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The Verbifying of America

Sparrow, a pundit poet from Phoenicia, New York, graciously contributed the following column.

Nouns are becoming verbs faster than ever before. I've been "journaling" on this phenomenon, and here's my report:

In the Old Days, every new invention did not immediately become a verb. No one said: "I must electric canopener this tuna," or "Well, it's time to dishwasher." But ever since the Fall of Communism, new consumer items have been verbified. We do say: "I'll fax you that receipt," "Can you e-mail me the final figures?" "Let's microwave the taco," and "Shh! I'm text-messaging!" (In fact, "text-messaging" is giving way to the more direct "texting.")

The computer, in particular, generates verbs galore. "Downloading" has its opposite, "uploading" ("the transmission of a file from one computer system to another, usually larger computer system," according to whatis.com). I predict the new term "sidewaysloading" will eventually catch on. Googling it, I found 6 citations for it, as opposed to "about" 43,800,000 for "uploading."*

(*Believe it or not, I wrote this sentence without realizing "Googling" is one of these very verbs!)

"Keyboarding" sounds like a sport, the next variant of skateboarding, snowboarding and windboarding. Which brings us to "Websurfing" and "channel-surfing." Surfers, an obscure California subcult when the Beach Boys lauded them in their first major hit, "Surfin' U.S.A.," in 1963, have become a prominent metaphor in modern life. In fact, that song was prophetic:

If everybody had an ocean
Across the U.S.A.
Then everybody'd be surfin'
Like Californi-a...

Now everybody does have an ocean -- an Ocean of Information -- on which to position their keyboards and "remotes" (both conveniently shaped like surfboards) to ride!

Some of these verbs aren't even words. Whereas a secretary in 1958 would say to her boss, "I sent a carbon copy to Mr. Hathaway," her modern equivalent chirps: "I CC'ed Mr. H."

Now when the secretary returns home, he asks his wife: "Where's Cindy?" "She's upstairs IMing" is the reply. (In other words, she is sending and receiving "instant messages.")

Who would ever have guessed that grown women and men would someday announce: "I just began blogging!"?

CEO-talk is big on verbifying: "I'm almost ready to greenlight the Douglas project"; "The Board will be conferencing Tuesday"; "We may have to outsource some of the tech work." One feels that the immense power of the CEO can bend nouns into verbs, the way Superman bends iron bars.

The New Age -- which has its own delusions of grandeur -- gave us "dialoguing," "parenting" and "enabling." (Also see "journaling," above.) The verb-forms are more active and participational. They "empower" us -- while we are "multitasking."

In this climate, it's no wonder people with verb-names become celebrated: Donald Trump, Britney Spears, Al Gore, Tom Cruise, Sting.

Apparently, "sudokuing" is becoming a word. Where will it all end? Will our language become entirely verbified?

When the gas stove was invented, it was intended to mimic furniture. Each stove had a solidity and bulk. You didn't look at one and think: "I'm going to stove my food." The microwave oven is different. It's almost invisible in its sleek anonymity. It looks like a verb. So does a fax machine, or a scanner. They are virtual objects -- processes in the shape of plastic lozenges.

There's also a philosophical level to this phenomenon. Max Planck laid the basis for Quantum Physics with his investigations into subatomic particles in 1900. Further elaborations by Louis de Broglie in 1923 declared that electrons can be seen as either particles and waves. In other words, electrons are both nouns and verbs.

As the speed of daily life increases, we suddenly enter a Quantum realm. The physical objects around us become activities as well. A message is a thing and an act of "messaging." We live now in a Quantum World.

So "log on" to the Verbifying Revolution, and start "fast-forwarding" into the future!

Pundit, humorist and poet Sparrow has contributed to The New Yorker, The Quarterly, The New York Times, and was featured in the PBS series The United States of Poetry. His most recent book is America: A Prophecy: The Sparrow Reader.

