Verbing Weirds Language

The title for this post comes from one of the great works of art of the twentieth century. I mean, of course, Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. “I take nouns and adjectives”, Calvin says to Hobbes, “and use them as verbs. Remember when ‘access’ was a thing? Now it’s something you do. It got verbed.” I know just what he means. But as a student of the English language, I have to disagree.

Calvin’s complaint is not new. Nero Wolfe, the detective in the mystery novels written by Rex Stout, was particularly offended by the use of “contact” as a verb. At the very beginning of Might as Well be Dead, a potential client named Herold tells Wolfe, “I contacted the New York police, and—What’s the matter?” Wolfe replies, “Nothing. Go on.” But Archie (Wolfe’s assistant and the narrator of all the stories) tell us, “It was not nothing. Wolfe had made a face. I, at my desk, could have told Herold that unless his problem smelled like real money he might as well quit right there. One man who had made ‘contact’ a verb in that office had paid an extra thousand bucks for the privilege, though he hadn’t known it.” (I hope everyone is impressed by the heavy reading and onerous research a philologist has to do.)

Nor is this just a singular example. The same objection is made in Chapter 5 of Stout’s And Be a Villain. Yet in Chapter 24 of the same novel, Wolfe uses the conjunction “but” as a verb form. One of his clients tries to object to something: “Yes. But—” Wolfe tells him, “I’ll do the butting.” (Technically speaking, “butting” is a gerund, a nominal form built on a verb stem. I’m reminded of the famous line “But me no buts” which is often but I think incorrectly ascribed to Shakespeare.)

Back in 1964 or 1965, in a conversation with my father, I happened to say that someone was going to loan me something, and he made a face worthy of Nero Wolfe. “Loan,” he said sternly, “is a noun. The verb is lend.” After he went up to bed I spent an hour or so looking through various dictionaries and style books, and I wrote up my findings—“loan” as a verb is acceptable as a colloquialism. I attached a definition of colloquialism, just to cover all the bases. I left this at his place at the table. He read it during breakfast, and when I came down, he granted that I had proved my point.

English doesn’t mind using verbs as nouns and nouns as verbs. The form of an English word doesn’t necessarily tell you what part of speech it is. Here I’m going to be using what I call the Postcard Test—if you were to receive a postcard with just one word on it, would you know what part of speech it is?

In some languages nouns and verbs are usually easy to tell apart because their forms are different. Take the Latin sentence I quoted in my previous post: “Video meliora proboque, deterior sequor” (“I see better things and I approve, I follow the worse”). Latin speakers seeing the word “video” on a postcard would know immediately that it’s a verb— the first person singular present tense indicative of the second conjugation verb “video”—so it means “I see”. There’s really no other possibility.

 The second word, “meliora”, has to be either the nominative or accusative plural of the adjective “melior”. Again, there’s no other possibility. The hitch is that in the sentence, the adjective is being used as a noun, “better things”, the way we say “The rich get rich and the poor get poorer”, where the adjectives “rich” and “poor” are used as nouns.

The word “probo” is ambiguous. It could be (and is) the first person singular of the verb “probo”, meaning “I approve”, but it could also be the dative or ablative singular of the adjective “probus”, which means “upright” or “honest”. The context makes it clear, but the postcard test is designed to remove the context.

The little word “que” which is attached to “probo” has to be the conjuction “and”. The word “deterior” has to be the adjective, “worse”. In the context, it’s being used as a noun, “a worse thing”, the way “meliora” was used as a noun. And the word “sequor” has to be the first person singular of a deponent verb (that means it has the passive form but an active meaning), and it means “I follow”.  So of the five words (or five and a half, counting “que”) in this sentence, you can tell on a postcard the part of speech of four of them without any doubt. I could go through longer passages with more words, but you get the idea. There are exceptions, but by and large you can tell the part of speech of a Latin word by its form, with no context to help you out.

In English, however, the form of a word often doesn’t tell you what part of speech it is. Take the word “down”. If you were to get this on a postcard, you could decide that it’s a preposition (He looked up the street and down the street), an adverb (Put that down!), an adjective (I’m feeling kind of down today), a noun (It was third down and goal to go), or a verb (I bet I can down this beer before closing time). All of these have exactly the same form. It’s only the context of the sentence that tells you what part of speech it is.

There are many pairs of nouns and verbs in English with identical forms. Here are some random examples: list, hammer, nail, screw, farm, work, detail, draft, book, score, win, tie, try, number, letter, murder, mail, bite, drink, swallow, belch, fart, sneeze, cry, sleep, clock, register, name, mistake, dance, show, walk, run, position, look, question, answer, reply, doubt, experience, experiment, claim, display, store, purchase, point, grant, cook, bull, dog, worm, drive, paper, type, print, act, orbit, plant, weed, core, needle, nod, itch, scratch, chair, table, file, index, page, telephone, text, design, review, title, trash, rake, shovel, step, brake, signal, talk, yell, whisper, murmur, knife, fork, spoon, plate, spice, salt, pepper, benefit, heat, finger, frown, smile, crease, iron, wrinkle, dress, skirt, light, blink, storm, rain, snow, skin, time, place, pencil, coat, cover, package, silence, share, test, vote, drug, cure, film, tape, guard, police, hunt, note, picture, arm, count, program, and like. (I have not included pairs such as present and present, or consult and consult, with the same spelling but different stress, and I have not included the verb “to gift”, which I refuse to recognize.)

All of these words would fail the postcard test. Some of them probably started as nouns and became verbs (knife), some probably started as verbs and became nouns (purchase), but mostly when we use them we probably don’t think, I’m using a noun as a verb or a verb as a noun, we just use them. If verbing weirds language, then English has been thoroughly weirded.

2 thoughts on “Verbing Weirds Language

  1. Wow – this congeries of words that are both nouns and verbs is fascinating! I’d love to know more about how the sense of the different forms can be related. An easy category to identify is the pairing of a tool and its action, e.g., hammer, knife, fork, spoon. Sol thinks plate should obviously be in the same category and, while I see his point, for some reason to me plating something seems to use a plate differently than how knifing something uses a knife, or even spooning something uses a spoon (but then again, perhaps plate and spoon are more similar to each other than either are to knife?). Maybe I’m just being silly.
    I’ve been wondering about another word that both comes from Latin, maybe through French, and is a verb and a noun: fix. I’m interested in the relationship between two senses of the verb – to repair and to fasten securely, establish permanently – and have been surprised that the repair sense appears much less prominently in the dictionaries than the various ways in which fix can mean to fasten or secure. But I’ve always been a bit confused by how different dictionaries distinguish the different senses of each word.


    1. Hi Bessie, that’s great. I think “fix” comes ultimately from the Latin verb “figo”, which means to fasten. I wonder if it came into English with that meaning, and then added “to repair”–sometimes you fasten something to repair it if it has come lose? Then there’s the noun “fix” as in “now we’re really in a fix”. Okay, “fast” can mean “quickly” or “secure”, so if I say “Fix this fast” I could mean “Repair this quickly”, or “fasten this quickly” or “Repair this so it’s secure” or “Repair this quickly”.
      I agree about the implement pairs, but plate is an interesting example. I think “plate” can mean “cover something” as in “plate this with gold”, in which case the plate is the gold that you are using, or it can mean “set things out on a plate”, as in “plate the meal for table 3”. Now what about all the other pairs. And I just got started. It would be easy to add and add and add to the list.
      (I was certainly aware that I was writing a congeries, by the way. I like to link topics from different posts when I can. The post was also a Ring.)
      Your comments are always so interesting, and I look forward to them.


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