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.

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