The Grammarphobia Blog

Debut appearance

Q: This is the first time that I’m writing you, which makes my question an appropriate one: How do you feel about the use of “debut” as a verb?

A: Back when I was an editor on the culture desk at the New York Times, I used to hate seeing “debut” used as a verb. I (and other editors at the paper) preferred it as a noun: “So-and-so made his debut last night” rather than “So and so debuted last night.”

But my dislike of a usage doesn’t make it wrong. In fact, we got the word in the 18th century from the French verb débuter, which meant “to make the first stroke in billiards, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When the word entered English, however, it was initially used as a noun meaning “entry into society; first appearance in public of an actor, actress, or other performer.”

The OED‘s first citation for “debut” as a noun is from 1751, when Lord Chesterfield used it in a letter: “I find that your début at Paris has been a good one.”

Another lordly person, the poet Byron, used it in a rhyme in 1806: “To-night you throng to witness the début / Of embryo actors, to the Drama new.”

It didn’t take long for the word to be used as a verb in English. The first published reference, according to the OED, appeared in 1830 in Fraser’s Magazine: “He debuted at Naples, about five years ago, and has since performed … in the principal theatres of Italy.”

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) accept “debut” as a verb for a first appearance, but the Times apparently still has misgivings.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage has this entry: “debut. Use it as a noun (made a debut) or a modifier (debut recital), never as a verb (debuted).”

By the way, you can skip the accent when using “debut” in English. Although Merriam-Webster’s and American Heritage list the accented version as an acceptable variant, both say the unaccented one is more frequently used.

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