Verbing and nouning are fine and here’s a quiz

May 16, 2018

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:

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‘You just say what’s in your squanch’

March 24, 2016

Last year I shared a scene from Rick and Morty that contained a series of nonsense words like plumbus, schleem, and blamf. It was probably my least popular post in years. Undeterred, I’m featuring the show again. (I hadn’t seen it in November; now I have.)

In an episode called ‘The Wedding Squanchers’ we’re introduced to the cat-like character Squanchy on Planet Squanch and, more to the point, to the improbably versatile word squanch.

The word’s hyperpolysemy quickly becomes a running gag. Squanchy tells Rick his house party is squanchy and that he likes Rick’s squanch (style, I think). Then a specific verb use of squanch takes us into adult territory. Well, it is Adult Swim.

Rick and Morty - The Wedding Squanchers on Planet Squanch - Adult Swim

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Sparsed and cahooted

April 13, 2012

I encountered two unusual derivations in prominent places last week, and want to note them briefly.

First, Laura Slattery’s Irish Times report (5 April 2012) about investigative journalism by RTÉ, the state broadcaster, contains the following line:

New investigative television documentaries from the unit will be “sparsed throughout the year”, according to RTÉ director general Noel Curran.

The adjective sparse, meaning dispersed or (thinly) scattered, is common enough. It comes from Latin sparsus, past participle of spargere “scatter”. But sparsed is much rarer. The OED dates the participial adjective to the late-16th century and calls it “rare or obsolete”, and the verb sparse to around the same time: M16–E17.

COHA has no matches for sparsed or sparse (v.), which surprised me given their semantic transparency. But the form does appear online; there are other instances of “sparsed throughout”, for example.


Nick McGivney on Twitter drew my attention to cahoot (v.), a creative shortening of the phrase be in cahoots, meaning be in partnership, often secretly. On the RTE Radio 1 show Drivetime (4 April 2012, at 1:42:50 approx.), Michael Fitzmaurice of the Irish Turf Cutters and Contractors Association said:

Out of the blue yesterday, both the EU and the Irish government cahooted together and decided, “Naw, we’re not goin’ to let ye cut yeer turf.”*

Cahooted here seems to have been used as a synonym for conspired or colluded, but perhaps with slightly different connotations in the speaker’s idiolect. Cahoot(s) (n.) first appeared as U.S. slang, possibly from French cahute (cabin, hut) or cohorte.

I found no evidence of the verb cahoot on COHA either, though again it appears informally online; Wiktionary has an example from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “our leaders were lying, tricking and cahooting with Halliburton”. But the usage is sparse.


* yeer means your (plural) and was formed from ye by analogy with your. Both ye and yeer are common in colloquial Hiberno-English.

The unbelievable sooth

August 10, 2011

A letter in a local newspaper last week (Galway Advertiser, 4 August 2011) contained a sentence with an unusual feature:

After his own campaign team had abandoned him, it must have provided some sooth for David Norris that the woman who had denied him the chance to speak to Galway City Council was still tirelessly canvassing for support.

I was struck by the use of sooth as an apparent synonym for comfort, solace or consolation. If this sooth was inferred from soothe (v.), as I suspect it was, then it is a novel usage – novel to me at least.

Since it changes the word’s category, I thought at first it might be a derivation or back-formation. Some sources, however, say derivation and back-formation require, respectively, the addition and removal of an affix; the –e in soothe does not seem to be an affix (see below).

Sooth and soothe have a close historical connection: sooth is an archaic word meaning truth, fact, or verity, familiar from words like forsooth and soothsayer (and with related adjectival and adverbial senses, also archaic), while soothe originally meant prove or show to be true before it took on the sense placate, relieve, comfort.

I find sooth in various corpora used mostly either in the nominal sense of truth (often “in sooth”) or as a variant of the verb soothe. There was also a sooth (n.) meaning “flattery, blandishments” (OED), but this is hardly what the letter-writer intended: its meaning doesn’t quite fit, and its short-lived currency was 400 years ago.

