Tag Archives: English words

This business of verbing

I was just reading a post on a web forum wherein the author is griping about his boss emailing him the following treat: “My concern is that the … team might consens on something that the operations … people think is a bad idea.”

Consens. I’m sure, like the author of the post, you’re thinking, “Yikes! My thoughts are that ‘consensus’ is not a verb, no way Jose!” It’s so egregious, he declares, that “it puts ‘contact’ to shame.” He then asks people to send him real-life examples of misuse of nouns as verbs. “I don’t know why it fascinates me,” he says; “I guess it’s like rubbernecking at a fatal car wreck.”

Well, if you like to rubberneck at such things, you don’t need to wait for someone to email or phone you; you can Google all the examples you want as easily as skipping a rope (or roping a skip). Or, uh, you could start with that sentence you just read. Rubberneck, email, phone, Google: all are recent verbings (well, rubberneck has been around for a century). Other conversions such as rope have been around for centuries longer. (Oh, and contact? In the modern verb use, about a century.)

In fact, the English language is full of conversions (that’s a more proper linguistic term for it) – noun to verb, noun to adjective, adjective to verb, adjective to adverb, verb to noun – and the great majority of them are well established and pass unremarked. They’re very easy to do in modern English, with its minimal use of inflections (just an s here and there, some eds and ings, a few other little bits and pieces) – you don’t need to change anything about a word’s basic form to use the same form in another word class. One might well argue that our conversions epitomize the flexibility that has helped English be so successful.

But perhaps looking at all the verbings that have been handed down over the centuries clouds the matter, distances us from the real issue, perhaps even silences concerns unduly. (Yes, all those italicized words are verbs that were converted from nouns at one time or another.) There are some conversions that don’t really seem to bother us, and there are some that bother some of us but not others, but there are some that are almost universally loathed among language nerds. There must be a reason for that, yes?

I think it has a lot to do with the attitudes they bespeak and the milieu they represent. Words, after all, are known by the company they keep. And, I would say, the verbings we loathe most impact us most (ouch!) because they come from business-speak.

Business-speak really is a special genre. It is as susceptible to fads as teenage slang, but its fad usages show not how cool you are but how conversant you are with the latest popular ideas in the business literature. It makes more use of overt metaphor than just about any other genre (at the end of the day, touch base, low-hanging fruit…). It often uses noun-heavy structures to sound important, but is also known for converting all sorts of things to verbs in order to sound active – or just to save effort while still accessing impressive-sounding vocabulary (consensus is more important-sounding than agree, but build a consensus takes three words, so why not use consens). It tends, perhaps even more than undergraduate essays, to try to use hifalutin locutions to impress. As a result of that, it has quite a lot of what linguists might gently call “variant usages” – and everyone else would call misuse, errors, bad English. Above all – and this is surely its primary sin – it’s self-important.

Why else, after all, would anyone use leverage as a verb? “We will leverage our core competencies to innovate bleeding-edge solutions.” Look, that whole sentence is obnoxious, not just the verbing. What are core competencies? Their strongest or most basic skills. Why bleeding-edge? Because leading-edge used to be good enough but then someone started using this version (actually borrowed from the printing industry and not really all that exciting in the original) and it sounds so, um, edgy. Why solutions? Because that is what everyone, everyone, everyone in business is now in the business of providing: the customer has a problem and you’re in business to provide the solution. (The only solutions I go to stores for are aqueous solutions of ethanol.) And why leverage? The term showed up in business originally in reference to using borrowed capital to produce profits greater than the interest, and it spread from there; now people use it because they like the image it presents of a lever, which allows a small person to move a big rock, and the age ending sounds so, you know, technical and financial and important.

The remaining word in that sentence is also fad-popular but is a time-honoured usage (borrowed from Latin centuries ago), and is the only really useful word in the sentence other than “We will.” Strip it all out and say “We will innovate” and you have it nicely. But that doesn’t jangle the ring full of keys to membership in the corporate in-group.

