Tuesday, April 13, 2010



In a meeting today, I heard a smart person use "wi-fi" as a verb, as in "we wi-fi'ed the room, and now it's functional." I died a little inside.

I try not to be a killjoy linguistic purist. As regular readers can probably tell, I usually judge word choice based on effectiveness, rather than 'correctness.' (I don't always get it right, but that's to be expected.) That's why I don't mind phrases like "an idea of such staggering wrongitude," since 'wrongitude' makes intuitive sense. (So does "a steaming pile of wrong," for that matter.) I'll admit getting annoyed at people who are just a little too enthusiastic about catching prepositions at the end of sentences, or who hold the injunction against splitting infinitives somewhere above "thou shalt not kill."

But there are limits. And wifi as a verb is just a steaming pile of wrong.

In the 90's, I occasionally heard someone use "calendar" as a verb, as in "I'll calendar that appointment." It always made me want to poke them with a sharp stick. I couldn't figure out what "calendar" accomplished that "schedule" didn't. Somehow, I don't have the same response to "google" as a verb, probably because there's no obvious, easy substitute. "I'll look it up online" is kinda clunky, and "I'll search for it" is misleading. "Google" also didn't have a common meaning independent of this usage. It referred to a seldom-used number, and occasionally it would become a modifier ("googly eyes"), but prior to the search engine I don't recall using either much. "Calendar," by contrast, was a perfectly ordinary noun.

Back then, I also heard students use "sex" as a verb, as in "they were drinking and sexing all weekend." It got the point across, I guess, but it never quite sounded right to me.

Admittedly, I've committed my share of crimes against verbs. I've used "Kubler-Ross" as a verb, as in "the department is still Kubler-Rossing outcomes assessment, but it'll get there." (Most of them are at the "bargaining" stage.) I thought of it as a species of gallows humor, but if someone were to wince, I couldn't argue the point. I also have a guilty fondness for the "so-with-a-dropped-predicate" structure made popular by Jennifer Aniston. ("I am so not going to do that.") Again, no argument with those who take offense; it's just useful for indicating where a metaphor would go if you could actually think of one.

I'm not claiming perfection here. If I were, I wouldn't have used "kinda" a few paragraphs ago. But even acknowledging the need for flexibility, some words just clang.

Technology can lend itself to some awkward constructions, just because it moves faster than the language. A few years ago, there was no need for a verb that meant "to install a wireless internet connection." Now, apparently, there is. "Text" became a verb not because of post-structuralism, but because of cell phones. I've made my peace with "texting" as a verb, just because I can't come up with a more elegant substitute. The meaning is specific, and I haven't found anything else that quite captures it. "Tweet" still strikes me as an inelegant term for posting on Twitter, but since "twit" is so much worse, I deal with it.

Wise and worldly readers, has anything clanged for you lately? I don't know if we can stop any of it, but just getting it out there can be weirdly therapeutic.

DD -- The number is Googol, not Google.

My current peeve is with the word "fail" used instead of "failure" though I am now informed that the meanings are slightly different...
Calendaring an appointment is linguistically not different to the usage "I'll diary that" or "can you diary that" both of which are in in common usage.

And I think no dictionary quite defines the phrase "epic fail" as this picture.

I'm still stuck on the verb to "reference." What's wrong with cite?
The more often someone uses metric as a noun, the less easy it is for me to hold them in high esteem.

Metric is a adjective and not a substitute for measurement or criterion.
When exactly did "an invitation" become "an invite" ? Sets my teeth on edge every time I hear it.
David, he said "refers to", which it does.
I've never heard it used before, but I have to admit, I am finding it difficult to think up a more elegant English-language expression to describe the process of giving a room wireless Internet.

Not every neologism that pushes our buttons is necessarily decline - that is the history of modernism right? Can't quite see the fuss with this one?
Sorry Pete, Merriam-Webster says 'metric' can be used as a noun too. They could be wrong, though. :)

"Every time" I hear prescrptivism, especially of the linguistic sort, I think about Language Log, which I use as a reference for how academics should blog.
In this case, you're talking about a fascinating feature of English. I'm a French-speaker. In my mind, this feature of English, among many others, may contribute to the vitality of your language to such a degree that it helps it being so dominant in different parts of the world. Conversely, French language ideology precludes this type of innovation and I think it may play a part in the losses suffered by my native language in the past little while.

You can resist the lure of language purism. It's just a question of maintaining the distance between your personal reactions (based on your enculturation) and what you tell others. Otherwise, a judgmental mode may set in and it might not be beneficial to anyone.
Why should cellphones be considered as unrelated to post-structuralism?
"...and whatnot." If I have to hear that in another speech given by a student, I might throw my dry erase markers at them. I hear "whatnot" more often than "like."
"Ask" as a noun.
Recently I've been hearing a lot of "grow the economy," which really grates on my ear. I also seem to hear the malapropism "step foot (in)" quite frequently on NPR, which I find irrationally irritating.

Responding to enkerli: prescriptivism is of course a methodological flaw for the linguist, which is why it's flogged out of LING 101 students. A truly descriptivist (socio)linguist would recognize, though, that attitudes of language purism do play a meaningful role in language: they stabilize the language within a particular discourse community (e.g. academia). Language change isn't something to value or denigrate: it just happens. (That's the whole point of the linguist's anti-prescriptivist attitude.)

As far as I can tell, DD's post isn't penalizing anybody for their individual language use. He's just expressing aesthetic distaste for certain turns of phrase that are alien to his idiolect... Surely that's an experience we can all relate to?

(On another topic: "metric" does have a well-defined meaning in mathematical contexts, which might be where Pete's peeve is coming from.)
People "diary" things? I don't think so, RJ. That's right up there with "calendar" as a wince-worthy neologism.

