English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Taking George Clooney to task?

Q: Twice in The Monuments Men (screenplay by George Clooney), Clooney the actor uses “task” as a verb: “We have been tasked to find and protect art that the Nazis have stolen.” But were people saying that back in the early 1940s?

A: You’re not the first moviegoer to be startled by Clooney’s use of “task” as a verb. Bloggers and contributors to online discussion groups have criticized this usage.

One critic complains, for example, that Clooney is making a noun (“task”) into a verb. Another suggests that the usage emerged in 1980s corporate-speak, so it’s an anachronism in a movie that takes place near the end of World War II. 

Neither complaint is legitimate. Since 1530, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “task” has been used as a verb meaning to impose a task on someone.

The construction followed by “with” or “to” (as in “tasked to find”) has been around since the late 1500s and appears in Shakespeare.

The OED has an example from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 (1598), in which Hotspur complains that the King “taskt the whole state.”

But we prefer the scene in Othello (circa 1603) where Iago schemes to get Cassio plastered.

Here Cassio says he can’t hold his liquor and doesn’t want any more to drink: “I am unfortunate in the infirmity, / and dare not task my weakness with any more.

The OED has only a couple of modern examples, including this Nov. 20, 1980, ad from the Oxford Star, a weekly in England:

“A small engineering team tasked with the design, building and commissioning of high volume production lines.”

However, the usage is alive and well these days. A Google search for “I was tasked to” resulted in more than 1.7 million hits. Example: “I was tasked to look through my old Facebook pics to find a candid photo of myself for a shoot.”

Now for an interesting detour. In Middle English, “task” and “tax” meant the same thing. The two words are etymological twins that went their separate ways over the centuries.

When the noun “task” first appeared around 1300  it meant a payment or a levy—that is, a tax. And when the verb came along in the 1400s, to “task” meant to impose a tax.” 

So why were there two words, “task” and “tax,” one ending in an “sk” sound and the other in a “ks” sound?

As the OED explains, both have their ultimate roots in the Latin taxare (assess, evaluate). It’s been suggested that around the year 800, the consonant sounds were swapped in medieval Latin, resulting in two separate nouns taxa and tasca.

These two Latin words were passed along into Old French, then into Anglo-Norman, and finally into English.

(The transposition of sounds is called metathesis, and it can result in new words. As we’ve written on our blog, something similar happened with the word “ask, which had two forms in medieval English, “ask” and “axe.”)

The words “task” and “tax” began to diverge in the 1500s.

The “task” that originally meant a fixed payment imposed on someone—say, by an overlord—came to mean a fixed quantity of labor imposed on a person or owed as a duty.

From that meaning grew the modern sense of “task”: an assignment or a piece of work. (The verb “task” developed along similar lines.)

While “task” and “tax” have now gone their separate ways in English, they still intersect here and there.

As you know, we sometimes say a difficult task or a hard job is “taxing.” Both “task” and “tax” are occasionally used as verbs meaning to “burden” or “put a strain on,” as in these OED citations:

“It tasked his diplomatic skill to effect his departure in safety” (from John Yeats’s The Growth and Vicissitudes of Commerce, 1872).

“My ingenuity was often taxed for expedients” (from Elisha Kent Kane’s The U.S. Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin, 1853).

And when we scold or censure a person for doing something, we “take him to task” for it.

In fact, the verbs “task” and “tax” have both been used in this sense of censuring or reproving someone. Here are a couple of examples from the OED:

“Trollope is another offender who is frequently tasked with endangering the wholeness of his novels” (1965, from Kenneth Graham’s English Criticism of the Novel, 1865-1900).

“That Chronicle … which seems to tax the envy and rapaciousness of Clarence as the Causes of the dissention” (1768, from Horace Walpole’s Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard the Third).

And that’s our task for the day. We won’t tax our brains any more!

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