(photo credit: Jennifer May)

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday March 21st 2007, 8:06 AM
Comment by: pat T.
I was "jazzed" to find Sparrow on my screen today.
Wednesday March 21st 2007, 6:22 PM
Comment by: Mohd Azhar A.
I think it is time to have a new rule. All nouns can be verbified and later all adjectives! After all rules are made by us for convenience.
Thursday March 22nd 2007, 12:26 PM
Comment by: Mark W.
I discovered this article while architecting a new company boilerplate.
Friday March 23rd 2007, 1:58 AM
Comment by: Linda H.
My pet peeve in this area comes from the home-improvement shows: "staplegunning" or "gluegunning" instead of stapling or gluing; "routering" instead of routing.

But what about verbs becoming nouns? How many times have you heard someone calling a book a "good read"? Quotations have become "quotes." Invitations have become "invites." And how about having a "disconnect"?
Friday March 23rd 2007, 9:15 AM
Comment by: OLMANDA H.G.
I think that it is difficult to translate English nouns that are verbified into another language. How can I transalte those new words into Spanish, for example? If a student is trying to speak in Spanish, he stops the idea to ask, Cómo se dice, "I was microwaiving". Then,there is not a word to literally translate it.
Friday March 23rd 2007, 10:22 AM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
Ms. Hernandez-Guerrero's comment hit home with me. As an interpreter for the deaf, I have often come across such a conundrum! The good news is: unlike Latin, the English language will never die.
Friday March 23rd 2007, 1:18 PM
Comment by: Michael G.
My thanks to Sparrow for a very amusing contribution : but apart from the minor problems this kind of thing poses for translators (and I am one), does this REALLY matter ?
Language is communication, and I for one have no difficulty understanding "faxing","multitasking", "microwaving" or whatever. What exactly is wrong with "parenting" or "dialoguing" ? They may be ugly, and I certainly don't use them myself (but I live on the other side of the Atlantic), but if a word is used as a verb, acts like a verb, and is understood as a verb : then it's a verb ....who cares where it came from as long as it is comprehensible ?
The great strength of English compared with most other languages is its facility at absorbing and creating new words, and new uses for words : and this immense pool of words, old and new, gives everybody a choice - NOBODY is obliged to use "faxing", "parenting" or "googling" if he doesn't like them, because other words exist, which is why it shouldn't be a major problem for translators. To put "microwaving" into French I just translate it back into its original English -"cooking in a microwave",which gives "cuisson au four à micro-ondes" in French - and I'm sure the same phrase can be found in Spanish.
Sparrow's article strikes me as somewhat disingenuous : if he finds himself using words he doesn't approve of for grammatical or aesthetic reasons,or if he just doesn't like them, well, he should strike them out and rewrite. Or maybe, just not use them in the first place ?
Friday March 23rd 2007, 4:48 PM
Comment by: janine A.
Sparrow's observations seem more lighthearted than disapproving. For those of us who love words, the flexibility inherent in the English language provides a constantly evolving tool for straightforward expression. Language is a playground - when my children were little, they would sing kid songs that would get stuck in my head. When I complained that these tunes were insidious, they developed a game. They would whistle a few bars and wait to see how long it took for me to start humming the song, at which point they would gleefully point out that they had 'insidiated' me. Now that word is a part of my family's vocabulary and we know exactly what it means. direct and to the point.
Friday March 23rd 2007, 4:56 PM
Comment by: Nicholas T.
It's how our language grows, no? But I won't say Sparrow is disingenuous in his approach. I think he was simply attempting to articulate and idea that may be somewhat tired. Most of the verbs he discussed will be lost as the technology that gave them birth disappears.
And along with the words,perhaps verbifying will falll from favor too.
Friday March 23rd 2007, 7:32 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I agree that one of the great strengths of the English language is its ability to absorb and create new words. But I don't agree that the only criterion for judging those words should be whether they are understandable. What about beauty?

For example, the verb liaise (formed from the French noun liaison)is understandable but also incredibly ugly. And while I certainly don't want to see language "police" telling any of us what words we can and cannot use, I think it's a bit disingenuous to suggest that you simply don't have to use words you don't like.

Think of the Valley Girl "language" (for lack of a better term) that evolved in the 1980s. A whole generation of hapless young women grew up thinking that was an acceptable way to speak. Like that's so totally sad, ya know?

