Arm-twisting is a means of inducing cooperation through pressure. Words do it too — in the case of words, it is peer pressure that induces cooperation, and the pressure on a word is to express a meaning that the word’s companions make compulsory.

There are different ways of looking at this phenomenon in language. One is called coercion, where the idea is that a word’s meaning is built from its context compositionally and that it doesn’t fully reside in the word itself. Construction grammar takes a similar view: chunks of words, more than words themselves, are chief determiners of meaning. When words are put together in such a way that a mismatch arises between the words and their usual semantic or grammatical interpretations, novel meanings can emerge: words are compelled by the structures they are in to take on a semantic or grammatical aspect that was not formerly a part of their job description. What should dictionaries have to say about this activity?

If you shout "fire" in a crowded theater, you do not need to supply any additional linguistic context for your listeners to disambiguate the handful of meanings of the noun. Most meaningful utterances, however, take place in the context of other words and this is where peer pressure can come into play. When you look at how the meanings of words develop historically, there’s a good argument to be made that coercion and grammatical constructions can both be viewed as bases of polysemy: people use words in novel contexts that may require words to take on a shift — sometimes radical but usually subtle — in conventional meaning. If the new usage catches on, lexicographers will eventually catch up with it, and decide whether a new sense of a word merits documentation. Here are a few examples.

One definition of the verb hiss (from the Random House Unabridged Dictionary) is "to silence or drive away by hissing." You might say, "The performers were hissed off the stage."  So hiss, given the required context,takes on a meaning similar to drive, which at its core means "cause motion." Many dictionaries, however, do not record such a meaning, and their editors may reason that there is no need to: hiss only gets this meaning when speakers insert it into a semantic slot that would normally contain another verb: in this case drive.

When followed by a handful of common adjectives — for example, aware, slow, thin, shy, obvious, and honest — the adverb painfully rarely has anything to do with pain and has become somewhat weakened to become a mere intensifying submodifier, meaning "very" or "to an extreme degree." Older dictionaries, such as Samuel Johnson’s 1755 work or Noah Webster’s of 1828, do not note this weakened meaning of painfully because it was not yet established. Johnson says painfully means "with great pain or affliction; laboriously, diligently." Webster says (1) "with suffering of body; with affliction, uneasiness or distress of mind. (2) "laboriously; with toil; with laborious effort or diligence." A more modern dictionary, however (e.g., the Oxford Dictionary of English) also gives the meaning "(with reference to something undesirable) exceedingly."

The following bigrams of common collocations of painfully + adjective show how their popularity began to develop in the early 19th century, when writers began to move painfully away from its more literal meanings. All of these collocations have enjoyed steadily increasing use since that time; some might even be considered clichés today.

"Nouning" and "verbing" can be viewed as varieties of coercion or meaning induced by construction: a speaker or writer has only to insert a noun in a slot where syntax requires a verb, or add verbal inflections to a word that was formerly only a noun, and thus is a new grammatical function is put forth. Another means by which this kind of grammatical shift may succeed in English is by the insertion of an article before a noun that is normally a noncount noun: the article forces interpretation of the noun as countable.

You can pull off both of these tricks (nouning and "countifying") at once by inserting an article before a verb, thus converting it to a count noun:

  1. I love the camaraderie between cyclists at the end of a ride when you stop and have a brew afterward and swap stories.
  2. Only when that narrative was engaging users did the Obama campaign make the ask, getting them to donate, call or vote.

Many readers may find sentence 1) perfectly acceptable but object to sentence 2). Why? The nouning and countification of brew took place more than 500 years ago. The nouning of ask is just now gaining a foot-hold.

There are three large stakeholders in the enterprise of words and language that have a complicated relationship to these kinds of semantic and grammatical shifts: they are (1) language learners, (2) computers, and (3) dictionaries. Of the three, language learners seem best placed to come to accommodation with sudden linguistic shifts and perhaps even learn to exploit them for their own uses. Learners of a language, whether children or adults, are less likely than fluent native speakers to grasp what is happening in a coercive usage; but human language learners have the faculty of Sprachgefühl, intuitive feeling for language (or you might just say that they are better wired for it) to enable them to make a good guess about the intended meaning when a novel use is put forward. Computers have extreme difficulties in dealing with novel or forced uses of words: most software relies on sense inventories to decide what a word means in context, and sense inventories are never comprehensive enough to include all possible or even common induced-meaning uses of words.

