Verb all the things

Lauren Beukes’s novel Broken Monsters has a short passage on business jargon and young people’s attitudes to it. Layla, a character in her mid-teens, is visiting her friend Cas and introduces Cas’s father:

Her dad is a tech-preneur. Name a major company in Silicon Valley and he’s ‘pulled a stint there’ – his words. It’s why they moved from Oakland, California. Detroit is friendlier to start-ups: lower overheads, tax incentives, hungry talent, cheap office space in TechTown. He’s bought into the city’s revitalization ‘with bells on’. Layla loves hearing him talk. It’s another language, where any word can be verbed. She and Cas have a secret drinking game they play during dinner, taking a sip of juice every time he uses techno jargon like ‘angel-investor’.

‘How’s Crater going?’ Layla asks him, trying to remember the name of his big start-up project.

‘Curatr,’ he corrects her automatically, rolling the trrrr.

Some examples certainly qualify as tech jargon or terminology: the portmanteau tech-preneur and the fictional brand Curatr, with its fashionably dropped vowel (cf. Flickr, Tumblr, Grindr, Qzzr). TechTown, meanwhile, is a real-life hub for entrepreneurship in Detroit, notable in this context for its CamelCase style.

Other examples cited – pulled a stint, with bells on, angel investor – are not what I’d consider tech jargon, but the passage is from Layla’s pov, so I figure it’s more that she has only heard these phrases from Cas’s dad and associates them with his industry.

Her observation about verbing applies to English more generally.

But I suppose the point is that tech execs (and managers, advertisers, etc.) are more likely to do it with abandon, and that when you’re a teenager and it’s your dad or your friend’s dad, it can be a particular source of interest, embarrassment, or entertainment.

It’s refreshing to see this form of language, so often maligned, portrayed positively. I’m reminded of a cartoon by Dana Fradon included in The New Yorker Cartoon Album 1975–1985:

Two businessmen are in a room. One on the right stands, smiling slightly, facing the one on the left, who is bald and sits behind a large desk in front of a window. The one sitting says, "You're a good man, Washbourne. I like the way you use nouns as verbs."

[Caption: “You’re a good man, Washbourne. I like the way you use nouns as verbs.”]

Novel verbing can lend oomph to mundane moments. Here is George Pelecanos describing a car being started in Drama City:

Miller ignitioned the 330i and drove north

It can make a description concise and precise: Jenny Diski, in Stranger on a Train, revives an obscure old verb from maths:

The train traveller pores over the timetable and arithmetises away

Introducing a quiz on nouning and verbing that I made for Macmillan Dictionary, I wrote that ‘pretty much anything can be verbed, as competent writers well know’. That post features verbings of seems by Jack Schaefer and shall I by A.M. Homes.

But really this is something many of us do all the time as we express ourselves:

What have you verbed lately?


25 Responses to Verb all the things

  1. jb says:

    I translated a book recently and – only barely – resisted the temptation to signal my contribution with an “Englished by JB.”

  2. You are inspiring me to work on this skill!

    • Stan Carey says:

      Happy upskilling! Your comment made me wonder about plain skill as a verb: it turns out ‘to skill of’ or ‘to skill in’ something used to mean to have knowledge of or skill in it. The usage is long obsolete, according to the OED.

  3. astraya says:

    I have a nagging memory that I’ve verbed something quite spectacularly recently, but can’t remember what it is.

    Steven Pinker makes the point that all verbed nouns are regular. Although ‘fly out to center’ (in baseball, so I’ll use ‘center’) is based on the irregular verb fly, this usage is a new verb based on a noun based on the original verb, so the batter always ‘flied out to center’. He says the only person who ever ‘flew out to center’ was Superman.

  4. Traduttrice says:

    I recently found the expression “synchronized bunnying” as a caption on a post showing two bunnies lying close to each other in exactly the same position. I love it, but I still haven’t succedded in translating (germaning?) this verbed noun into German, my mother tongue.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Hard to do it tidily, I imagine (with my limited German).

      A fun fact about bunny: it was a term of endearment (1606) before it was a pet name for a rabbit (1699), if the OED’s dates hold up.

      • Traduttrice says:

        I love these little fun/bun facts and I’m always happy to meet people who love language as much as I do. Some things, however, just can’t be translated such as Santa Paws which is another excellent play of words. Unfortunately the German movie was titled “Santa Pfote” and thus the pun got lost in translation.

  5. astraya says:

    My English-as-a-second-language-speaker wife very often uses nouns when she should use verbs, but in different ways than you’re discussing here and in ways no English speaker would. For example, she’ll say things like ‘Can you choice what you want to eat?’. I can’t imagine the man in the cartoon saying ‘We need to choice our marketing strategy.

    Interestingly, Korean has many verbs made by a noun + a verb which basically means ‘do’, so sarang-haeyo is essentially ‘(I) love-do (you)’. Google Translate tells me that there are two Korean verbs for ‘choose’, one of which is in this form and the other of which is a ‘real verb’ (non-technical term). English verbs borrowed into Korean often take the form noun + haeyo, so shawo-haeyo (shower – is that a noun or a verb?) and, strangely, shoping-heayo (shopping > I shop, I go shopping, I do the shopping).

  6. rcalmy says:

    I recently verbed a proper noun. I described getting rid of something as Marie-Kondoing it out of my life.

  7. Stan Carey says:

    One I saw at the weekend, in James Ellroy’s Destination: Morgue!:

    Dave said he’d glom some trusties and forensic the pad.

  8. ktschwarz says:

    A couple of thoughts about verbing: First, your examples all have some verbal inflection, and that’s probably a necessary clue for the reader: “he ignitioned the car” works, “I ignition the car” is a lot more doubtful.

    Second, competent writers also know that verbing needs to be used very sparingly. It jumps out and demands extra work from the reader, so it gets tiring fast. When it’s done with restraint, that extra effort makes the sentence memorable. I’ve always remembered this sentence from a cookbook:

    Fats help to keep breads from drying out quickly because they hang on to moisture (that’s why the fatless French bread stales in a day).

    See also Language Hat on “scant” as a verb.

    • Stan Carey says:

      While the inflection is certainly a helpful clue, I don’t see it as a necessary one: syntax would guide most readers to a ready understanding of ‘I ignition the car’.

      I like the stales example. It’s not a verb I ever remember seeing, but (unsurprisingly) it’s been around for centuries in multiple senses. When writing for an audience, restraint in verbing is usually wise; in everyday informal speech, verb away.

  9. Bob Krawczyk says:

    I verbed “early” to a friend last week, but it was mostly because I know it bothers her. “Let’s early this”, I said, wanting to advance the timing of our dinner engagement.

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