Friday, December 31, 2010

Verbing the nouns, nouning the verbs

I try to be quite open-minded and not have an attitude written-in-stone about our ever-changing language. Perhaps, as in raising your children, it makes sense to pick your fights. There are some battles you're not going to win, I say sadly, as I reflect on the lovely Jill Barber's new book of lullabies which is based on her song, Lay Down.

We know where I stand on the verb, "to lie," and we won't go there again although there's something very discouraging about singing something so wrong to a tiny baby! (Unless, of course, she were singing, "Lay down your burden . . ." — which she isn't.)

There are other changes to the language that I'm much more willing to tolerate even though I'm pretty sure they're changes I'll never employ myself.

My headline is the hint. Changing nouns into verbs has been around for awhile now and I'm not going to concentrate on that end of the headline. Think "impact" and "contact" for two of the most common culprits. Even more commonly used as a verb is the word "parent." These words are now so entrenched in the language that I have given up fighting them but I'm still not willing to use them — as verbs.

The newer phenomenon goes the other way: that is, using what have always been verbs as nouns.

One that came to mind right away when I started to write this was "fail." As in, "That's a fail," or quite commonly on social media sites, "an epic fail."

During the discussion about a new convention centre for downtown Halifax, I first noticed the use of "ask" as a noun. It came when reporters were awaiting news of what the province wanted from the municipality. "We're waiting to hear the province's ask."

Same time, same subject: "It's just about time for the big reveal."

And have you heard anyone say, referring to the new employee, "Who's the new hire?"

As I began to write about this, I assumed it was a pretty new thing to change verbs into nouns. Then I thought of "read" — as in, "That was a good read." I thought of "party" — not, "Are you going to a party?" but "Are you going to party?"

Both have been around for many years and are well-accepted and well-used. In the end, I guess it's just a matter of time.

I'm publishing this on New Year's Eve so whether you're going to stay home and have a good read or whether you're going to party your brains out: Happy New Year and see you in 2011!


  1. Ha! Good post!

    The word that drives me around the bend is random. "Oh, Mom, that's so random," my kids will say when, in fact, they do not mean random as you or I would mean random. Even they are unable to define it! It's absurd!

  2. Great post.

    "Ask" as a noun grates on my ear as well, but then I think about "request" as a verb and a noun. It started out as a noun in the early 14th century and was first recorded as a verb in the 1530s. (I've just Googled -- speaking of verbing the noun -- the words "request" and "etymology" with no quotation marks.)

    My interest in how language changes was sparked when I discovered that my Scottish grandmother's use of "learn" as a transitive verb was archaic rather than just a mistake. There it was, in Shakespeare, for all to see.

    Never a dull momento (kidding).