The Grammarphobia Blog

She’s in a pickle

Q: Is there a term for a word like “pickle” that can be either a verb or a noun (we pickle a cucumber to make a pickle)? I’ve searched to no avail. I’m in a pickle!

A: For many verbs, there are corresponding, identical nouns. In fact, “many” may be an understatement here. We might as well say “countless.”

Examples: blanket, brush, coil, crowd, drape, dress, drip, dust, fish, flood, hammer, heap, hoist, house, load, list, lift, nail, plant, plaster, pocket, roll, run, saw, screw, shovel, shop, spray, spread, sprinkle, staff, tile, twist, weld, wrap, wrinkle … the list goes on and on.

And of course there’s “pickle,” along with many other food-related verbs: bread, butter, flavor, flour, garnish, grease, lard, oil, pepper, peel, pit, salt, season, sugar.

Sometimes the verb came first (as with “run”) and sometimes the noun (as with “pocket”). 

You might be interested in a blog entry we wrote a few months ago about words (like “peel” and “pit”) that are nouns for the thing removed as well as verbs for the removal of same.

The process by which new words are formed from identical ones is often called “syntactic conversion.”  And it works with adjectives, too.  

For many verbs, there are corresponding, identical adjectives. Such verbs include blunt, clear, clean, cool, dry, empty, firm, muddy, narrow, open, warm, waste, and many others. 

And for many nouns, there are corresponding, identical adjectives. Such nouns include comic, dear, drunk, female, human, local, male, private, regular, special, sweet, and others.

Words like these are sometimes called “zero-related” pairs.

A noun (like “run”) that’s derived from a verb is a “deverbal noun” or a “zero-related nominal.” A verb (like “pocket”) that’s derived from a noun is a “denominal verb” or a “zero-related verb.”

A verb (like “dirty”) that’s derived from an adjective is a “deadjectival verb.” And a noun (like “comic”) that’s derived from an adjective is a “deadjectival noun.”

By the way, the use of “pickle” to mean a disagreeable situation (as in “I’m in a pickle”) dates from the 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The usage may be related to an old Dutch or German term for something that’s sharp or pungent.

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