The new sooth may have been formed by unconscious analogy with any one or several of the comparable pairs that feature voiced/voiceless th, such as bathe/bath, breathe/breath, clothe/cloth, loathe/loath, swathe/swath.

This presentation (PDF, p. 4) describes such differences as “consonant modification”, falling under “non-concatenative morphology”, but there may be a more straightforward way to consider or describe the example I’ve quoted.

Readers: Have you ever used or seen this sense of sooth before?

And if the –e in soothe and related words is not an affix, is it just a residual mark of lost inflections from Old English, or how best might it be analysed?

Out-physicalled and out-verbed

November 15, 2010

After a rugby match between Ireland and Samoa over the weekend, I heard the analyst Conor O’Shea say the following about the Irish team’s performance:

We were out-physicalled.

That’s a novel verbing, I thought. Then I realised it had almost certainly been coined before, no doubt in a sporting context. Sure enough, searching for the phrase online, I found many reported instances of its use – usually in reference to a team sport like rugby, football/soccer, American football, or ice hockey. For example:

“We were out-physicalled and out-toughed,” said Smith (Lansing State Journal)

“It was all up front, we were just out-physicalled,” said Washington State coach Paul Wulff. “That was probably the first time this year where we got that physicalled.” (Seattle Times)

“I don’t think anybody’s really out-physicalled us — and I don’t know if that’s even a word — until today in the first half,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. (News Observer)

“We got out-physicalled a little bit. If we get out-physicalled by Menasha, it’s going to be a close game.” (Post Crescent)

The Buffaloes, no matter how inspired they may be are simply going to be out coached, out physicalled and out willed in this match up. (Clone Chronicles)

“I think we were just outplayed and out-physicalled and out-everythinged,” Kempe said. (The Dartmouth)

“They out-executed us, outplayed us, out-physicalled us, out-coached us,” Stoops said. (San Jose Mercury News)

The International Division championship game for the Chevron Cup was perhaps even more physical, as the Tokyo Canadians “out-physicalled” EHC Affoltern en route to a 4-1 win. (Chiangmai Mail)

The last quote dates from November 2002, showing that out-physicalled has already been around a while; and in the phrase “even more physical” it offers a clue to the term’s derivation. Sports discussions often include expressions like “It was a very physical game” and “They’re a very physical side [team]”. Physical in this sense is shorthand for physically strong, tough, or demanding.

To be out-physicalled, then, means that your opponents have the edge in terms of physical force or performance. Sports journalist Chris Rattue pointed out its euphemistic possibilities in a New Zealand Herald article in June last year:

My favourite new word, or is it two words, is out-physicalled. It is a nice way of saying you got beaten up on the footy field.

Other noteworthy (but unverified) quotes I found include Terry Venables’ tautological remark: “Physically, they’ve out-physicalled them”; and Chris Hughes’ rule-busting set: “Mill River beat up on us. They out-physicalled us and out-sized us and out-quicked us in just about every facet of the game.”

It’s interesting how often out-physicalled is used as part of a pair or longer series of out-verbings. Something about the rhythm of these sentences seems to invite such constructions; they’re almost like a chant or a slogan. And the adjective physical isn’t just getting verbed – it has been inflected to form a comparative adjective:

He was bigger, stronger, physicaler at the point of attack. (News Observer blog)

More physical would be the normal comparative adjective phrase here, but the meaning of physicaler is clear, despite its irregularity.

Though sports commentary and punditry sometimes plumb the desperate shallows of cliché and tedium, they can also be a rich and amusing source of linguistic invention. Coupled with enthusiasm and insight, they can render an analyst’s observations more entertaining than the sport itself.

Update: Ben Zimmer wrote an excellent article about out-physical on his Word Routes blog at the Visual Thesaurus back in October 2008. The phrase is even older than I thought. Much older…