Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Mailbag Friday: "Out-Physical"

Today's question for Mailbag Friday comes from our own puzzlemaster, Brendan Emmett Quigley, who's been watching a lot of football. "What gives with all these sportscasters saying 'Team A out-physical-ed Team B'? Physical, last time I checked, is an adjective and not a verb, right?"

Brendan's question reminds me of a saying attributed to the great philosopher Calvin (the one from "Calvin and Hobbes," of course): "Verbing weirds language."

The transformation of nouns and adjectives into verbs ranks high on many people's lists of grammatical peeves. It's the verbing of nouns that rankles the most. Take these examples given by the poet Sparrow in a contribution to the Visual Thesaurus last year, "The Verbifying of America":

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 journaling.

Many of these so-called "denominal verbs" (verbs derived from nouns) aren't quite as new as they might seem. The verb dialogue, for instance, sounds very jargony, but as Mark Liberman points out on Language Log, it goes back to the early 17th century, appearing in the work of Shakespeare, Pope, Coleridge and other literary heavyweights.

Adjectives don't get verbified quite as much as nouns — that is, without a prefix or suffix doing the work, like -en changing weak to weaken, be- changing little to belittle, or -ize changing modern to modernize. Calvin's use of weird is a good example of an adjective-turned-verb that sounds, well, weird, but it doesn't seem so peculiar when it appears in the slangy phrasal verb to weird (someone) out. And as the Boston Globe's Jan Freeman observes, weird has its own history as a verb going back to Middle English (though the meaning has changed significantly over time, since it used to mean "foretell" or "destine").

Out-physical is something of a special case, because the prefix out- is extremely gregarious, attaching to all sorts of root forms to make verbs meaning to excel or surpass in a particular way. Out- can even attach to names, as when Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, "it out-Herod's Herod." (Herod was known as a villainous tyrant, so to out-Herod him means to be even more tyrannical.) When out- is used before an adjective it means to outdo someone or something in the quality of the adjective. The poet Joshua Sylvester used out-swift in 1606 ("thou that ... out-swifted arrows, and out-went the wind"), while Shakespeare used out-crafty in his play Cymbeline (c.1610). Other wordsmiths of the era offered up out-subtle (1625), out-infinite (1645), out-black (1655), and out-active (1661).

I don't think football analysts are harking back to old forgotten poets when they use outphysical, but they could be modeling the word on a more modern counterpart: outsmart, meaning to surpass a rival by being smarter (dated by the Oxford English Dictionary to 1926). It's the old brains vs. brawn distinction: you can achieve a victory by either outsmarting or outphysicaling your opponent. (Or ideally, a little of both.)

Who was responsible for this linguistic innovation? A New York Times article from Oct. 27, 1966 gives the credit to John McKay, the coach of University of Southern California's football team. The article quotes McKay after a USC loss saying, "We were just plain out-physicaled," and then adds that the word is "a favorite McKayism." The earliest example I've found actually turns up a year before that, in reference to USC's crosstown football rival UCLA. The Los Angeles Times on Oct. 3, 1965 reported that the UCLA Bruins were "out-physicaled" by the Penn State Nittany Lions.

The newspaper databases show the verb out-physical used sporadically in sports reporting ever since then, most often in football but occasionally in other sports like hockey or basketball. More often than not it appears as a passive, (to be) out-physicaled, but it can be used in the active voice too, as on Nov. 24, 1976 when John Robinson, McKay's coaching successor at USC, told the L.A. Times, "At times we've out-physicaled UCLA but we're not going to out-physical Notre Dame." We very rarely hear coaches, players, or sports commentators using physical as a verb without the out- prefix, however. The only example I turned up was from the Penn State Daily Collegian of Dec. 8, 1980, quoting Southern Methodist University coach Dave Bliss: "They physicaled us out of our game."

The fact that out-physical has largely remained an artifact of coach-speak, and that even the coaches don't bother with physical as a standalone verb, shows that there are limits to the verbing game. It's possible that the length of the word makes it a lot less catchy than its brainy equivalent, outsmart. Words of three or four syllables often end up bearing the brunt of attacks on verbing, like the much-maligned verbs dialoguing, conferencing, and leveraging. And at Olympics time, many observers complain about podium as a verb (used by sportscasters to mean "to win a medal," i.e., make it to the medals podium). The moral of the story: if you feel the need to verb, at least make it snappy!

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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The Verbifying of America
The poet known as Sparrow has a thing or two to say about nouns becoming verbs.