And that is why certain verbings impact us so much (sorry!): they’re self-important and in-groupy and they pretend to have much more substance than they really do. It’s not that they’re verbings. Sure, some people are uncomfortable seeing a word used in a way that doesn’t match its entry in their mental dictionary. But they may only really stop and fuss about that if something else draws their attention to the word – something like its reeking of business-speak. I’m sure you can consens with me on that…

Where English got all those English words other languages borrowed

In my latest article for TheWeek.com, on the changes that happen to English words when they are “borrowed” into other languages (“How foreign languages mutate English words”), I cite about three dozen words that other languages have borrowed from English and changed some way. But what I don’t mention is how those words got into English in the first place.

What, you didn’t think they just appeared fully formed in English from nowhere, did you?

Here’s the real truth: We did to other languages as other languages then did unto us. Many of our stolen nestlings are actually changelings. Here’s where we got each of the words from:

weekend: from week + end (obviously), which come from Old English wice and ende, which in turn come from Proto-Germanic, as Old English itself did

baseball: base from French bas, from Latin basis; ball from Old English ball

thrill: from Old English þyrlian, which meant ‘penetrate’ and came from a word for ‘hole’ that is the source of the tril in nostril

ballpoint pen: we’ve already covered ball; point from Old French point and pointe, both from Latin pungere ultimately; pen from Old French penne ‘feather’, from Latin penna

corner: from Old French corniere, from Latin cornua, ‘horn, point’

screwdriver: screw from Middle French escroue, which may have been borrowed from Germanic languages; driver from Old English drifan

bath: from Old English bæð

parlor: from Old French parleor, from parler ‘speak’

stadium: from Latin, which got it from Greek stadion; in both cases it referred to a race track and a unit of distance (like calling a track a “quarter-mile”)

medicine: from Latin medicina

brilliant: from French, which got it from Italian and ultimately from Latin beryllus ‘beryl, precious stone’

office: from Latin officium, ‘service, duty, ceremony’

blouse: the source of this one is actually uncertain; it may come from French or Provençal, perhaps from a word for ‘wool’

doctor: ultimately from Latin doctor, ‘teacher’

orange: by way of various languages, from Arabic naranj, which got it from Persian narang, which got it from Sanskrit naranga. It may well be that Tamil did not get it from English – this is what my research source indicated, but I am coming to have second thoughts about that, what with Tamil being so close to the home of Sanskrit and all.

chocolate: from Nahuatl (Aztec) xocolatl ‘bitter water’

microphone: an English invention from Greek parts: mikros ‘small’ and phoné ‘sound’

brandy: shortened from brandewine, from Dutch brandewijn ‘burnt wine’

cigarette: from French, a diminutive form of cigare, which French got from Spanish cigarro

calf: from Old English cealf

pig: presumably from Old English, though it doesn’t show up in any extant Old English texts (adult pigs were called swine)

nervous: from Latin nervosus, from nervus ‘nerve, sinew’

late: from Old English læt

anonymous: from Latin anonymus, from Greek anonymos

handy: formed in Middle English from hand, which comes from Old English, from Proto-Germanic, etc.

bodybag: body from Old English bodig ‘torso’; bag from Early Middle English bagge, probably from Old Norse baggi

salary man: salary ultimately from Latin salarium ‘salt money’; man from Old English, unchanged

one piece: one from Old English an; piece from Old French, probably from Gaulish (a Celtic language)

front glass: front from Old French front ‘forehead, brow’, from Latin frontem; glass from Old English glæs

open car: open from Old English, unchanged; car from Latin carrum, carrus referring to a Celtic two-wheeled war chariot, taken from the Gaulish word karros

gown: from Old French goune, from Late Latin gunna ‘leather garment, hide’

father: from Old English fæder

washing day: washing from wash (of course) from Old English wascan; day from Old English dæg

smoking: from Old English smoca

So out of 42 source words, 18 came from Old English (and Old English got them from Anglo-Saxon, which got them from Proto-Germanic, etc.), while 20 came from French and/or Latin, and the rest from elsewhere. But, with the exception of pure inventions, every word that came from some language came into that language from somewhere else – an older version of the language, perhaps, which got it from a language that evolved into that language, and so on back, or perhaps a different language again. Words mutate and evolve. As we can see.