That brings us to dictionaries, the principal repositories of sense inventories. Where should dictionaries stop in documenting the established usages of words, especially the usages that are novel or off-label? The modern approach is statistical and quasi-scientific: lexicographers survey gigantic corpora in order to determine the extent to which new meanings are established, and on that basis, decide whether to include a new sense of a word in a dictionary’s sense inventory. So in effect, dictionaries are always playing catch-up with meaning, and language marches on, carried forward by the ingenuity of its users.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday January 1st 2013, 2:47 AM
Comment by: James M.
The article is a little pompous, using too much jargon. However the author obviously loves language and it is damn interesting.
Tuesday January 1st 2013, 5:06 AM
Comment by: Leslie W.
It is indeed! Although there are a couple of tiny typos: Should be "Sprachgefuehl" in the penultimate paragraph, and "principal" in the last.

[Fixed! —Ed.]
Tuesday January 1st 2013, 5:21 AM
Comment by: ThomasK
Interesting points, and I agree mostly. But is hissing getting a new meaning?

Doesn't the 'off' add the meaning - thereby imposing a combined interpretation of 'to hiss', as to hiss + drive, where the driving away is not strictly part of the meaning of 'hiss' - as this interpretation will only turn up in combination with 'up'...
Tuesday January 1st 2013, 5:37 AM
Comment by: Katy P. (Bloomington, MN)
Excellent article. I noticed no pomposity or jargon. It gave me some new ways to think about word usage.
Tuesday January 1st 2013, 5:53 AM
Comment by: ThomasK
I apologize: I pointed out the disagreement on this...
Tuesday January 1st 2013, 9:35 AM
Comment by: William P.
The Gotcha! Gang is starting out the New Year with a bang; William Safire must be circumvolving in his grave.
Tuesday January 1st 2013, 12:46 PM
Comment by: Randall C. (Montgomery, AL)
I believe the spelling of "Sprachgefühl" is correct. No need for "Sprachgefuehl" unless you can't create an umlaut from your keyboard.
Tuesday January 1st 2013, 1:09 PM
Comment by: Leslie W.
What you wrote is also correct. But there was no umlaut in the original --- or if there was, it wasn't visible; hence, the "e" is needed.
Tuesday January 1st 2013, 1:47 PM
Comment by: Hong C. (Northfield, IL)
I guess the arm-twisting of NGO on GMO created the meaning of whole food and the fortune of whole food Inc.
Tuesday January 1st 2013, 5:09 PM
Comment by: mac
haven't about the umlauts? verboten by order of the occupying forces.
Tuesday January 1st 2013, 5:13 PM
Comment by: mac
i'm not so sure about pompous but we all have our own ideas as to what works most effectively. for instance:
"One is called coercion, where the idea is that a word’s meaning is built . . ."
Preferred? "One is called coercion, in which a word's meaning . . ."
Wednesday January 2nd 2013, 10:54 AM
Comment by: Victoria W. (Princeton, NJ)
Such an interesting article. Verbification seems increasingly common, and some of the newer uses are jarring. Into my "pet peeve" category falls "impact." Others--like the many associated with technology--we just take for granted! This nice post prompted a mini-essay on my website home page, and since many readers of the Visual Thesaurus website are interested in words and their good use, you're invited to visit
Wednesday January 2nd 2013, 12:17 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)
Is "unfriend" an example, meaning to strike someone off your list of Facebook Friends? I'm not sure if its usage has spread outside Facebook.

Is this capacity unique to English? Would a French person accept "désami"? Come to that, I wonder what the French Facebook says?
Thursday January 3rd 2013, 8:06 AM
Comment by: JohnRDallasJr (Chicago, IL)
A scholar's guide to grammaticality is straight and narrow. In my writing (and reading) I allow for scenic detours. Literary license requested by authors, and granted by readers, involves lexical arm-twisting. Until this excellent piece, I called such intentionality arm-wrestling, honoring what I am willing to do with a reader's possible resistance. In my book's chapter for Resistance, I discuss value in push-back. And I invite readers to subscribe to Thinkmap's Visual Thesaurus to expand their views of words and usage. Thank you for this fantabulous post.
Friday January 4th 2013, 11:42 AM
Comment by: Neill B.
Have not come across disambiguate, for me a new word I might use, partly because its meaning is easy to intuit, even for long-in-the tooth speakers of English. Interesting article. NB

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