Q: A review of the 3-D movie Everest in The New Yorker says climbers on the world’s highest peak have “an indomitable urge to use the word ‘summit’ as an intransitive verb.” When was the noun “summit” first used as a verb? Who gets the credit?
A: Believe it or not, the first person to verb the noun “summit” in writing was apparently Chaucer—back in the 1300s!
At that time, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb meant to submit or subject. This sense ultimately comes from submittere, Latin for (among other things) to lower or diminish.
Here’s one of the dictionary’s two examples of the usage from Chaucer’s Middle English translation (circa 1374) of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae:
“Þanne summytten ȝe and putten ȝoure self vndir þo fouleste þinges” (“Then to submit and put yourself under those foulest things”).
This sense of the verb is now obsolete (the last OED citation is from the 1400s), and it’s not related to the verbing of the noun “summit” in mountain climbing and diplomacy—two relatively recent usages.
The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have an entry for the verb “summit” used in mountaineering, but it has citations dating back to the early 1970s for the verb used in the diplomatic sense.
In our searches of digital databases, the earliest example we’ve found for the verb “summit” used in the climbing sense dates from the late 1970s, but the usage has been relatively rare until the last few years.
Three of the six standard dictionaries we’ve checked have entries for “summit” used as a verb in mountaineering or diplomacy, but only one dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, 11th ed.) includes both senses.
Merriam-Webster’s describes the verb as intransitive in both senses—that is, without an object. Examples: “The foreign ministers will summit tomorrow” … “He summited solo on day 10.”
However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Oxford Dictionaries online say the mountaineering verb can be used transitively (with an object) as well as intransitively.
Oxford Dictionaries gives these examples: “in 2013, 658 climbers summited Everest” … “they started climbing at 3:45 a.m. and summited at 8:45 p.m.”
All this lexical summitry began with summum, Latin for highest, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.
“When the Romans counted up columns of figures they worked from the bottom upwards, and put the total on top—whence the use of the expression res summa, literally ‘highest thing,’ for ‘total,’ ” Ayto writes.
He adds that the Latin phrase “was eventually shortened to summa, which reached English via Old French summe.”
When the noun “summit” (spelled “somette”) showed up in English in the 1400s, it referred to the top of something, specifically the crown of a head.
The first example in the OED is from Le Morte Darthur (1470-85), Sir Thomas Malory’s version of the Arthurian legend:
“It clefte his hede fro the somette of his hede.” (The citation refers to a bloody battle in which the wounded King Arthur uses his sword Excalibur to slash Emperor Lucius from the top of the head all the way down to the chest.)
At about the same time, according to the dictionary’s citations, the noun “summit” took on the meaning of “the topmost point or ridge of a mountain or hill” as well as “the highest elevation” of a road, a canal, and so on.
The OED’s first example for this sense is from Godeffroy of Boloyne, William Caxton’s 1481 English translation of an Old French version of a Latin work about the Crusades by the 12th-century prelate William of Tyre:
“Syon is toward the weste, on the sommete or toppe theron stondeth the chirche which is named Syon.”
In the 1700s, the noun took on the figurative meaning of the highest degree of something, such as happiness or love or literary achievement.
The first Oxford example is from a letter written sometime before 1717 by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: “Supposing I was at the very summit of this sort of happiness.”
In the mid-20th century, according to the dictionary’s citations, “summit” took on the specific meaning of the highest level “with reference to politics and international relations.”
The first example is from a comment by Winston Churchill in the Feb. 15, 1950, issue of the Times (London): “It is not easy to see how things could be worsened by a parley at the summit, if such a thing were possible.”
The earliest example for the phrase “summit meeting” is from the May 5, 1955, issue of the New York Times: “I say at this moment I see no reason for that summit meeting.”
And the first example for “summit conference” is from the June 23, 1955, issue of the Times (London): “The senator’s resolution demanding that the United States should refuse to attend the ‘summit’ conference.”
By the 1960s, according to the OED, “summit” was being used elliptically—that is, by itself—to mean a “summit conference” or a “summit meeting.”
Here’s an example from the June 30, 1967, issue of the Spectator: “The most certain result of the Glassboro summit, in fact, is no more than that Mr. Johnson’s standing at home is now rather higher.”
As for the verb “summit,” the dictionary’s first modern example (from the June 5, 1972, issue of Time magazine) uses the verb in its diplomatic sense:
”Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is willing to summit with the chap (probably at the end of the month).”
As we’ve said, the OED doesn’t have an entry for “summit” used as a verb in mountain climbing. The earliest example we’ve found is from a 1978 issue of Antarctic, a publication of the New Zealand Antarctic Society:
“It was then onto Africa to climb Mt Kilimanjero in Tanzania which stands at 5,894 m and which they summited on 17 August, prior to flying to Australia to climb the 2,230 metre high Mt. Kosciusko in New South Wales, on 26 August.”