Nouning

Cunning Linguists.

Eve and Herbert Clark, two Stanford professors, have spent their careers studying linguistics among other things. In 1979, they collaborated on a paper in the journal Language titled “When Nouns Surface as Verbs.” In it, they list some 1,300 examples of nouns-turned-verbs.

They’re of the mind that MacGyvering the language is not only OK. It’s natural.

“You can try being prescriptive because you like your particular brand of English, let’s say from when you were growing up. Or you just say, ‘Look, languages change. Different groups become fashionable,'” says Eve Clark who was the lead author on that 1979 paper. “Most linguists I know just say ‘Look, language change is a fact of life.’ What we want to do is track what the usage is, not try to put things back 50 years or 100 years.”

“People who have been prescriptivists [those who consider one type of language as better, or more correct] are typically not linguists. They tend to be like English teachers or writing instructors who are just tired of seeing sloppy writing” says Herb Clark, who is a professor of psychology with a specialty in psycholinguistics. “Their prescriptions are usually just the wrong prescriptions.”

Anyone can twist nouns into verbs and do it well. Some restrictions apply. If there’s already a shortened version of the noun you’re wanting to convert, it’s probably not a good idea to muddy the waters. You don’t airplane to Barbados. You fly there.

Most important, your new word has to be instantly understandable to your audience. That might be easier to pull off than you think.

Eve Clark studies children and their unique grasp on the language. Though kid-talk may not seem particularly proper to some and much of it vanishes as kids age, it more than does the job of getting a point across.

“Kids are fabulous. They think nothing of innovating with nouns as verbs. This is just trivial for them” Herb says. “They will do things that adults cannot do.”

One such invention is what Eve calls “characteristic activity,” assigning a verb to a noun based on that object’s perceived activity. “So the flag is flagging, the cement truck is cementing” Eve says. “They’ve heard things like ‘Brush your hair,’ ‘Give me the brush,’ so they know there are lots of these pairings around. So they just extend that, very readily.”

What is kids’ play then, becomes easy for adolescents and then young adults. Now, the young adults growing up with social media and the Internet have avenues to broadcast their wordsmithing that nobody had in 1979.

That new, easy way of communicating has sparked new denominals as well. Much the way the advent of computers ushered in such now common noun-turned-verbs as “keyboarding” and faxing,” the Internet has brought us “emailing” and “blogging” (from “Web log”). Social media has given us “tweeting” and “posting.” All have their roots in nouns.

It’s not so far removed from ploughing or churning or even earlier, stoning. Even earlier than that: raining.

“I don’t think,” Eve says of the noun-to-verb, “that they’ve actually changed very much.”

So when you hear that a friend is Netflixing out for the night, or that a nervous roommate is Mentosing up for his date, know that it’s nothing new. Those innovators are simply following the natural order of the language. They’re just Darwinning.

(P.S. Well the word “verb” is after all, a noun.)


 

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