In this article, Jon Hird, author of the brand new Oxford Learner’s Pocket Verbs and Tenses, takes a look at the verbing of English and shares with us some interesting examples he has recently come across.
A recent OUP ELT blog about the language legacy of the Olympics included some examples of nouns being used as verbs. Competitors no longer stood on the podium and won a medal, but podiumed and medalled. Athletes also finalled (reached a final) and PB-ed (achieved a PB, or Personal Best). Even Lord Coe, Chairman of the Organising Committee, got in on the act when, prior to the games, he told the nation that ‘The London Olympics need[ed] to legacy’.
This conversion of nouns to verbs is known as ‘verbing’ and it has been around for as long as the English language itself. Ancient verbs such as rain and thunder and more recent conversions such as access, chair, debut, highlight and impact were all originally used only as nouns before they became verbs. In his book, The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker tells us that ‘Easy conversion of nouns to verbs has been part of English grammar for centuries; it is one of the processes that makes English English.’
Verbing exists essentially to make what we say shorter and snappier. It can also give a more dynamic sense to ideas. Conversion is easy and therefore common in English because, unlike in many other languages, the base form of the verb does not take a separate ending. Verbs converted from nouns are all regular and the past forms have an -ed ending.
Today, noun to verb conversion is particularly common in the field of technology, especially when it comes to the internet and digital communication. Many words which were originally nouns have very quickly become established as verbs. We bookmark websites. We email, text, message and DM (Direct Message) people. We friend and unfriend (or defriend) people on Facebook. We tweet about topics that are trending. We blog. And now, at least according to one mobile phone provider, we also hub (see right).
Proper nouns are also used as verbs. If we don’t know something, we google it. We skype to keep in touch. We youtube to watch video clips. And we facebook and whatsapp people about what’s going on. A Turkish colleague of mine recently found himself saying that he’d ebayed something and was wondering if it’s OK to say that.
Outside the world of technology, it seems that nouns are being verbed wherever you turn. At the airport on a recent work trip, we were informed that ‘Passengers who are transiting need to follow the transit signs.’ After my return to the UK, a colleague emailed ‘I hope you had a great time conferencing around Italy.’ Around the same time a friend facebooked ‘let’s coffee soon!’ I’ve since discovered that ‘Let’s Coffee’ is the name of numerous coffee shops around the world. There’s also ‘Let’s Burger’, ‘Let’s Seafood’ and no doubt many more.
Food and drink, in fact, seems to be ripe when it comes to verbing the noun. Ted, a character in the TV show ‘How I Met Your Mother’, when offering to buy someone a drink, asks ‘Can I beer you?’ After a talk I recently gave, one of the participants facebooked me this photo he had taken of a London café window (see below). Whether he saladed or sandwiched that day, I’m not sure. And while a considerable number of English words connected with food come from French, I was surprised to come across the concept of fooding in, of all places, Montmartre in Paris.
Advertisers have latched on to verbing as well. For some time now, a high street chain here in the UK has been imploring us not to shop for it, but to Argos it. And while cycling through the centre of Oxford the other day, I noticed on the back door of a van this rather clever play on words promoting cordless power tools (see right). And only last night, during a BBC news item about the possible impending demise of the high street music store, a guest explained that part of the problem was that customers were overchoiced.
So, the choice is yours – do you noun or do you verb? Keep your eyes and ears open and see how many examples of verbing you come across. A lot, I suspect. And please share some of your favourites below.