The Grammarphobia Blog

For better or verse

Q: I work with a lot of boys and find it interesting to hear so many of them say things like “I will verse you in a game of Pokémon.” I find it annoying to hear “verse” used to mean compete, but I have come to realize that I am witnessing the evolution of the word “versus.”

A: It’s interesting that you bring up the use of “verse” as a verb. We’ve gotten many emails from parents over the years asking where this came from.

One North Jersey father, for instance, has written that his kids use constructions like “We are versing the Yankees today.” And no, they weren’t reading poetry to the Yankees!

The usage is an apparent adaptation of “versus,” as you suggest, and to “verse” here means to play or challenge or go up against.

As it turns out, this isn’t such a new phenomenon. In fact, the kids who first used “verse” for compete are now grown up. The linguist and lexicographer Benjamin Zimmer has traced the usage back to the 1980s.

Here’s a citation from the Feb. 20, 1984, issue of the New York Times: “To verse: High school slang meaning to compete against another school’s team, as in ‘We’re going to be versing the Brown Bombers next week.’ From the preposition ‘versus.’ ”

You can see how this might have happened. Imagine a sportscaster saying, “Tonight at 8, Boston versus Cincinnati.” To many ears, the preposition “versus” sounds like a verb, “verses,” as in “Boston verses (that is, plays) Cincinnati.”

Now imagine a child passing on the news: “Hey, Dad! Tonight Boston verses Cincinnati.” Thus a new verb is born.

There’s already a recognized verb “verse” that means to study or acquaint oneself with some subject, as in “I’m well versed in such-and-such,” or “He’s versing himself in geometry.”

The verb “versify” means to write verse. And The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3d ed.), by Paul Dickson, notes a historical use of the noun “verse” as a synonym for “inning.”

The use of the verb “verse” to mean compete has made it into only one of the standard dictionaries we usually check, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see it in others.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) describes the usage as slang, and says it means “to play against (an opponent) in a competition.”

American Heritage adds that it’s probably a “back-formation from VERSUS taken as verses in such phrases as Boston versus New York.”

[Note: This entry was updated on July 14, 2016.]

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