The Grammarphobia Blog

A wordie’s travelogue

Q: In a recent interview on WNYC, the head conservator at the Guggenheim Museum used the verb “travel” in a strange way when discussing Ad Reinhardt’s paintings: “We rarely travel them because they’re so fragile.” I find this transitive use of an intransitive verb very annoying. You don’t travel something; something travels.

A: That art conservator’s use of “travel” as a transitive verb sounds like new bureaucratic jargon, doesn’t it? But it isn’t so new after all. In fact, the verb “travel” has had a very interesting journey indeed, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It began life as “travail,” from an Old French word meaning to torment or harass. In fact, our modern nouns “travel” and “travail” were once the same. I’ve discussed the painful evolution of “travel” before in a posting to the blog.

The verb “travel” entered English in the 1200s (though the modern spelling took several hundred years to develop). Over the centuries it has meant, among other things, to torment, to work, and to make a journey
(as we all know, a journey can be arduous at times!).

From its earliest years, “travel” was used both transitively (that is, one traveled something, as in “He traveled the road” or “She traveled her horse”) as well as intransitively (one traveled somewhere or just traveled, as in “They traveled to Singapore” or “We loved to travel”).

In the early 1300s, to make a trip was to travel a journey, as in this quotation by a medieval monk, Robert Manning of Brunne, from his long devotional poem Handlyng Synne (1303): “Tharfore, y am come to thys cyte, / And haue trauayled many a iurne.” (Roughly, “Therefore, I am come to this city, and have traveled many a journey.”)

The verb was also used transitively to mean to cause to travel, as in this 1598 quotation from Richard Hakluyt, an Elizabethan writer who produced several books on exploration in the New World: “Their horses are but smal, but very swift and hard, they trauell them vnshod both winter and Sommer.”

This usage has survived into modern times, as in these examples from the OED:

1930: “She had sapphire rings and clips … of an incredible value, and she ‘travelled’ them, as they say in theatrical circles.”

1966: “The taller of these two guests travelled a broken concertina with him.”

The OED also notes that in publishing to “travel” a book is to take it around for promotional purposes:

1937: From a letter by Virginia Woolf: “We’re taking Tuesday off at Rodmell to travel our books in Sussex.”

1977: George Routledge, the publisher, “liked to travel his own books in the north country so that he could keep in touch with book-sellers.”

There are no examples in the OED of anyone traveling a painting, and I must admit that the usage sounds funny to my ear. But it has precedent on its side.

Some less familiar uses of verbs will never sound right to me, though they have come to be accepted, at least in dictionaries: “impact” as a verb (“How will this impact me?”); “grow” in some transitive uses (“He hopes to grow the economy”); and “eat” used backward (“This soup eats like a meal”).

But that’s English for you.

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