I have to admit, I take some joy in throwing out bits of l33tspeak or lolspeak lingo in my conversation, but only playfully. I'll even do it in class to wake up the students. Last night, I read a student paper that actually used the phrase "as u can see".

You're not Prince, dear student. Write the whole damned word or get your spell-check to fix these chatspeak tidbits in your end-of-term research paper!
Sad to say, this is probably a sign that we're all old and need to die soon, certainly including myself. English does this -- the classic paper is Clark & Clark (1971) - "When nouns surface as verbs" -- and sometimes it takes (e.g., "surface") and other times it doesn't (e.g., "calendar"). I suspect that, in general, if you hear it enough, it won't bother you.

For example, "email" as a verb used to make me cringe, but not it seems utterly acceptable.

This may be a link to the Clark & Clark paper, which is on JSTOR in any event: http://www.jstor.org/stable/412745?cookieSet=1
A "generational" argument could be made (by those who reify such categories) but this is also a neat case for the study of status and language. What a dean deems cringeworthy may be more "popular" (in a strong sense) than what s/he considers elegant. Many of us seem to be using register shifts in playful ways, demonstrating our mastery of multiple registers and "reaching out to" students. Yet our use of some registers, which may sound to us like playful reference may also sound like reappropriation of the most awkward kind.
If only we were able to accept that diversity of language codes is a richness and that, though it's completely inappropriate to use IMspeak in formal writing, nobody has the authority to dictate what people should say in informal speech (including broad meetings). The situations we're describing are very close to Ferguson's view of diglossia with lots of input from Labov's approach to linguistic variation. More than two "generations" later, we're still not letting it go.
The two words that perpetually grate on me when periodically used at my college are 'grow' and 'ask'. As noted above, I keep on hearing individuals say, "Let's grow this program." DD's blog post and most of the comments deal with verbifying (hey, I can make up words too!) nouns, but what about the reverse case? Whenever we have a meeting that involves requesting funds, I can count on someone referring to the request as an, 'ask', e.g., "We need to hit up Mr. Big Donor to help fund this project. Let's include $100,000 in the ask." Boy, that one hurts my innards way more than just about any other tortured use of our language.
"Verbifying" FTW!

(That's "For the win," which I had to look up).
I'm half-surprised that nobody has quoted C&H, yet. Somebody has to!
Ah, well... I'll do it, then.
Verbing weirds language.
Do you take objection to the term 'wired', as in "We wired the room with ethernet?" Because that's the background. A single word to describe installing network access to a room. As silly as inventing a new verb feels to you, saying you wired the room with wireless has to be the greater sin.
I'm waiting to hear "rubric" used as a verb.
In the world of event management, "let's send an evite" though not actually using evite.com kills me. Not a noun transforming to a verb but the loss of a proper noun. Ditto to "kleenex."

I also have a serious pet peeve of "that" when it should be "who." Especially from people who write for a living...goodness.
I hate it when someone starts a sentence with "too" instead of "also," even though I believe it is grammatically correct to do so. This happens more in written language. (For example: "Too, we should consider Shakespeare's personal history...") Shudder. And I can't stand "woot" either.
Not a linguist here, so please don't shoot. I'm can't speak for other Germanic languages, but Flemish has the amusing ability to verbify nouns either as a part of the standard language or to express something new on the fly. E.g., huis=house, ver- = implied action. Verhuis = relocate, change one's residence. This is what I see happening with
"she texted her friend" et al, without the benefit of a built-in grammatical partical that makes a noun into a verb, though we have the gerund to make verbs into nouns.
Back then, I also heard students use "sex" as a verb, as in "they were drinking and sexing all weekend." It got the point across, I guess, but it never quite sounded right to me.

I used to raise rabbits, and this sentence created an image of drunk college students turning some poor rabbit on its back and repeatedly poking its genital area in order to determine its sex. (This is, in my mind, what "sexing" as a verb implies.) As amusing as it is, I still feel sorry for the poor (imaginary) rabbit.
I have a lawyer/tech geek friend who actually dislikes "Google" as a verb. He is concerned "verb-ing" the word will degrade it from a trademark to a common usage term (the way "Kleenex" now references all facial tissues.) He consistently uses the phrase "Google search" and encourages the rest of us to do the same.

One usage rule that stuck in my head from HS English is a shirt was "hung", but an executed prisoner was "hanged." I have never been in a situation, however, where pointing out the misuse would be appropriate, so it has become something of an itch I cannot scratch.
I concur that "grow your business" is annoying although grammatically correct, and for some reason "impact" used instead of "affect" bugs me (also grammatically correct apparently).

"a shirt was "hung", but an executed prisoner was "hanged." "

Haha, I just noticed this recently in the song The Highwayman - "The bastards hung me in the spring of '25/but I am still alive" - the song is based on a poem, I believe, though I did not check the source.
Two short bits:

Wi Fi in and of itself is relatively new and when you think about it only a bit--somewhat nonsensical. It's a play on the *hi fi" that us old farts used to listen to which was short for "High Fidelity." In my mind (small though it may be) allowing for a relatively new word to so rapidly emerge, and then extend into verb form, shouldn't be a surprise.

The second point: Google was a noun first, in this specific case. Google is the name of the company (and the website). Now that you have me thinking about it, perhaps Google's success isn't just limited to their powerful algorithm but also the ease with which it could be verbed. I mean, "I will Alta-Vista that..." just doesn't have the same fluidity.
There must have been at least a master's thesis on search engine names and potential for being transformed into verbs. Yahoo!, Lycos, Excite...
I just read about how important it is to "on-board" your new executives and staffs and to have a good "on-boarding" program. It was so traumatic that I'm still in the fetal position, and it's hard to type with my thumb in my mouth.
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