Monday, September 13, 2010

Verb That Noun!

A recent newspaper ad for a bank had a headline that read: "Feel the EARN" (the point being that its CDs would earn high yields for the investor).  It’s an example of what is called “conversion” (or “anthimeria” if you want to be grammatically technical)—the use of one part of speech as if it were another.  In this case the verb earn is used like a noun.

Some people deplore this practice.  I have friends who grow livid with rage, with flaming daggers shooting from their eyes and smoke emanating from their ears, if anyone uses contact, access, or impact as a verb.  Others regard such conversions as a natural evolution of language or perhaps as creative poetry.  Will Shakespeare was especially fond of turning nouns into verbs, with such locutions as: 

            "Season your admiration for a while..."
            "It out-herods Herod..."
            "No more shall trenching war channel her fields..."
            "Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle..."
            "Julius Caesar / Who at Philippi the good Brutus     
            "Destruction straight shall dog them at the heels..."
            "I am proverbed with a grandsire phrase..."
            “The hearts that spaniel’d me at heels”.

Tom McArthur in The Oxford Companion to the English Language writes, “Conversion has for centuries been a common means of extending the resources of English and creating dramatic effects: It is often said that there is no noun in English that can't be verbed: bag a prize, doctor a drink, soldier on.”  

Ben Zimmer, writing in The New York Times, pointed out a new verb now used in Oympic sports: to podium. To medal has been around for a while, and will surely soon by followed by such verbs as to Oscar, to Tony, to Grammy, to Emmy, to Pulitzer, and to Nobel.

Conversion works the other way as well, with verbs changed into nouns, e.g. "a good read," "an invite to the party," "it's a go," "come in and have a sit," "take a bite," "I went for a long run and a short walk."  Some are jocular but others are now standard.

Adjectives are also getting into the swing of things, becoming nouns in phrases like "my bad," "come here, my pretty," and "do you want a long or a short?" Sometimes nouns become adjectives: kitchen sink, church music, theatre party, voice mail, text message, computer screen.

It’s all a bit much for the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who has enough trouble as it is, sorting out all the parts of speak.

            There was a little noun, who said, “I’d like to be a verb,
            And learn to run, and jump, and skip—oh, that would be superb!”
            And so he practiced every day, to try to learn to move,
            For he supposed that if he could, then that would surely prove
            That as a verb he’d be the very best you ever saw,
            And all the other parts of speech would simply stand in awe.

            Alas, it worked out otherwise—his efforts met defeat:
            Before that noun could even crawl, why, he was obsolete.


  1. Meant to write about my co-worker at the marketing agency who coined the verbed noun, "lowdown."

    "I’ll be back to lowdown you about the project in a minute."

    "Yo, can you lowdown me about our dinner plans?"

    OTHER (for a catty happy-hour conversation about celebrities swimming in debt, for instance):
    "I lowdowned the downtown Brown crowd on JLo’s loan drown, Me-ow!"

  2. "Lowdown" seems analagous to "update," which I think has a fairly firm foothold as a verb.