The Grammarphobia Blog

Noun entities

Q: One of my pet peeves is the use of a verb in place of a noun, a practice I often see in the NY Times. Examples: a letter to the editor refers to somebody’s “physical or mental dissolve” … a book review speaks of “a good read” … a secret revelation in a movie is called “the reveal.” You’ll probably tell me that this use of “reveal” dates back to the Elizabethan era. If so, I’ll take your word for it, but it still sounds illiterate to me.

A: The use of “dissolve” to mean a mental or physical decline is a new one on us. But as you probably know, the use of “dissolve” as a noun is common in cinematography. In show biz, a “dissolve” is a sequence in which one scene fades out as the next fades in.

The noun “dissolve” in the motion picture sense, first recorded in 1918, was adapted from a similar use of the verb in 1912. The original verb, from the Latin dissolvere, first appeared in the 14th century.

We’ve found only isolated examples of the noun “dissolve” used as in that letter to the editor. But it’s not an inappropriate metaphor—aging as the Great Dissolve. (It seems better than “dissolution,” which implies a moral disintegration as well.)

At any rate, this practice of adapting verbs for use as nouns is nothing new. For example, we wrote blog entries last year on the nouns “remit” and “hit,” both derived from the earlier verbs.

We’ve also written a more general blog entry on the process, known as “conversion,” whereby one part of speech begins functioning as another:

In that post, we gave several examples of nouns adapted from earlier verbs, as in “a winning run,” “a long walk,” “a constant worry,” “take a call,” “a vicious attack.

We might have added “a good read,” a usage you ask about. This is an example of a noun that was adapted from the verb a very long time ago, subsequently fell out of use, and finally was reinvented centuries later.

Let’s start with the verb. As we’ve said before on our blog, to “read” once meant more than to peruse written words.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary and other sources, the Old English verb rædan originally meant many other things besides “to scan or study writing.”

It also meant to consider, interpret, discern, guess, discover, expound the meaning (of a riddle, say, or an omen), and so on.

The noun “read,” derived from the verb, also dates back to Old English (ræde). In its earliest uses, the OED says, it meant “an act of reading aloud” or “a lesson,” a usage that survived into the 1300s and then became obsolete.

Half a millennium later, in the 19th century, another noun “read” came into being: “an act of reading or perusing written matter; a spell of reading,” in the words of the OED.

Oxford’s earliest example is from a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, The History of Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond (1838): “When I arrived and took … my first read of the newspaper.”

Charles Darwin used the same noun in a letter written in 1862: “I have just finished, after several reads, your paper.”

Such usages led to a similar sense of the word, described in the OED as “something for reading (usually with modifying word, as good, bad, etc., indicating its value as a source of entertainment or information).”

The word was used this way in a British literary magazine, John o’ London’s Weekly, in 1961: “My Friend Sandy can be hugely recommended … as a pleasantly light, bright sophisticated read.”

Another example the OED cites is also from the British press. It appeared in The Independent on Sunday in 2002: “This is an authentic, funny, edgy read.”

So “read” was used in that Times book review in a familiar and well-established sense. It’s recognized in standard dictionaries as well as the OED.

You also mention the noun “reveal,” which does indeed date from the Elizabethan era. When first recorded in the late 1500s, it meant “an act of revealing something; a revelation; a disclosure; an unveiling,” the OED says.

This meaning is still seen today. For example, the OED cites this passage from an essay William Goldman wrote in 1997 about his screenplay for the movie Maverick:

“This is how the concluding moments read in rehearsal, starting with the reveal of the spade ace as the next card.” (We’ve expanded the citation to provide more context.)

But the sense of “reveal” that you’re talking about is somewhat different. The OED describes this noun as a term in broadcasting and advertising to mean “a final revelation of something previously kept from an audience, a participant in a programme, etc.”

The earliest citation in the OED is from Allen Funt’s book Eavesdropper at Large (1952): “This is the process we call ‘the reveal’—the point, toward the end of each candid portrait, where we reveal to the subject what we’ve been doing.”

Funt was the creator of TV’s Candid Camera, which he originated on radio in the 1940s as Candid Microphone. This 1975 OED citation, from the New York Times, is another reference to him:

“But now the final coup, Allen’s trademark—the ‘reveal.’ ‘Madame, did you know that at this moment you are on nationwide TV?’ ”

We’ll give one more example, from Gwendolyn A. Foster’s Class-passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture (2005):

“After a barrage of commercials, we are presented with what the show describes as ‘the reveal,’ the first view of her face.”

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