Writers Talk About Writing
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'
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)