To verb or not to verb?

Posted by on August 16, 2010

How do you feel about ‘verbing’? It’s something we touched on in our news round-up recently, and no, it’s not rude – it’s the increasingly well-recognized practice of creating a verb out of a noun, like ‘google’, ‘tweet’, ‘text’, or ‘friend’. And it causes a lot of controversy.

Many of the words spawned this way are technology-related, and that’s no surprise, given that  technology is one of the fastest moving elements of our society, and language has to keep up. The creation of new verbs from nouns is one of the ways in which it does this: as we become increasingly technological, so does our language. No surprise either, then, that the American Dialect Society chose ‘tweet’ as the Word of the Year for 2009 and ‘google’ as Word of the Decade.

Purists dislike verbing though, arguing that a verb created from a noun isn’t a real verb. Some think it’s a lazy way of creating new words, or that it’s too similar to the (admittedly annoying) business jargon that plagues us all. Others claim it dilutes brand names and hence affects that most sacred of things – the corporate wallet.

I like it however. There’s a dynamism to this kind of language creation that reflects the dynamism in other areas of social and cultural development. Nothing in life is truly static, after all, and nor should it be. As Michael Rundell has pointed out previously, English is particularly well suited to this kind of language creation and it means we get to see a steady stream of new and interesting verbs that would otherwise never exist.

Many of these new verbs (and, of course, the nouns they stem from), start life as brand names – e.g. Google and Facebook – and as I said, many argue that using them this way dilutes the brand. Executives at Xerox even go so far as to try and educate the world to say ‘photocopy’ rather than ‘Xerox’ papers. I don’t think it necessarily does dilute the brand though; in some senses I think it gives the word (and hence the brand) an element of longevity it wouldn’t normally have. Take, for example, ‘Hoover’ – this started life as a brand name vacuum cleaner over 100 years ago. It was the market leader for many years, but despite losing that vaunted position some time ago, it stays in the public consciousness simply through the number of people who still use the verb ‘to hoover’ as opposed to ‘to vacuum’. And the people who use it in this way still remember why.

If I were the chief executive of, say, Google, I’d be quite pleased by the fact that people tend to use my brand name instead of the more generic ‘search’, since it would suggest (in my own, corporately-self-centred world view) that mine was the only search engine out there. The same would go for Xerox et al.

It can all go a little bit too far though; even I can’t swallow login as a verb.

Comments (7)
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  • I’m still hoping that “befriend” will gain in popularity and replace “friend” as the thing you do when you accept a friend on Facebook. Perhaps I should start a page on Facebook for people who would favor this verb, ha!

    I don’t remember the reasoning but Xerox even goes so far as to try and educate the world to say ‘photocopy’ because if everybody said ‘to xerox’ they could lose their copyright, or something to that effect.

    Regarding nouns turning into verbs, I think that’s just people opposing a particular way new words come into the language (and not too mention a way that is completely natural and common to the way many many languages grow).

    Posted by Joseph Persico on 16th August, 2010
  • i think all these new verbs creation should be kept only as colloqual language and never in written.

    Posted by AllaSobirova on 18th August, 2010
  • It’s a difficult one, isn’t it. If these verbs couldn’t be written, we’d be stuck signing off our messages with ‘I’ll send you an email next week’, rather than the much simpler ‘I’ll email you next week’. I know what you mean though, these verbs-from-nouns can sound very casual and colloquial. For me, though, it’s all part of the natural development of the language, and it provides plenty of entertainment!

    Posted by Sharon Creese on 18th August, 2010
  • Hi Sharon,
    You mention some very recent examples of ‘verbing’.
    What about to ‘contact’ somebody. At an interview in Cambridge 15 years ago I remember someone commenting that ‘to contact’ somebody isn’t a correct verb. I was told to say ‘to make contact with’.
    What about ‘to impact’ ? I find it horrible but it is cropping up everywhere. This usually starts in the USA then comes over to the UK via TV series..and when the BBC start using it, then we know that it has irrevocably anchored itself in our language.
    I guess it is logical that it works this way..I mean the Americans being more flexible with English..after all they are a nation made up of immigrants from all over Europe and the rest of the world..so since the beginning of their history they’ve been used to being more flexible and less prescriptive with English.

    Posted by David Tremayne Smith on 30th August, 2010
  • David: your story about being warned off the use of “contact” as a verb is a perfect illustration of the dangers of pronouncing on “correct” usage. The status of “contact” as a verb was indeed a usage issue a couple of decades ago, but I doubt whether most people would be aware of that now. The same thing will probably happen to “impact” in due course. In 1969, the (then new) American Heritage Dictionary established what it called a Usage Panel, consisting of about 200 distinguished writers, academics and journalists (including Maya Angelou, Paul Theroux, and J.K. Galbraith). The Panel was asked its opinions on a range of usage issues and the results are reported iin the dictionary. At the entry for “contact” it is observed that the verb “is widely used but still not appropriate to formal contexts, according to 66 per cent of the Usage Panel”. The disjunct use of the adverb “hopefully” (hopefully they’ll arrive soon) was equally frowned on by the Panel – but has, similarly, become largely uncontroversial. In both cases, the shift in use follows perfectly normal and familiar linguistic mechanisms, so it is not really clear what people are objecting to. This use of “hopefully”, for example, to show the speaker’s stance, is mirrored in words like sadly, fortunately, and significantly (Significantly, this was not the first time this accusation had been made).

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 30th August, 2010
  • I agree that verbing is a positive and natural phenomenon. But especially when the verbing comes from a brand name, it can have restricted distribution. Consider “hoovering,” which is unknown in the U.S. (even though Hoover was also very wide-spread in America).

    I don’t understand why “login” irritates you: it seems a very natural formation to me. What would you prefer, sign in?

    On a different point, I found a plethora of brand names (especially of stores and service centers) that were opaque to me when I returned to my home country after an extended residence abroad. Thus, people no longer went to hardware stores or a stationer’s; instead they went to Home Plus or Kinko’s.

    Posted by Kim Dammers on 31st October, 2012
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