Words in the News

Verbing weirds language – but in a good way

Written by Stan Carey

Browsing new entries in Macmillan’s Open Dictionary is a good way to follow patterns in English usage. One motif I keep track of is when words change grammatical class. An adjective may become a verb, a verb may become a noun, and so on. Some of these are familiar, having become widespread long ago. Others are more recent or restricted, and are not yet part of standard English. And some invite controversy.

When you watch a sunset, you’re not thinking about grammatical transformation. But it makes sense to think of a sunset as a verb too, and sure enough it became one in modern English. Going in the same direction is president, which was a noun since the 14th century but recently (and informally) became a verb. The noun ash dates to Old English; centuries later it was extended to verbal use, for example in the sense ‘drop cigarette ash’. Medley and cable underwent the same process.

It’s not just nouns and verbs. Dull was an adjective before we turned it into a verb. So was future-proof, whose verbal use recently entered the Open Dictionary. Deadpan, originally an adjective, is now also an adverb, a noun, and a verb. Many English words show this kind of versatility. Yet despite being common and natural, shifts in a word’s grammatical category can be contentious – especially among prescriptivists, who resist language change. The constant motion of words can be unsettling, but it’s better to accept it than to rage against it in vain. Eventually we get used to the new ways that words are used.

Well, sometimes. When contact gained popular use as a verb (‘Please contact us later’), critics rejected it as a corruption and a ‘hideous vulgarism’. Nowadays most people are unaware it was ever a problem. But the same controversy has clung to the verbs impact and architect – even though both have been around for centuries. At major athletics events, there is always ‘harrumphing from the stickler brigade’, as Liz Potter reports, over the verbing of podium, medal, final and gold. For some, it’s still a tough ask.

If you’re interested in these trends, keep an eye on the Open Dictionary, and on our Twitter account @MacDictionary, which regularly discusses the ever-developing English language. To paraphrase a recent tweet that quoted a Calvin and Hobbes comic, verbing and nouning weird language, but in a good way. As a source of fresh vocabulary, they are engines that power a living, growing lexicon.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

1 Comment

  • “Sunset” did not become a verb in a good way. The term originates as a euphemism for technological shutdown (for example of web sites or web services). Users never like it when a service they’ve enjoyed is shut down. People enjoy sunsets, but they don’t enjoy end of services. Using the term to make something unpleasant sound pleasant is tacky and frankly (in the origins of the term) often backhanded. So I always protest it as a verb in that context.

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