A WORD IN THE HAND: VERBING
When perfectly decent nouns get a right rogering
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
Eusebius McKaiser is one of the most eloquent people on radio, which is why it surprised me when I heard him say on air that Patricia de Lille had been “cliffed”.
Surely he meant to say “pushed off a cliff”? When a person has been thrown out of a window we might get all fancy and say that they have been defenestrated, but I’ve never heard of any poor soul being windowed.
I wondered for a moment if this use of cliff might be a new eponym, in other words a word derived from a person’s name. To “mantashe” is an eponym that has recently become popular to describe the act of changing one’s mind frequently, and plenty of other leaders’ names have joined the trend. In the same vein, I thought “cliff” might have come into use after Gareth Cliff was axed from Idols, until he wasn’t.
But upon further reflection it became clear that the esteemed Eusebius was simply indulging in a spot of verbing. This is the act of turning a noun into a verb, and it’s been happening for centuries.Those who study grammar as a profession call verbing “denominalisation”. Word nerds would have noted that verbing has itself been verbed, because a verb is a noun until it is turned into the verb “to verb”. Try reading that sentence out loud as fast as you can and listeners might mistake you for a person from Bolivia – but verbing is still easier to say than “denominalising”.
Natural features such as cliffs are not the most popular targets of verbing, although there are exceptions – water, field, stone, grass and stream come to mind, all of which are very useful verbs.
Speaking of streaming, you’d think rivering would be the next big thing when it came to getting more data more quickly than your neighbour, but clearly this has yet to catch on.
Household items have been verbed till the kettles come home. You can cushion a blow, couch an emperor, table a motion, chair a meeting or shelve your plans.
Clothing has given us many verbs: you can skirt a dodgy area, collar a fugitive or cap a benefit. (Or get trousered, but that’s slightly off the subject.)
Animals have also been verbed. You can horse around, pig out, bear down, dog, parrot, and so on until the homeowners are completely cowed. So far, hedgehog is not used as a verb but I’m confident its time will come.Verbing really comes into its own, and in a very ugly way, in the business environment. One of the most abominable words to enter modern parlance has to be “dialoguing”. What on earth is wrong with mere talking, or even discussing?
In the corporate world, it is no longer enough to merely do something; you have to “action” it. And in some extreme cases even dialoguing will not suffice – if you really want to action something you must first “workshop” all the alternatives.
But wait now. It’s no good workshopping until you have “hubbed” your resources, meaning you have gathered everything/everyone together under one roof. Oh hang on, what I meant to say was “resource your business by hubbing it”.
And then there is sport. Those out of the buzzwording loop must have scratched their heads in puzzlement when commentators at recent major athletics events spoke of how the winners “podiumed” in order to be “medalled”.
Verbing is an ancient art that adds great breadth and richness to language, so I’m not complaining about it. I think cliffing is an elegant way to describe hoofing (there’s another one) a person out of their former place. But I do draw the line at hubbing. That’s just wrong.