verbing n the act or practice of using a noun as a verb, such as ‘medal’ to mean “to win a medal” (CED)
Verbing is a time-honored way of coining new words out of old ones, the etymological process of conversion (or functional shifting). Sometimes it’s also a kind of word play (anthimeria), as in Shakespeare’s King Richard the Second when the Duke of York says, “Grace me no grace, and uncle me no uncles.”
The phenomenon doesn’t have a special name in English linguistics, but verbing is a good self-demonstrating mnemonic name, so why not use it?
There is a name for verbing and nouning and otherwise changing the Word Class (or, as word class was called in Latinate grammar, part of speech) without benefit of suffix. It’s called Zero Derivation. That means that, instead of taking the usual route of adding a derivational suffix to change word class, one adds Zero, like the Zero that marks the past tense on He cut the ribbon.
One of the most inventive aspects of invention-friendly English is verbing, the denominalization of nouns into verbs.
It’s nothing new — verbs have been created from noun forms throughout the life span of Modern English and perhaps even before it evolved from Middle English; what’s been different during our lifetime, perhaps, is the rate at which it occurs.
Denominalizations most of us have grown accustomed to because they’ve been around a while include pencil (“I’ll pencil you in for tomorrow at nine o’clock”), trend (“Stocks continue to trend downward”), and impact (“That’s going to significantly impact our plan”). If those usages aren’t annoying enough, you can make people cringe by using dialogue (“We’ll dialogue about this later”).
Brand names even get denominalized, as was the case with Xerox and, more recently, Google. But verbing isn’t confined to the office. At home, mothers and fathers parent, and people host guests. Active folks ski and skate, while those out on the town get seated, sometimes only after they’re carded.
Denominalization is controversial and prompts much antipathy. But why? Some of the most basic words in English — dress, dream, sleep, strike, talk — are verbs identical in form to their parent nouns.
The answer: English encourages neologisms, but many of its users are (often rightfully) averse to upstart words. Many of the denominalizations we take for granted may have struck listeners and readers as awkward and annoying when they first experienced them, but although many others no doubt fell by the wayside for that very reason, numerous ones have long since been granted status as standard English.
Mothers and fathers used to bring up children: now they parent. Critics used to review plays: now they critique them. Athletes podium, executives flipchart, and almost everybody Googles. Watch out — you’ve been verbed.
The English language is in a constant state of flux. New words are formed and old ones fall into disuse. But no trend has been more obtrusive in recent years than the changing of nouns into verbs. “Trend” itself (now used as a verb meaning “change or develop in a general direction”, as in “unemployment has been trending upwards”) is further evidence of — sorry, evidences — this phenomenon.
It is found in all areas of life, though some are more productive than others. Financiers are never lacking in ingenuity: Investec recently forecast that “Better-balanced autumn ranges should allow Marks & Spencer to anniversary tougher comparisons” — whatever that may mean. Politics has come up with “to handbag” (a tribute to Lady Thatcher) and “to doughnut” — that is, to sit in a ring around a colleague making a parliamentary announcement, so that it is not clear to television viewers that the chamber is practically deserted.
New technology is fertile ground, partly because it is constantly seeking names for things which did not previously exist: we “text” from our mobiles, “bookmark” websites, “inbox” our e-mail contacts and “friend” our acquaintances on Facebook — only, in some cases, to “defriend” them later. “Blog” had scarcely arrived as a noun before it was adopted as a verb, first intransitive and then transitive (an American friend boasts that he “blogged hand-wringers” about a subject that upset him). Conversely, verbs such as “twitter” and “tweet” have been transformed into nouns — though this process is far less common.
Sport is another ready source. “Rollerblade”, “skateboard”, “snowboard” and “zorb” have all graduated from names of equipment to actual activities. Football referees used to book players, or send them off: now they “card” them. Racing drivers “pit”, golfers “par” and coastal divers “tombstone”.
Verbing — or denominalisation, as it is known to grammarians — is not new. Steven Pinker, in his book “The Language Instinct” (1994), points out that “easy conversion of nouns to verbs has been part of English grammar for centuries; it is one of the processes that make English English.” Elizabethan writers revelled in it: Shakespeare’s Duke of York, in “Richard II” (c1595), says “Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle”, and the 1552 Book of Common Prayer includes a service “commonly called the Churching of Women”.
There is a difference today, says Robert Groves, one of the editors of the new “Collins Dictionary of the English Language”. “Potential changes in our language are picked up and repeated faster than they would have been in the past, when print was the only mass communication medium, and fewer people were literate.” So coinages can be trialled around the world — and greenlighted — as soon as they are visioned.
What makes these leaps so easy is that English, unlike other Indo-European languages, uses few inflections. The infinitive does not take a separate ending, so while in French the noun “action” has to become the verb “actionner”, English can use the same form for both. In German (apart from “essen” meaning “food” or “eat”), such words are virtually unknown; the same is true of Chinese — though the noun meaning “thunder” can be used as the verb “to shock”. In Arabic such formations are not found at all.