‘Genius’ and ‘rubbish’ and other noun-like adjectives

Posted by on August 05, 2009

© Mahesh Patil / Fotolia.comSome people get very upset about nouns being used as verbs. A recent row in the press centred on the verbal use of medal (How many of their athletes were medalled at the last Olympics?) but it turns out that this usage is at least as old as Thackeray. Which is hardly surprising, since forming verbs from nouns is as standard a word-formation rule in English as you could possibly find – as anyone would know who had ever banked a cheque (or initialled a mistake on it), breakfasted in the garden, or texted a friend. What seems to cause special annoyance is the application of this rule in business jargon – as when someone tasks a colleague to action a proposal, or something impacts a decision (e.g. here, where this is described as a ‘grammar error’).

What gets less attention is a similar development where nouns are recycled as adjectives. Again, the business community is a prime ‘offender’, with its fondness for the adjectival uses of key (key personnel) and core (core competencies). Of course, nouns regularly function in an adjective-like way when modifying other nouns (think of school uniform or winter coat), but to make the transition (or, as some would say, to transition) from noun to adjective they need to be used in expressions like this:

In the telecoms sector, where new data services have been driven by technical capabilities rather than customer demand, this is particularly key.
Design is absolutely core to building on the area’s heritage and strengths.

Younger speakers, while immune to the fashions of business jargon, have their own favourite noun-like adjectives: rubbish is now well-established as an adjective (that is such a rubbish haircut), while quality has also made the leap from noun-modifier (a quality product) to full-blown adjective(the decor is so quality: the materials, the carpeting everything). My current favourite is genius, now hovering on the brink of adjective-hood (the bonus track is an absolutely genius cover of the Pixies “Where Is My Mind?”).

Does it matter? It’s true there’s an element of fashion and group conformity in the way some people use language, but on the whole the new usages are not created simply in order to annoy the language police: they arise because there is a gap in the language that needs filling. It is not, as some would have it, “lazy English” to say: “OK, who’s going to action this?” (instead of asking: “Who is going to take responsibility for ensuring that this plan is carried out?”). It is simpler, quicker, and probably clearer. Calling this kind of thing a “grammar error” is to attack the wrong target. The problem with the kind of jargon used in business and government is when it is deliberately used to disguise the fact that the speaker is incapable of having an original thought, or worse (as Orwell realized long ago) to conceal the speaker’s true, and more sinister, meaning under a fluffy cloud of clichés.

Read other posts about things people say that I hate.

Comments (8)
  • There can be some confusion. For instance when a Derbyshire local council made a decision about refuse collection which was reported as “Council makes rubbish decision” in the local paper!

    Posted by Dora Cutts on 9th August, 2009
  • One of the most sensible articles on the subject I’ve read so far. Although one should ponder on the emerging need of linguistic change in its inevitable pace throughout the transformation of modern society. Taking this into account, words like ‘texting’ are bound to happen. Perhaps ‘medalling’ is a bit of a stretch, I agree. But we are living in an age where oversimplification seems to be the ground rule for most things. I would go for ‘everyhing in moderation and moderation in everything’ – but that’s just me.

    Posted by Lucia on 9th August, 2009
  • English is so marvellously inventive! Why try to curb it?
    On the other hand, bad English – of which we get more and more, even on Radio4! – should be checked!
    My all-time bugbear : “actually”!!!
    Pls can someone put a stop to this word parasitizing a lot of inarticulate people’s speech?!!!!!!!!!!!!
    “…actually, it wasn’t the actual fact that actually put us off…” etc!!!!

    Posted by parryjubert on 11th August, 2009
  • I like that – actually!!

    Posted by parryjubert on 11th August, 2009
  • I believe “impact” being used as a verb is at least as old as Pepys, as it is found in his diary. I think.

    Posted by J Taylor on 15th August, 2012
  • There’s no verbal “impact” in Project Gutenberg’s complete diaries, but it might come up in his letters. OED’s first citation for the verb is from 1601, but that’s in the literal sense of packing things tightly together. The figurative sense, of having a strong effect or influence on something, has a first citation from 1935.

    Posted by Stephen on 15th August, 2012
  • Thanks Stephen, so I remembered the 17th Century bit right! I was however unaware of the sense used, so that’s interesting. I would have thought the sense closest to the Latin original would have been naturally used as a verb with the sense of “affect” or similar.

    Posted by J Taylor on 15th August, 2012
  • If using “key” instead of “the key” (which is itself already a figure of speech, and as such something to be tampered with only with great care) isn’t merely lazy or sloppy, but is instead somehow “clearer” and “quicker,” then what means are left for defending the use of articles in other parts of speech? At this rate, we’ll be lucky if, in another decade or so, we are not reduced to speaking pig Latin!

    Posted by George Selgin on 7th January, 2014
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