The Verb

Why do we sound so dumb when we talk about communication? Maybe because our verbs aren't really verbs.

It was early in 1969, and William Morris had a language to fix. On his desk, at 72 West 45th street in New York, was a stack of ballots, letters and interview notes from 104 of America's most important users-of-words. A writer for the New Yorker had written to campaign against the use of "senior citizen." The editor of Harper's magazine was lobbying for the use of "escalate" as a verb. Isaac Asimov had emphatically expressed his deep hatred of "finalize"; David Oglivy, the father of modern advertising, said of "hopefully": "If your dictionary could kill this horror, and do nothing else, it would be worth publishing."

These were the results of the first American Heritage Dictionary's Usage Panel, which has assembled most years since to decide which words belong in the English language, and which don't.

Today, even more so than in 1969, endeavors like this are mostly formalities--opportunities for a small group of people to comment on, rather than change, the tides of language. The only usage panel that matters today is open-admission: email, Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. It’s very good at anointing new words to talk about new ideas. It’s bad at finding words to talk about itself.

One of the more contentious candidates in 1969 is a word we take for granted today: contact. The verb, not the noun, which has been in common usage since the 1600s. In the 1800s, people started using it as a verb, meaning "to bring or place in contact," which didn't seem to bother anyone. But by the ‘60s, people had started saying the word to mean "to communicate with," as in "contact me." The Panel could not abide this: It was voted down, 66 percent to 34 percent.

"Getting in contact" eventually made the cut in 1988, but by then it was too late: This noun had been verbed. Says the 1996 edition of the American Heritage Book of English Usage:

[The vagueness of "contact"] is a virtue in an age in which forms of communication have proliferated. The sentence 'we will contact you when the part comes in" allows for a variety of possible ways to communicate: by mail, telephone, computer or fax.'

What the panel couldn't have known was that "contact" may have been one of our last hopes for a sane way to talk about communication. Today we don't so much get in contact as we email (is that even a word?) text (a noun), message (barely a verb), Tweet (a brand) or Facebook (an admission of defeat). The only seemingly perfect electronic communication verb still in use--and, it’s worth noting, a verb before it was a noun--is "to call," but who even does that anymore?


Nouns that have been "verbed" are known to linguists as denominal verbs, and they're everywhere: repurpose; boycott; boss; deplane; blanket; skin; label; juice; water; bribe; arm; book; bottle, can, package; author; blanket. You could list (there's one!) these for miles.

Eve Clark is the linguist who wrote the rulebook for verbing with Herbert Clark in 1979. According to their "Innovative Denominal Verb Convention," the most important thing is that people understand what you mean. In standard English, that means your verb-noun should be connected with a well-known action, like text to texting. With your friends, it can be an inside joke, or a person's name. ("Jesus, he really Wagnered it at the bar the other night, etc.")

Linguists hate it when you call this "nerbing"

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