'Verbing weirds language'

This happens to be post number 666, so you might want to take whatever precautions you customarily resort to for warding off the Evil One.

A listener to Midday at WYPR-FM on National Grammar Day sent in this comment, which we lacked time to get to:

No discussion on the phenomenon pointed out by Calvin in Bill Watterson's comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes." Verbing, or the process of making nouns into verbs (such as "access" or, as you discussed, "graduate") is a phenomenon of English that doesn't really exist in other languages. In the words of Calvin, "Verbing weirds language."

I can’t speak for other languages, but the transformation of nouns into verbs and verbs into nouns is certainly commonplace in English. The Oxford Companion to the English Language describes this particular category of word formation as conversion or functional shift. In functional shift, a word extends its grammatical category. Oxford mentions the verb run becoming a noun — go for a run — and the noun position becoming a verb — positioning people.

An allied phenomenon is called back-formation, which Oxford describes as “creation of a simpler or shorter form from a pre-existing more complex form: edit from editor. …” And you’ll notice that edit can be a verb, for the action, or a noun, for the result.

The ambiguity resulting from this grammatical two-facedness enriches the possibility for wordplay. It also increases the headaches of headline writers, who are forever stumbling into some unintended double entendre:

Minneapolis bars putting leaves in streets (bars as a verb for prohibits and as a noun for saloons).

Governor offers rare opportunity to goose hunters (goose as a noun for the bird being hunted or as a verb for a familiarity that should not be encouraged in governors).

Textron Inc. makes offer to screw company stockholders (Textron was angling to buy a company that manufactures screws).

Proceed with caution.



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