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Did you vigil for Orlando?

Q: I got an email the other day from Corey Johnson that said: “I hope to see you tonight at the Stonewall Inn as we vigil for the victims of the shooting in Orlando.” Could this be the first instance of “vigil” used as a verb? Sounds terrible to me, but who am I?

A: No, the New York City Council member did not coin the usage. The word “vigil” has occasionally been used as a verb since the late 19th century.

Although standard dictionaries don’t recognize this usage (at least not yet), the Oxford English Dictionary does.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the verb as “to keep a vigil or vigils,” but adds that the usage is “rare.”

The dictionary records only a handful of published examples, all of them poetic usages. Here they are, in order of appearance.

“So I’ve claim to ask / By what right you task / My patience by vigiling there?” (From Thomas Hardy’s Wessex Poems and Other Verses, 1898.)

“Two days and two nights has he vigiled—the doctor dozes and blinks.” (From Gilbert Frankau’s 1914 novel in verse Tid’apa.)

“We vigil by the dying fire, / talk stilled for once.” (From John Montague’s book of lyric verses A Slow Dance, 1975.) 

Obviously, examples from poetry do not suggest that “vigil” is commonly used as a verb by English speakers. But it does turn up in ordinary usage as well.

In the wake of the Orlando shootings, for example, the Press-Republican, a newspaper in Plattsburgh, NY, reported that several churches “planned to vigil” in honor of the victims and their families.

A local online news outlet in Ipswich, MA, quoted an organizer as saying, “We gather to vigil on Thursday night, grounded in the fundamental premise that everybody should feel safe where they live.”

In Kansas City, MO, a television reporter interviewed a transgendered man and commented: “When crime scenes like this come on the screen, he says it’s hard to keep faith. That’s why he came to vigil with his mom hoping to renew it.”

And a Topeka, KS, television reporter said, “Topeka resident and activist Mary Akerstrom says she came to vigil to help raise awareness about the need to educate today’s youth.”

We’ve also seen “vigiling,” the present participle of the verb, in news reports and on websites (“vigiling against climate change” … “vigiling for dying patients”).

Why use “vigil” as a verb? Perhaps because no other single word fits the bill, only verb phrases: “hold a vigil,” “keep vigil,” and so on.

People are often startled when nouns become “verbed,” but this is a normal characteristic of English and it’s one that has given us countless new words.

As we’ve written before on the blog, English acquired verbs like “cook,”  “thread,” “petition,” “map,” “jail,” “hammer,” “elbow,” “phone,” “hand,” and “farm” by adapting them from the earlier nouns.

(This works the other way, too. We’ve made nouns from the verbs “run,” “walk,” “worry,” “call,” “attack,” and others.)

The noun “vigil” has been around since the Middle Ages, though it developed its modern sense—as in a peaceful demonstration—only about 60 years ago.

The word came into English from Anglo-Norman and Old French (vigile) around the early 13th century.

But its ultimate source, as the OED says, is Latin: the noun vigilia (wakefulness, watchfulness, or a watch), derived from the adjective vigil (awake, alert).

When first used in English, “vigil” was a term in the medieval Christian Church for “a festival or holy day, as an occasion of devotional watching or religious observance,” Oxford says.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Ancrene Riwle, a guide for female religious recluses, believed to date from the early 1200s or possibly before:

“Ȝe schulen eten … eueriche deie twie bute uridawes and umbridawes and ȝoingdawes and uigiles.” (“You shall eat … twice each day except on Fridays and ember days and procession days and vigils.”)

This religious sense of “vigil” soon evolved into a new one, says the OED: “a devotional watching, esp. the watch kept on the eve of a festival or holy day,” as well as “a nocturnal service or devotional exercise.”

The religious meanings led to a secular usage in the 18th century, when a “vigil” came to mean “an occasion or period of keeping awake for some special reason or purpose,” in addition to “a watch kept during the natural time for sleep.”

That sense had no religious overtones and merely meant staying up late, as you can see from the OED’s citations:

“There is nothing that wears out a fine Face like the Vigils of the Card-Table.” (Joseph Addision, writing in the Guardian in July 1713.)

“With Studies pale, with Midnight Vigils blind.” (From Alexander Pope’s poem The Temple of Fame, 1715.)

“Soft airs, nocturnal vigils, and day dreams … Conspire against thy peace.” (From William Cowper’s poem Retirement, 1781.)

“He hath pursued long vigils in this tower.” (From Lord Byron’s dramatic poem Manfred, 1817.)

As we mentioned, the modern sense of “vigil” as a peaceful demonstration is relatively recent.

The OED’s first example in from an April 1956 issue of the Times (London):

“When [the South African] Parliament reassembled to-day … members found 300 black-sash women lined up in the grounds of Parliament House in renewed protest against undemocratic legislation…. A vigil of four black-sash members at a time will be maintained till the end of the session.”

The latest example is from a July 1985 issue of Peace News: “On the day of the air fair, around 40 people took part in a vigil at the main gate, giving out leaflets to incoming cars.”

Here’s the OED‘s definition for this newest sense of the word: “A stationary and peaceful demonstration in support of a particular cause, often lasting several days, which is characterized by the absence of speeches or other explicit advocacy of the cause, and freq. by some suggestion of mourning.”

That definition, drafted in 1993, could use an update.

Today’s vigils sometimes include speeches and “explicit advocacy.” And they can take place at any time. They don’t necessarily involve staying up late, though they’re often held in darkness and by candlelight.

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