Wednesday, March 23, 2011

To verb like no one has verbed before

The English language is always adding new words to its lexicon and it's also quite partial to using existing words in new ways: we're all aware of lexical and semantic changes and can probably point to several new words or new meanings that we've spotted every month, whether it's a charming new (?) word for stabbing someone or a knife used to do it (nank), a word to describe an attractive member of the opposite sex (reem, choong or boom) or an old word like optics used in a strange new context (to describe public perception of a war event) .

But English is also pretty flexible in its adaptation of a word from one class to another, something that's generally called conversion or functional shift, but which has often been called verbing too. It's probably worth being clear here that we're not talking about derivational morphology where a word is altered so it functions in a new word class (like walk - walker, run - runner, smile - smiler) but a straightforward shift from (usually) a noun to a verb without any extra bits (morphemes) being added.

On Radio 4's Today Programme this morning, a housing expert talked about the process of staircasing and referred to shared ownership buyers who staircase their share of a property. The process is probably familiar to lots of public sector workers (including me) who have found that shared ownership is about the only way they could afford to buy a house of their own, but clearly sounded a bit odd to the presenter, John Humphrys, who needed an explanation of this term.

Jonathan Marks on the MacMillan Dictionary blog has looked at other examples of this process in a number of posts about the subject and he provides lots of good illustrations. Have a look here, here and here to see what kinds of examples he cites.

It's also interesting to look up some examples in the OED and see if you can see which usage came first. I was under the impression that to ramp was a fairly recent verb ("to ramp up prices") and it may be fairly recent in its use as a phrasal verb (with the up particle) but its use as a verb predates its appearance as a noun by about 300 years, although the various different meanings of the word may slightly complicate that.

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