In a nutshell: The construction of verbs and the strangeness of language

“Verb a weird language.” — Bill Watterston, creator of “Calvin and Hobbs”

Just before arriving at the above conclusion, Calvin explains to his friend Hobbs that “I like to verbate the words. I take nouns and adjectives,” he explains, “and use them as verbs. Remember when “access” was a thing? Now it’s something you do. It got verbalized. (Interestingly, using “verb” as a verb makes it an autological word, or a word that refers to itself.)

As you might expect, “to verb” also has a corresponding name: “verbification”. When you say “to the verb”, you are essentially referring to verbification which does not involve a change in the form of the word. You know, words like: walk, sleep, talk, drink and dress, these are all words that probably started out as nouns but are now also verbs – and there are thousands of them. The fanciful name for these unchanged words is “anthimeria”.

According to Merriam-Webster, verbification is simply “the act of turning into a verb”. According to language specialist William Safire, verbification is a way to save space, for example by telling investors that they can ‘status’ their transfer requests, instead of having to say ‘learn status’. of”.

Certain verbifications (such as “flesh” and “host”) are generally accepted by linguists. Others, not so much. Verbifications like “access” and “impact” are still considered lazy writing by many people. The Associated Press Stylebook even goes so far as to state that an author can write a book, but a writer cannot “create” a book. (And I hate when big companies try to pressure me into buying something.)

Other things I’ve heard people complain about recently are: charities urging us to ‘give’ them money (or even a car!), and political groups telling us we could ‘get an impact” on an upcoming election if we could only give them our time and our money.

On a much more modest level, there is the incident involving University of Florida student Andrew Meyer, who in 2007 implored a security guard, “Don’t taser me, bro!” Maybe he didn’t have enough time to yell, “Don’t taser me, mate!” But it doesn’t matter since history is on his side; in his haste, he probably verbalized correctly.

Evidence supporting the acceptability of Meyer’s plea includes another acronym-named device, the laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), which was fielded in 1966. At the time, the scientists who used it obviously agreed that the correct verb to describe the act of zapping something with a laser beam was “lase”.

Of course, scientists in the 1960s were far from the first to discover verbification, which dates back to before Shakespeare, who also used it. Some examples of the use of the bard are: “I listened to his tongue” and “He speaks to me”.

Such verbifications are also linguistic conversions (also known as “zero derivations” or “functional changes”, in case that sort of thing wasn’t confusing enough already). This means that words that were verbs can also turn into nouns, all without changing their spelling. Yes, unification. In fact, it is difficult to determine which came first, the verb or the noun, when using words such as: “call”, “alert”, “command”, “fear”, “feel”, “hope”. “, “run”, “sleep”, etc.

So, are verbifications and their ilk true evolutions of language or are they yet another slippery slope to lazy writing? If you subscribe to this warning from author Peter Ellis, the future looks bleak indeed: “They came for verbs first, and I said nothing because verbs are weird language. Then they come up for nouns and I don’t say anything because I don’t have verbs.

Lewiston’s Jim Witherell is a writer and lover of words whose works include ‘LL Bean: The Man and His Company’ and ‘Ed Muskie: Made in Maine’. He can be reached at [email protected]


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