizing their customer base and you may want to beat them with a dictionary.

Oh, and one more thing, and I think that this is how and when you correctly drop Shakespeare’s name:

Philip Davis, a professor at the School of English at the University of Liverpool, devised a study in 2006 that tested just what happens when people read sentences with verbed nouns in them--and not just any verbed nouns, nouns verbed by Shakespeare. (Shakespeare was an inveterate noun-verber; he verbed ghost, in ”Julius Caesar, I Who at Phillipi the good Brutus ghosted”; dog, in ”Destruction straight shall dog them at the heels”; and even uncle, in ”Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle.”)


JM said...

"...and you may want to beat them with a dictionary."

Yes. That kind of "verbiagizing" does illicit exactly the kind of response you mentioned. Maybe someone brandishing it over their heads could remind them of the actual size of the Oxford, and the fact that it's large enough without their paddificationizing; perhaps it would incentivize them to cease and desist.

Duane said...

Back in the dotcom days I once met a man who had "VP of Monetization" on his business card.

"You're the vice president of making money?" I asked.

"Something like that," he responded.

"Isn't everybody in a business supposed to be trying to make money?"

He then went on to try and explain the specifics of what he did. I knew, of course, I was just being pedantic. What the term meant, in the way he was using it, was more like "strategic partnerships" - he was in charge of figuring out if there were people who would pay money for their new product lines. But that's the trouble with verbizing words, they come with a tremendous amount of implicit baggage where you know what you meant, but until your audience as a whole has come to accept the term to mean that, you could all be talking about different things.

I get that a lot while job searching, as I tend to get placed in a role we engineers call "architect" (which also, by the way, can be verbed - I have architected many a system, for good or for bad...). In some companies, architect means the guy that sits behind the word processor and writes the specifications. In others (and this is more my side of it), it means something more like "Engineer who has become so senior that he's needed to oversee many areas of the project and thus does not spend as much of his time in the day-to-day implementation as he used to." I can't tell you how annoying it was to go on a job interview where somebody was looking for the first type, and I'm the second. They're really pretty different.

JM said...

I,m sure I'm not telling you anything but job searching is no fun for lots of reasons. Just a little commiseration from someone who more or less has had searching for jobs as "an additional part time profession" for quite some time. Hope your search ends soon.

p-e-s said...

Dictionaries and grammar class have made too many sticklers of language.