Friday, June 17, 2011

And you thought verbing weirded language?

I know, I know. Historically, we're supposed to cringe at the verbing of nouns above all other such offenses. I think we'd be better advised to worry about excessive nouning, but for different -- and I hope less strictly peevish -- reasons.

"Turn a noun into a verb with the same enthusiasm you would apply in seeking a cut in salary" was the classic UPI Stylebook admonition, well before Calvin's memorable "Verbing weirds language." It's a fun way to sound like a hard-boiled grammar cop, regardless of whether you or anyone else on the force can get from the cop shop to the Krispy Kreme without verbing a noun or two along the way. As with the active voice, dental hygiene and the ideals of the Founding Fathers, the loudest peeving often comes from those who have trouble recognizing the real thing at better than chance levels.

This sort of extension of meaning (described by Arnold Zwicky as "direct"or "zero" conversion) has been going on for centuries with no noticeable impact on the planet's orbit. Verbing is one of the really handy tricks English has for creating useful words, and if you shudder at the notion of "contact" and "access" as verbs, you're probably just making it harder for yourself to contact and access the things you need to.


You can see why Your Editor has put his grammar-cop badge in the safe deposit box.* Journalism has enough to worry about -- much of it grammatical, reflecting a widespread inability to tell what someone else's, or your own, sentences are saying -- to waste time on mildewed get-off-my-lawnism. The journalism textbooks of the Missouri Group are welcome to denounce "maximize" as among the "verbs masquerading as nouns," but that time would be better spent showing the little darlings how to find out for themselves that "maximize" has been a verb longer -- by almost a century -- than Missouri has been a journalism school.

Nouning, I'd like to suggest, is different -- not because it's unnatural or because we're especially scrupulous around here about sweeping the house every morning for freshly nouned verbs, but because it looks like a more thoroughly jargoned back alley of journalism. I'm thinking of the near-complete vanquishizationment of "the opening" -- in favor of "the open**" -- on public radio's morning business program, or the bizarre "Rick Scott is Good News for Obama's Reelect," which Real Clear Politics inflicted on a story from Mother Jones last week. This is journalism showing that it's part of the in crowd, not talking to people in a language they already speak.

The hed at top -- "UNLV commit struggles," and so on -- I found essentially incomprehensible, even with a photo. A check of the Googles suggests that "commit," as a noun meaning "someone who has agreed to play a revenue sport at a Division I school but hasn't yet enrolled," is so far limited to a small range of sites and outlets that pay close attention to Division I recruiting. That's a good argument for not inflicting it on readers whose only offense is to pick up the front page and expect the headlines to provide a reliable clue about what's  going on in the world.

The desert of the dictionary is littered with the bleached bones of nouns that set off for a better life and died along the way.*** We can't say "commit" isn't grammatical. We can, and should, say it isn't grammatical for much of the readership yet. Call back in a couple of decades and we'll talk about it then.


* Though if some five-dimensional plasma being with a taste for tree diagrams and the sex drive of a rhino on MDA is all the time hiding your stylebook and pica pole, I'll be happy to sign up with Grammar Torchwood.
** The OED has "the open" as shorthand for "the open market" from 1898 but says it's rare. Other forms of the noun "open" date to the13th century, but I don't see one that means "beginning."
*** Hey, Strayhorn!

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6 Comments:

Blogger Nick said...

Worth noting, Fred, that no one left teaching editing at Missouri is teaching that "maximize" is verboten — to my knowledge, anyway.

1:09 AM, June 18, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The open" is well-understood stock-market jargon for the time when a market begins trading activity for the day. Similarly "the close", which seems like a much more broadly-established meaning.

3:01 AM, June 18, 2011  
Anonymous Old Word Wolf said...

I wrote a sentence last week that included "the ask." I weeded the cucumber patch a extra hour.

9:48 AM, June 18, 2011  
Anonymous Bob L. said...

To my immediate supervisor I am a "direct report." I am tasked to assist in preparing the annual "budget submit." And, OWW, I have seen "the ask" in serious, deadpan use.

I also remember seeing the original TV broadcast of "Twelve Angry Men," which was the first show I ever saw begin with a "cold open" (quite startling way back then), although I believe the phrase postdates the show by many years.

10:18 AM, June 20, 2011  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Mark Liberman tackles the ask and finds it to be a complicated, often-coined noun with fairly specialized meanings.

8:44 PM, June 20, 2011  
Anonymous Old Word Wolf said...

Thanks for the refer. I'm a big fan of LL, but missed that one.

7:51 PM, June 22, 2011  

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