What English words get up to when they’re not at home

My latest article for TheWeek.com is on the changes that happen to English words when they are “borrowed” into other languages:

How foreign languages mutate English words

It comes complete with about three dozen examples – though of course there are many, many more out there…

Scandinavian words we say differently

My latest article for TheWeek.com is up. My editor has given it a funny title – as one commenter points out, it’s more like “The strange English pronunciations of common Nordic words,” but the title on the article is

The strange Scandinavian pronunciations of common English words

I hope you enjoy it!

English’s foreign plurals

The monetary unit of Swaziland is the lilangeni. English speakers are helpfully reminded that the plural is emalangeni: one lilangeni, two emalangeni.

But why?

I don’t mean “Why does SiSwati, the language of the Swaziland, pluralize that way?” That’s easy: as with other Bantu languages, its nouns are in different classes, identified by prefixes, and plurals are a different class from singulars. No, I mean “Why do we feel obliged to use the SiSwati plural when we’re speaking English?”

It’s not normal, you know. It’s not normal for languages, when they borrow words from other languages, to borrow the morphology: the different forms for plurals, possessives, etc., and the different conjugations for verbs.

It’s not even normal for English to do that. We don’t borrow conjugations when we borrow verbs: we don’t say “They massacreront them!” instead of “They will massacre them!” We don’t borrow possessives when we borrow nouns: we don’t say “The radiorum length” instead of “The radiuses’ length” – oh, sorry, that should be “The radii’s length.” Right?

Because sometimes – just sometimes – when we borrow a noun we also borrow the plural form. This is especially true with newer borrowings and with borrowings in specialized areas (science, food, the arts). We’re not very consistent about it, so it can sneak up on you, like so many other ambush rules we have in English.

And there are so many borrowed plural forms – because there are so many plural forms to borrow. Read 9 confusing ways to pluralize words (by me) on TheWeek.com for details on ways and reasons.

But if we’re going to talk about pluralizing things the way we always have in English, there’s one other issue: we haven’t always pluralized using –s in English

Nope. In fact, a thousand years ago, when English nouns had three genders, only the masculine ones got –s (actually –as), and not all of those did either. Other ways of showing the plural were to add –u, –a, –e, or –n, or change the vowel, or do nothing. English has changed a whole lot since then. Noun and verb forms have gotten much, much simpler – thanks to interaction with speakers of other languages, especially Norse and French. You can really thank the French for the fact that we use –s/–es on most words now for the plural.

But since that’s what we do now, should we do it with all new words we steal, I mean borrow? Well, it’ll sure make life easier if we can settle on octopuses. But it might just sound kind of wrong and blah if we order paninos and look at graffitos on the wall. And it would be less fun if we couldn’t jokingly say to a bartender, “I’ll have a martinus. No, not martini – I only want one.” It’s the eternal struggle of English: do you want it easy, or do you want it fun?

A herstory (or mansplanation) of portpersonteau words

A herstory (or mansplanation) of portpersonteau words

From broceries to guybrarian to Galentine’s Day, we often employ wordplay to poke at differences between the sexes

Another article by me on TheWeek.com. Read it at theweek.com/article/index/240260/anbspherstorynbspornbspmansplanation-ofnbspportpersonteaunbspwords!


