language change and slang linguistics and lexicography

Netting, texting, impacting and sheeting through the centuries – more about verbing and nouning

In a couple of earlier posts (namely this and this) on this blog, it’s been discussed how English words have the tendency to expand from one word class to another. I’d like to explore the same subject a bit further in this post.

Multiple word-class membership is an essential part of the character of the English language, and has been for a very long time. And since nouns and verbs are overwhelmingly the most numerous word classes, it’s not surprising that noun/verbs are particularly common. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for book as a noun is from the late 9th century; the earliest for book as a verb is from 966 (in the sense of ‘to grant or assign land by charter’).

Usually the noun came first and was subsequently verbed, but there are also cases of verbs becoming nouned. Sometimes there was quite a lengthy time lag between the two uses, sometimes not; here are a few more first citation dates from the OED. (Of course you have to bear in mind that a citation doesn’t necessarily represent a widespread usage.)

net: noun 825, verb 1593
drink: noun 888, verb c. 1000
draw: verb 897, noun 1663
word: noun c. 900, verb c. 1205
friend: noun c. 1000, verb 1225
count: noun 1325, verb 1325 (!)
text: noun 1369, verb 1599
twitter: verb 1374, noun 1678
impact: verb 1601, noun 1781
contact: noun 1626, verb 1834

The process of taking a word from one word class and using it in another is called conversion – a poor term, I think, since you don’t actually have to carry out any conversion work on the form of the word. A better term would something like redeployment, perhaps. It affects other word classes, too, besides nouns and verbs:

open: adjective 825, verb c. 900, noun 1624
yellow: adjective c. 700, noun c. 700, verb c. 1050

The word but has, in its long history, been a preposition, adverb, conjunction (of course), noun and verb – most familiarly, perhaps, in no more ifs and buts and But me no buts. (Of course, any word can be used as a noun in this metalinguistic way: “You need to put a the in front of United States.”)

Sharon Creese wrote about verbing: “Some [purists] think it’s a lazy way of creating new words”. I’d prefer to say that it’s an economical way of extending the functionality of the language without needing to create new words.

In his book Lexical Priming (Routledge 2005), which is an important book and an enthralling read, Michael Hoey casts doubt on the a priori existence of word classes, suggesting that terms such as noun and verb are only labels that make generalisations from the behaviour of words and phrases, and which fit some words better than others.

Apart from anything else, all this is potentially good news for learners of English, who can use lexical redeployment as a communication strategy, to compensate for lack of knowledge. For instance, if you want to tell someone that on a certain occasion you were knitting a jumper, but you don’t know the word knit, you might say I was jumpering. If it’s a face to face conversation and you can support what you say by miming, you’ll certainly get your meaning across; otherwise, you might or you might not, but it’s always worth trying (or worth a try).

It can cause problems in reading, though, and for native speakers too, especially in news headlines, as Michael Rundell wrote. He quoted the classic example Foot heads arms body. Interpreting this requires quite a bit of lexical and grammatical knowledge, plus the ability to recognise Foot as the surname of a politician. You also need to read it with your ears as well as your eyes – to hear it with the right rhythm and stress – otherwise it remains a perplexing horizontal list of four words.

I was recently in Whitby, a town on the Yorkshire coast which is, among other things, a fishing port. While I was trawling through the local newspaper one day, the following things happened in the space of a split second:

1 I spotted the first line of a headline: Quiet night in nets
2 I conjured up a half-formed image of a calm moonlit sea, fishermen twiddling their thumbs as they wait for the fish to swim into their nets …
3 I read the second line of the headline: pensioner £290,000.
4 I hurriedly recategorised nets as a verb, not a noun, and heard the headline in my head the way I needed to: Quiet night in / nets pensioner £290,000 – the layout in the newspaper militates against this division into phrases. (The lucky pensioner in question had won that sum of money in some sort of TV phone-in game show, after a last-minute decision to stay at home instead of going out somewhere.)

And it’s not only headlines that can mislead readers in this way. This is from a Guardian article about historian Hugh Trevor-Roper:

… over and over again, the stakes rising at each new turn of the wheel, the overconfidence engendered (at least in part) by his prodigious talents led him to court, …
– to the courtroom, then, to fight legal battles? No, the text continues like this:
… over and over again, the stakes rising at each new turn of the wheel, the overconfidence engendered (at least in part) by his prodigious talents led him to court, and eventually to encounter, disaster.”

Well, I’m shocked (I’m in a state of shock) to see how long this post has grown. Time to halt (time to call a halt). Finally, though, here’s another memento from Yorkshire, a sign by the roadside at the exit from a quarry in the Yorkshire Dales, reminding lorry drivers to secure their load of stone (the stone they’ve loaded) before setting off on their journey: Have you sheeted?

(sheet: noun 725, verb 1606: when Snow the Pasture sheets – Shakespeare, no less!)

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Jonathan Marks


  • Interesting stuff, thanks.

    Children do a lot of this conversion when they’re about 3 or 4 with lots of references in acquisition books to things like “I’ve jammed my bread” or (more like using derivational morphology than conversion, I suppose) “It’s very nighty” (talking about darkness). My own kids have started doing weird things with “versus”, so they make it into a verb and ask things like “Who are England versing tonight?”. Maybe it’s just a form of linguistic creativity which is common to us as a species.

  • Great reading, Jonathan. You’ve certainly made me look out for such verbing. In India, especially Gujarat,I ‘ve heard people say (in a mixture of English and Gujarati): ‘We Sumoed to several parts of Gujarat’; a Sumo (Tata Sumo) is a car, a four wheel drive, which can take in about eight passengers. So people hire a Sumo when they travel in large family groups to tourist spots. Intrigued? I certainly was ,when I heard it.

  • I got here Googling for the word “sedentation.” (There. You have a nouned verb and a verbed noun in a single sentence.) If derivational morphology produces a useful, communicative result, I’m in favor. Although, I don’t think you can use morphed words in Scrabble.

  • i find it easier… and suspect that many language learners may also find it easier… to think like Hoey, and think of words acquiring grammatical functions in context… (rather than of words having a priori membership of any word class)… only corpus concordances can tell us which wordforms are more frequently used in which contexts/phraseologies, and therefore which functions they most frequently acquire… ?

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