New words enter English in a variety of ways. They may be imported (import); compounded (download); clipped (totes); affixed (globalisation), acronymised (radar); blended (snowmageddon); back-formed (donate); reduplicated (mishmash); coined (blurb); or formed from onomatopoeia (cuckoo), proper nouns (algorithm), folk etymology (shamefaced), or semantic shift (nice, starve).
Another important source is when a word in one grammatical class is used in another: this is called functional shift, because the word shifts function. A noun becomes an adjective, a verb becomes a noun, and so on. It’s also called conversion and zero derivation – because a new word is derived without any inflection or affixation.
Linguistic conservatives often object to the process. At every Olympic games, for example, people complain about medal being verbed, blithely unaware that the usage dates to at least 1860, when W. M. Thackeray wrote, ‘Irving went home medalled by the king’. From my A–Z of English usage myths:
Functional shift is hugely important for producing vocabulary and has always been integral to the health and growth of English. Not always predictably: schedulize ‘make a schedule’ became a verb in 1832 but didn’t take; decades later, schedule was verbed by conversion and gradually caught on.
Pretty much anything can be verbed, as competent writers well know. In the great western Shane, Jack Schaefer verbs seems:
‘Seems to you, eh?’ said father. ‘Seems to me you’re mighty young to be doing much seemsing.’
A.M. Homes, in This Book Will Save Your Life, verbs the phrase shall I:
‘There’s one in the kitchen. Shall I put the groceries away?’
‘Shall I’—where is this guy from? Most people can’t speak English at all, and not only does he speak it, but he ‘shall I’s.
‘Yes, that would be lovely.’
So don’t hesitate to change a word’s grammatical category to suit your expressive needs. As long as the meaning is clear and the context is appropriate, convert and play to your heart’s content.
With this in mind, I wrote a quiz for Macmillan Dictionary on nouning and verbing, two common types of functional shift. It presents 10 words used as both nouns and verbs, and asks which came first. After answering, you’ll learn a little about the history of each usage. You may be surprised by some of them. I was.
Let me know how you get on. And if you’re in the mood for more language quizzes, Macmillan has lots more here.
Quiz, incidentally, has been a noun since at least 1780 (in the now-archaic sense ‘eccentric person’) and was verbed soon afterwards, in 1787 (‘tease, mock’). The ‘set of questions’ sense and the related verb emerged some decades later.