A slick trick for quick locution:

Will a quick phonetic tickle make you chuckle, quickly cackle,
or electrify your hackles so you heckle like a grackle?
Is your prickle frankly fickle – first you truckle, slackly buckle,
then in instant trick you stickle and commence to crack your knuckle?
We expect you not to suckle at a freckle on the deckle,
but we’d like to lightly tickle you till you elect to keckle,
so we’ll tackle you and rackle you and fix your cracks with spackle
so you’d crick your neck to ruckle with a sickle at your shackle,
then we’ll peckle like a puckle, first a trickle, next it’s mickle,
knocking like some ickle cockle: click and crackle, crickle, rickle.
And just when the focal vocal’s quackled you until you huckle,
we project you will effect a yucking racket like a yuckle.

These -ckle words don’t all have a common morpheme. Many of them have the -le frequentative suffix, but others share the ending just by coincidence. There is no -ckle morpheme. Some of the words may be less familiar, so here are some quick definitions: a grackle is an annoying noisy bird; to truckle is to submit; a deckle edge is a rough edge to a page (a deckle is actually a frame for making paper); to keckle is to chuckle; a rackle is a chain; to ruckle is to rattle; to peckle is to make a lot of little pecks; a puckle is a bogeyman; ickle is a play-childish way to say “little”; to crickle is to make a series of thin, sharp sounds, and to rickle is to make a rattling sound; to quackle is to choke; to huckle is to bend the body; a yuckle is a kind of woodpecker.


Well, maybe it’s time I snuck in another pocket screed. Today’s will be “why ‘that’s not a word’ is a senseless assertion.” And maybe if I snuck in a bit of linguistic terminology as well… it’s ablaut time.

Let’s start with that ablaut thingy. What is ablaut? It’s a term (pronounced like “ab lout”) linguistics has taken from German to refer to what’s happening in word sets such as shrink, shrank, shrunken, or sing, sang, sung, or drive and drove, or any other set of words where an inflectional change causes the main vowel to move back in the mouth – in particular “strong” verbs.

Now, the thing about “strong” verbs is that, supposedly, they’re not making new ones. New verbs have to get the -ed past tense and past participle endings, supposedly. It would be sloppy and irregular and so on if some verb that didn’t have the “strong” blue blood in its veins were to take on the airs of ablaut.

The problem being that people, goshdarnit, don’t seem to approach language in a purely schematic, consistent way. Things are often done by analogy. And some things begin as “mistakes” but take root. There are quite a lot of fully accepted words and expressions now in use that have come about through “mistakes,” reanalysis, et cetera. And of course there are some that are still resisted vigorously in spite of being in common use for more than a century. One such is snuck.

It’s quite a sensible ablaut alternation, isn’t it? Sneak–snuck, as self-evident as, say, dive–dove. Alas, it was not always thus; the original (and still used, especially outside of North America) past tense of sneak was sneaked. Somehow snuck just snuck in there (like dove – the same people who oppose snuck oppose dove as the past of dive, for the same reason: it’s not an original strong verb).

It’s not as though the ablaut words we have have all kept their original vowels from the beginning, either. Drove would then be drave, for instance. But snuck is a pure interloper! It’s like having one of those people trying to get into your country club. They’re just not our sort. They don’t belong, you see. Why, snuck is not a word!

Well, yes it is. First of all, a word is any unitary lexical item that is used with proper effect to communicate a particular sense. In other words, if I say it as a word, and you understand it as a word, it’s a word for us. And if it’s in general circulation in a given language and used by many people, and those speakers of that language who hear it generally understand it, it’s a word in that language. Doesn’t matter if it’s not in your dictionary; dictionaries are like field guides, not legislation. Birdwatchers don’t say “That can’t be a bird; it’s not in my book,” they say “My book is missing that one.” That’s how it is with dictionaries too. And if you’re arguing against something being a word, it’s surely because you’ve heard it used as a word (otherwise why bother arguing?), so you’re already wrong from the start.

And anyway, snuck is in the dictionary. So there. It’s been in use in American English since at least the late 1800s, and it’s made its way into all sorts of dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary.

