Verbing. What a wonderful thing! So useful, so economical, so inventive.
Well, I think so, anyway.
Two examples I came across recently – to slime and to black-box – made me want to blog about them and it.
On the BBC Radio Four programme Gardener’s Question Time yesterday (17 July 2022), one of their polymathic presenters was talking about pest control and graphically described checking slugs, ‘which direction they’re slimeing* out from’ (09:25ish). That verb graphically turns the revolting sliminess of slugs into a living action which is even more sinister and disgusting than the destructive little molluscs themselves.
(*I’ve kept the –e of the noun to make it easier to read it as it sounds, but according to the rules it shouldn’t really be there.)
Before I checked, I assumed to slime was a creative one-off, but no, the OED has two entries. The first goes back to the seventeenth century and is similar to Frisian and German terms. The examples for uses similar to the one I enjoyed are both nineteenth-century:
a. To make (one’s way) in a slimy fashion.
Stealthily, serpently, he slimed his way Unto the pay-master.1842 Tait’s Edinb. Mag. 9 374
b. intransitive. To crawl slimily; to become slimy.
The happy insouciance of a snail ‘sliming’ up the side of the Parthenon.
1851 G. H. Kingsley in Fraser’s Mag. Aug. 146/2
The OED also lists a second verb to slime, apparently Harrovian (that is, relating to Harrow, the famous public school) slang:
intransitive. To move in a gliding, stealthy, or sneaking manner.
His ‘house~beak’ ‘slimed’ (went round quietly) and ‘twug’ him.1898 E. W. Howson & G. T. Warner Harrow School 282
When he does come over on our side of the House, he slimes about in carpet slippers.
1905 H. A. Vachell Hill i
(I suspect being ‘twugged’ as in the first example is something one would do anything to avoid.)
The OED labels this public-school to slime as ‘of unknown origin’, but couldn’t it be just a specific application of the other to slime?
The other example of verbing which tickled my palate was from an interview between Professors Jim Al-Khalili and Adam Hart on the BBC’s The Life Scientific programme. The discussion was about bees and whether and to what extent they might be thought to possess any kind of consciousness.
At about 20:12 into the programme:
‘You can start to blackbox it out, as to what a honeybee’s brain must be capable of, and it starts to become really quite complex and some of the things are really very finely tuned, so, yeah, there’s a lot going inside a group of neurons not much bigger than a pinhead.’
Although we are most likely to associate black boxes with air crashes, to ‘black-box it out’ here derives from the following meaning of black box as defined by the OED:
‘A device which performs intricate functions but whose internal mechanism may not readily be inspected or understood; (hence) any component of a system specified only in terms of the relationship between inputs and outputs.’
What is verbing?
As per my two examples – and if you haven’t come across the term before – it is a noun that denotes the action of taking a word that wasn’t a verb before and converting it into one.
A now ubiquitous example of this phenomenon is to access. It had been used as a noun since about 1300, but it took until 1953 for it to be used as a verb in the meanings now familiar to us of being able to get hold of information, log on to a site and various related senses.
As an aside, it is worth noting that the verbal noun verbing is an example of the phenomenon it describes and is therefore one of a small group of words that are autological.
When was that name of verbing coined?
The verbal noun verbing is first cited a surprisingly long time ago, in 1766
As to the Nouning and Verbing, which he so heavily charged you with, I told him..that you never confounded Grammar.R. Griffith & E. Griffith Lett. Henry & Frances IV. 60
But, as the OED notes, it was ‘rare before [the] late 20th cent[ury].
And there’s the rub.
Some people detest this phenomenon. There is no particular reason why they should, except that once a feature of language is visibly or vocally shunned, fatwas against it take on a life of their own.
Hostility to it then becomes part of the body of language features that annoy those who wish to be annoyed.
Various usage guides have taken exception to it, the earliest noted by the Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage being the 1972 edition of Strunk and White. Rather than wholesale condemnation, specific verbs are usually targeted.
Indeed, three examples in the OED suggest hostility to it. The first two are not far removed in time from Strunk and White, are from publications about language and implicitly criticise a specific example.
Under to access:
A friend reports that he has recently heard access frequently used as a verb. For instance,..You can access the information if you dial 626, or, It is now possible for you to access details of recent sales by calling Mr. Jones.
1977 T. M. Bernstein Dos, Donts & Maybes of Eng. Usage 78
The University of California at Berkeley..announces the hours during which its business office ‘may be accessed’.
1978 Verbatim Feb. 1/2
Under the entry for verbing, examples of the process are given:
I think it’s worth wondering about role models. Or about role modeling if you belong to the ‘interfacing’, ‘accessing’, ‘networking’ school of verbing.
1985 Washington Post 27 May a19/3
I have no date for the probably apocryphal anecdote about the American student who arrived in Oxford and wished to contact their prospective tutor to let them know. The arch-Oxonian and arch Oxonian rejoinder was:
‘I am delighted that you have arrived in Oxford. The verb “to contact” has not.’
Other names for verbing
In usage guides, you may find the phenomenon dealt with under the heading ‘Nouns as Verbs’. Garner’s Legal Usage has several arguably useful examples under that heading, such as to be air-expressed and to be out-box-officed, but Garner ponderously warns:
‘Though writers refer to fast-tracking budgets, tasking committees, and mainstreaming children, English is generally inhospitable to this sort of jargonistic innovation. Legal writers should be wary of adopting usages of this kind.’
The metaphor of a language being ‘inhospitable’ fulfils the long-established conceptual metaphor of a language being a living thing. However, it cannot disguise the fact that it is certain speakers of the language, not the language itself, that shun verbing.
Does it only affect nouns?
No. Verbing is one example of a larger process whereby the you can change the word class of any word according to need. The technical linguistic name for this process is conversion (1928) or, less commonly, zero-derivation (1960).
Although noun to verb conversion is probably the most common application of the process, adjectives can become verbs, e.g. to dirty, verbs can become nouns, e.g. a must, and even conjunctions can become nouns and verbs as in but me no buts (1629). Shakespeare was certainly no stranger to verbing.
Almost finally, whatever opinion one may have about individual instances of this highly productive feature of English, we couldn’t really get by without it. What follows are a few examples from different editions of Fowler to highlight (noun 1658; verb 1881, but 1963 to mean with a marker) the phenomenon and prove the point:
Fowler himself didn’t refer to the phenomenon in the 1926 edition. What he did do, however, was to provide a long list of well-established-in-his-day words which are both noun and verb and where the stress changes from one to the other, normally on the first syllable for the noun and the second for the verb, e.g:
and so forth.
Gowers left it at that, but Burchfield added an entry on conversion in which he listed some common noun-verb pairs to illustrate how long the historical process might take, with the noun shown first, e.g:
- chair – before 1297/1552
- elbow – Old English/Shakespeare, 1608
- inconvenience – c.1400/before 1656
I’ve updated his dates in line with OED 3.
Almost finally again, of the forty-seven verbs created since 2000 that my OED search retrieves (there must be others, surely?) nineteen are formed directly from nouns or from verbal nouns, e.g. to bling, to crowdfund, to Skype, to hashtag, to virtue signal, etc.
And finally finally, the last OED example under the entry verbing reinforces the point most elegantly:
Verbing is an honoured literary tradition… See Plutarch’s Lives Englished by Sir Thomas North in 1579.
2010 Times 2 Mar. 23/5