MacGyver It! Beer Me! Let's Turn That Noun Into a Verb


Respect at long last: The verb "MacGyver" made it into the Oxford Dictionaries in 2015. ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images
Respect at long last: The verb "MacGyver" made it into the Oxford Dictionaries in 2015. ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

The idea seems so Internet-driven, so social-media hip: Take a noun, make it a verb and watch it go viral.

The thing is, it's not something new.

Take these examples.

Matt Damon (in 2015's "The Martian"): "I'm gonna have to science the s*** out of this."

Ginger Rogers (in "Young Man of Manhattan," 1930): "Cigarette me, big boy."

Anonymous Frat Boy (2016): "Beer me!"

Anonymous Frat Boy (1960s): "Hey, don't Bogart that joint!"

Nouns used as verbs came along long before the Internet went and tried to Kanye them. Shakespeare, in fact, is credited for verbifying hundreds of nouns.

The practice is enough to unhair (that's a Shakespearean one) English teachers and fussy practitioners of the language everywhere. They consider it butchering the language.

Of course, they may not realize that the word "butcher" was once used solely as a noun.

The point is, language changes. It evolves. And that's OK.

The Internet's Role

Even though the Internet wasn't strictly invented for verbing — or verbifying, or for making what linguists call denominals — the two make a perfect pair. In a recent JSTOR Daily piece — "Do You Even Language, Bro? Understanding Why Nouns Become Verbs" — author Chi Luu points out the allure:

Verbing ... thrives in a fast-paced, short attention span internet culture, which is all about the viral sharing and remixing of pop culture memes. If you get the reference, you too can be a member. After all, punchlines are no fun if they have to be over explained.

Eve and Herbert Clark, two Stanford professors, have spent their careers studying linguistics, among other things. In 1979, they collaborated on a paper in the journal Language titled "When Nouns Surface as Verbs." In it, they list some 1,300 example of nouns-turned-verbs.

They're of the mind that MacGyvering the language is not only OK. It's natural.

"You can try being prescriptive, because you like your particular brand of English, let's say, from when you were growing up. Or you just say, 'Look, languages change. Different groups become fashionable,'" says Eve Clark, who was the lead author on that 1979 paper. "Most linguists I know just say, 'Look, language change is a fact of life.' What we want to do is track what the usage is, not try to put things back 50 years or 100 years."

So those who want to pooh-pooh nouns as verbs — we may have gone too far with that one — are denying what has been for years. And continues today.

"People who have been prescriptivists [those who consider one type of language as better, or more correct] are typically not linguists. They tend to be like English teachers or writing instructors who are just tired of seeing sloppy writing," says Herb Clark, who is a professor of psychology with a specialty in psycholinguistics. "Their prescriptions are usually just the wrong prescriptions."

Anyone Can Verb

Anyone can twist nouns into verbs and do it well. Some restrictions apply. If there's already a shortened version of the noun you're wanting to convert, it's probably not a good idea to muddy the waters. You don't airplane to Barbados. You fly there.

Most important, your new word has to be instantly understandable to your audience. That might be easier to pull off than you think.

Eve Clark studies children and their unique grasp on the language. Though kid-talk may not seem particularly proper to some — and much of it vanishes as kids age — it more than does the job of getting a point across.

"Kids are fabulous. They think nothing of innovating with nouns as verbs. This is just trivial for them," Herb says. "They will do things that adults cannot do."

One such invention is what Eve calls "characteristic activity," assigning a verb to a noun based on that object's perceived activity. "So the flag is flagging, the cement truck is cementing," Eve says. "They've heard things like, 'Brush your hair,' 'Give me the brush,' so they know there are lots of these pairings around. So they just extend that, very readily."

What is kids' play, then, becomes easy for adolescents and then young adults. Now, the young adults growing up with social media and the Internet have avenues to broadcast their wordsmithing — we'll stop soon — that nobody had in 1979.

That new, easy way of communicating has sparked new denominals as well. Much the way the advent of computers ushered in such now-common noun-turned-verbs as "keyboarding" and faxing," the Internet has brought us "emailing" and "blogging" (from "Web log"). Social media has given us "tweeting" and "posting." All have their roots in nouns.

It's not so far removed from plowing or churning or, earlier, stoning. Even earlier than that: raining.

"I don't think," Eve says of the noun-to-verb, "that they've actually changed very much."

So when you hear that a friend is Netflixing out for the night, or that a nervous roommate is Mentosing up for his date, know that it's nothing new. Those innovators are simply following the natural order of the language. They're just Darwinning.



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