Sure, it’s comparatively informal. But the verb sneak isn’t exactly high-flown. And there’s use for informal words. Especially ones that have a suitable mouthfeel and sound, like snuck does. Let’s face it: sneaking is a generally negatively toned act, or at least a rascally one. It’s something done in such a way as to evade detection. There is a certain underhandedness and lack of dignity to it. Under what circumstance could you even think of saying “The Pope snuck into the room”? (Or “The Pope sneaked into the room”?)

So we have a word that has the nose-reminiscent /sn/, which also shows up in words like snip, snicker, snake, and sneer, and then we get that “uck”, which can be a very down-to-earth, informal kind of sound in our language: it might be good luck or a big truck or it might be getting stuck trying to buy a duck (yuck), or it might be any of a variety of other more or less louche words ending with the same rhyme.

This is not to say that sneaked lacks any such tones – it has the same onset, and rhymes with leaked and peeked and tweaked and such like – but it’s a higher, thinner sound (I have the sense that snuck is more appropriate to going under a table and sneaked to going in through a narrow gap), and it has a more complex ending, /kt/ rather than /k/.

So why not have a choice? It’s hardly the first time we’ve had two words for something, and just aesthetic and similar connotative matters to distinguish between them. After all, snuck is a word too.

Are Latin words bad?

Eric Koch, in his lively blog “Sketches,” posted the following snippet from a talk by William Zinsser to foreign students learning English – he’s talking about words derived from Latin:

In general they are long, pompous nouns that end in -ion – like implementation and maximization and communication (five syllables long!) – or that end in -ent – like development and fulfillment. Those nouns express a vague concept or an abstract idea, not a specific action that we can picture – somebody doing something. Here’s a typical sentence: “Prior to the implementation of the financial enhancement.” That means “Before we fixed our money problems.”

The post has already accumulated a variety of comments, some of which inveighing against those heavy, unnecessary Latin words. I added my own comment, which I will also post here, because it’s germane to my blog and why shouldn’t I? Here’s what I said:

Fix and money also come to us from Latin: fix from fixus, from figere, and money from moneta. Those who are interested in knowing which of the words we use come from Latin (or Greek) rather than from Germanic roots, and many of them do, can easily check for free at, for instance, dictionary.com. (Just in that last sentence, for instance: interest, use, easy, check, and instance all come from Latin, some by way of French or Spanish.)

I generally agree with clarity and straightforwardness in language, but one of the glories of a complex language with a large and somewhat redundant vocabulary is that we can set the tone and attitude quite easily and distinctively, and make it clear in a few words what genre a text is situating itself in. We don’t want to toss out the big words altogether; we just don’t want to hide behind them. We should use them judiciously, not reflexively.

And at the very least, any sort of nativist attitude towards English usage is a non-starter (and not just because nativist also comes from Latin). Although our most basic function words, and most words for the most basic things, are from English’s Germanic roots, no less than 80% of our general vocabulary comes from other languages, especially Latin (often via other romance languages) and Greek. It behooves a person who wishes to make pronouncements and prescriptions for a language to know whereof he or she is speaking. To which end I offer a quick course in the subject: An appreciation of English: A language in motion.

And, incidentally, not all the stuffy words are Latin – behoove and whereof are both straight from Old English, for example – and (as we have already seen) not all of the plain-sounding words aren’t. But what William Zinsser was really talking about is derived abstract nominalizations. Which is a separate matter from the Latin-versus-English issue.

Incidentally, one language that has managed generally to keep its word stock “native” is Icelandic. When a new word is needed for something – the automobile or the computer, for instance, both of which use Latin words in English (car also has a Latin source) – they have a sort of national debate about the right word to use; suggestions are made mainly on the basis of adaptations and syntheses of other Icelandic words, and ultimately one prevails: in the cases in question, bill for an automobile and talva for a computer (formed by a merger of an adapted word used for “electricity” and a name of a mythical prophetess, if memory serves).

Streamkeepers of the language

A few months ago, a fellow editor, Paul Cipywnyk, told me and other members of the Editors’ Association of Canada about something perfectly awful that had happened. Continue reading