Word Play: Verbing

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, July 19th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Well, it’s time now to George our brains.

OK, you know this annoying new word “adulting”? You see t-shirts with this phrase. For example, someone might say, I need to learn how to adult—which is to say, take on grown-up responsibilities.

Now, I don’t care for this trend of verbing words. 

But what we’re going to hear about is that denominalizing—or verbing nouns—does have a pretty long and respectable history, even if it’s easily abused.

REICHARD: Alright, then, let’s “George” our brains with this month’s edition of Word Play. Here’s George Grant. 

GEORGE GRANT, COMMENTATOR: Verbification, or verbing is the common practice of transforming nouns into verbs. This is often a very natural and useful linguistic development. Verbing has long been a feature of everyday English—think of mail, strike, salt, switch, sleep, ship, train, stop, drink, cup, lure, mutter, and dress; nouns that we regularly use as verbs. 

We use verbified words whenever it rains, when we butter our toast at breakfast, while lacing our shoes, as we elbow our way through a crowd, or when we determine to start petitioning our Congressman. 

Many Americans are now intent on Kondoing their homes and possessions in their quest for simplicity and minimalism. 

The English language is constantly evolving, which is one of the reasons why it’s so rich and vibrant. Verbification gives English vivid linguistic shortcuts enriching our vocabulary with new but immediately understandable rhetorical imagery. 

The technical grammatical term for verbification is denominalization—and interestingly it is itself a noun morphed into a verb form.

The business world has verbified flipchart, e-mail, bookmark, inbox, and boilerplate. Social media has given us texting, tweeting, friending, pinging, skyping, and trending. It’s even given new meaning to liking.

Indeed, verbing seems to thrive in the fast-paced, short attention span internet culture which revels in remixing pop culture tropes and viral resharing. Take for example recent web memes like, “Let me librarian that for you” and “Do you even science, bro?”

One of the most ubiquitous verbifications is google. Of course, it means to search for something on the internet—taking its name from the world’s most popular search engine. When used as a verb, though, apparently it is important not to capitalize it—lest we tempt the vast Silicon Valley firm to send us cease and desist letters. The term is trademarked, after all. 

For all the good that it can do, verbification can sometimes transform perfectly good and useful nouns into perfectly awful and unnecessary verbs. These discordant neologisms are sometimes created by lazily tacking an -ize, -ing, or -ate to the end of a noun form—thus we get rightsizing, actioning, solutioning, concretizing, adulting, and tangibilitate.

As Bill Waterson reminds us in one of his classic Calvin and Hobbes comics, “Verbing weirds language.”

For WORLD Radio, I’m George Grant.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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