In a stop-press post last week announcing Macmillan’s decision to stop printing dictionaries, Michael Rundell pointed out that an online dictionary can respond more promptly to the constantly shifting nature of a living language. This is a huge challenge for lexicographers. They have to decide which words and phrases are genuine newcomers, whilst guarding against one-day-wonders that swoop in from nowhere and then sink without a ripple. The task requires the skills of a Grand Canyon tightrope walker and the prophetic powers of the witches in Macbeth.
It is certainly an advantage that new terms like quantitative easing, spawned by the financial crisis, can be added to an online dictionary quickly and easily. I’d suggest, however, that the real challenge is posed by the inexorable reshaping of the more frequent words and phrases of English – the everyday verbs ask and eat, for example, or the multi-faceted ‘grammar’ words so and like.
I’d like to consider the phenomenon of ‘nouning’, whereby people give verbs new senses as nouns – the mirror image of the better-known ‘verbing’. Some verbs that are increasingly ‘nouned’ are ask, eat (as in I wouldn’t call it a cheap eat), disconnect, and reveal.
These ‘nounings’ are quite distinct from their verbs. Disconnect, for example, is typically used more metaphorically than the verb, and tends to collocate with adjectives signalling importance – clear, dangerous, fundamental, huge, major, profound, and serious. It is often followed by between:
While fraud remains a problem, there is a clear disconnect between consumer feeling and retailer reality about the extent of online fraud.
This book review boasts two nounings in quick succession: dismount (in the curious phrase nail the dismount), and reveal:
I am very fond of Stephen King’s novels, but he regularly fails to nail the dismount: Under the Dome was claustrophobic and compelling, but the final reveal was bathetic and frustratingly arbitrary. (The Guardian, November 3)
The noun ask, too, has its own collocates, particularly big and tough:
I’m not going to harp on about it, but it’s a tough ask for us, four Test Matches on the bounce.
It also occurs without an adjective:
I am sure it’s probably a bit of an ask but I certainly would appreciate the opportunity to run things by you occasionally…
Shouldn’t these and other nounings be included in the dictionary? After all, there is plenty of evidence, there are no space constraints, and everyone finds what they’re looking for. What’s not to like?
Ah, but I can hear distant murmurs of protest, an occasional wail, a furious exclamation. These come from an ever-present and vociferous army of pedants and guardians of correctness, forever shaking their fists at their newspapers and penning Letters to the Editor. While they might grudgingly accept the presence of subprime in the dictionary, they are angered by shifts in the common core of the language, the everyday grammar of communication.
The objections to nouning arise partly from the etymological fallacy as well as a related ‘word-class fallacy’ – the belief that only the ‘original’ word-class is legitimate and correct; that verbs should not be annexing the grammatical space of perfectly good nouns – getting ideas above their class, so to speak. The noun invite is particularly unpopular, although as a back formation from invitation, it is attested from the 1650s.
Lexicographers have to make a decision in each and every case: in, or out? The same applied, of course, in the era of printed dictionaries, but now responses to evidence must become more immediate: expectations are higher and objections easier to record. A traditional but partial solution to a doubtful or ‘non-standard’ entry is to add a note like Most people consider this use incorrect. The trouble is that the profile of ‘most people’ has changed, and online dictionary makers will need a new understanding of this as the upcoming generations of digital natives decide their priorities.
I hope to say more about this in a future post, but will round off this one with the phrase End of, now sitting in limbo in the Open Dictionary. End has long been a noun, of course, but End of is a relative newcomer, used to indicate that a discussion is over. In a frank exchange of views between my neighbours recently, it sounded more like a bizarre form of punctuation. Their conversation went something like this:
Her: You know, you always do exactly what your mother wants.
Him: That’s SO not true! … … … I’m just saying … … … Full stop. End of. Your trouble is … … … End of. How many times have I told you … …
So. End of. For now.Email this Post