Sloppy speech and sloppy thinking go hand in hand. I'm not sure what the "solution" is, or if one even exists. But I think it matters and I'm grateful to Sparrow for raising the issue.
Saturday March 24th 2007, 9:45 AM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
Beauty is subjective. Understanding is not.

Beauty is in the ear of the listener. I don't find "liaise" ugly, but as a Brit, there are many dialect words used in daily speech on the other side of the Atlantic which displease me : so I don't use them, but I don't see why they shouldn't be used by others.

Sloppy speech - which accompanies sloppy thought, as Daphne Grey-Grant reminds us - has always existed, but it is not the words which are sloppy - it is the way they are used.

However beautiful it may be, language only communicates effectively if it uses the words and syntax of the period : read Chaucer and see if you understand him. Or even Shakespeare, who created a lot of words which are now part of our vocabulary. Today's English is full of "shorthand" words that are created by people in a hurry : whether they are ugly or not is neither here nor there in the context in which they are used. As Bernstein pointed out 40 years ago, each society uses many "languages" (perhaps we should say dialects)and they are not necessarily mutually comprehensible. The dialects of the poor quarters of New York or Chicago and those of Wall Street are so unalike as to be different languages : who is to say which is more "correct", or more "beautiful" ?

Language police ? There is one in France - it's called the Académie Française - and its pronouncements have little effect, because languages are living things, and they evolve quite independantly of academic rules.

Most of the recent new words in English have been created in the rich cultural melting-pot of the USA, and no doubt some of them ARE ugly, but they have made the English language so much richer : it would be a terrible loss if their use in daily speech was decided according to whether they were "linguistically-correct" (have I invented a new word...?).

I've said enough. I don't wish to monopolise this forum so this is my last contribution on this subject.
Saturday March 24th 2007, 11:06 PM
Comment by: Michelle K.
Sparrow is riffing on the influence of technology on language. The nature of technology is futuristic and verbs are power vehicles; the are all about action. There will always be issues with slang and misuse of words, but what we are witnessing is an evolution of language.
Sunday March 25th 2007, 7:28 AM
Comment by: christina J.
i would like to thank Sparrow for this article. i'm a stickler for correct grammer and a lot of the new uses for verbs have always bugged me, especially 'e-mail me'... everytime i heard someone say that, i would say to myself, 'send an e-mail to me' - now i can stop -
Sunday March 25th 2007, 2:32 PM
Comment by: E. Mike S.
Michael G., I'm not sure I get "Beauty is subjective. Understanding is not." What? Are you saying, then, that we all comprehend things objectively and thus in the same way? Seems doubtful. What does a significant portion of the misunderstanding and disagreement in the world result from, then? If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then so too, it would seem, is understanding. Or have I missed your point?

Also, Your thought that "it's not the words which are sloppy--but the way we use them" is a useful distinction but one without, in the end, much of a difference. After all, we don't use words in isolation but in phrases and clauses. Saying that words aren't sloppy, but only the ways we employ them, seems, what?, fussy?

Last, Daphne Grey-Grant never advocated having an agency like the
French Academy police English. You didn't say that she did explicitly, but your paragraph about it seems to suggest that she did. She can speak for herself, but what I understood her to say is that we ought to be free to disagree with and to criticize one another's use of language, especially when it's ugly. Ugly words exist--"verbify" gets my nomination.

It's difficult to fathom how making so many nouns into verbs enriches language. That's a little like saying that the e coli bacterium, because it's part of life, somehow enriches it. If so, I'd rather be poorer. That's not to say that every noun made into a verb impoverishes us, but what Sparrow reports may exceed what's necessary. And in what I interpret as a lightly sardonic touch, Sparrow makes a worthwhile point--turning so many nouns into verbs gains less than we think and loses more than we realize.
Monday March 26th 2007, 11:24 PM
Comment by: William W.
(1) The old rule is: "Any noun can be verbed," as in "The verbing of America."

(2) Understanding is not subjective in those instances where it is constrained by evidence and logic.

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