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Why verb a noun? Why not?

Q: A few aspects of verbing puzzle me. Why does “Bowdler” give rise to “bowdlerize,” but “Boycott” to “boycott”? Is there some logic behind this? And is it verbing if there’s a suffix? To “Shanghai,” yes, but what about “Londonize” and “New Yorkify”? Finally, is verbing peculiar to English?

A: As you know, some language commentators have complained over the years about turning nouns into verbs, arguing that it erodes the distinction between the two parts of speech.

Other commentators (we’re among them) have defended the process, noting that the verbing of nouns is as old as the English language.

The linguist Steven Pinker (another defender), says, “I have estimated that about a fifth of all English verbs were originally nouns.” (The Language Instinct, 1994.)

“Easy conversion of nouns to verbs has been part of English grammar for centuries,” Pinker writes; “it is one of the processes that makes English English.”

In fact, the process began in Anglo-Saxon times with the conversion of the Old English versions of nouns such as “love” “rain,” and “shield” into verbs, and it continues today with newbies like “email,” “medal,” “bookmark,” “tweet,” and “blog.”

The OxfordWords blog estimates that 40 percent of the new verbs in the 20th century came from nouns.

There are several ways to convert nouns to verbs in English, a process often referred to as “verbing,” “verbifying,” or “denominalization.”

(Although “verbing” usually refers to turning nouns into verbs, it can also mean converting adjectives or other terms into verbs.)

The simplest method of verbing a noun, sometimes referred to as “zero derivation,” uses the noun, with its original spelling and pronunciation, as a verb: “I hate rain, but I fear it will rain soon.”

Another method, referred to as “affix derivation,” involves adding a prefix or suffix: “She’s my idol. I idolize her” … “The witch wants to bewitch me.”

A third form is “consonant modification”: “I’m waiting for the bath to fill, so I can bathe” … “It’s my belief; I really believe it.” And a fourth is “stress modification”: “Is that the contract? When did you contract it?”

The first of these methods of converting a noun to a verb seems to bug traditionalists the most, but we can’t see much difference between using the noun as is or altering it slightly with an affix or a change in pronunciation, similar to what happens in more inflected languages.

Why, you ask, did the name “Bowdler” gives us the verb “bowdlerize,” while the name “Boycott” gave us the identical noun and verb “boycott”? Is there some logic behind this?

Yes, there does seem to be some logic—or at least a pattern—behind whether a verb derived from the name of a person has a suffix or not. Here are two features that we’ve observed:

(1) If the person’s name is the source of an identical common noun, the accompanying verb generally doesn’t have a suffix. Some suffix-less noun/verb examples: “boycott,” “guillotine,” “sandwich,” and “silhouette.”

(2) If the name of the person didn’t give rise to an identical common noun, the verb derived from the name usually has a suffix. Some examples: “bowdlerize,” “galvanize,” “mesmerize,” “pasteurize,” and “vulcanize.”

However, there are exceptions to number 1, such as “bogart” (a verb but not a common noun) and “gerrymander” (from “Gerry” + “salamander”), as well as exceptions to number 2, such as “bork” and “lynch.”

Also, our sense is that a suffix isn’t generally used today when coining a nonce word (one made up on the fly) from somebody’s name, as in “She Taylor Swifted him on her new album.”

Verbs derived from the names of products generally don’t have affixes. Examples: “bubble-wrap,” “facebook,” “google,” “rollerblade,” “scotch-tape,” “skype,” “taser,” “velcro,” and “xerox.” (Though companies disapprove, we generally lowercase product names that are routinely used as verbs or common nouns.)

As for turning geographic names into verbs, we don’t see much logic there, though many of these verbs in the Oxford English Dictionary come from adjectives rather than nouns: “Americanize,” “Frenchify,” “Germanify,” “Russianize,” and so on.

Fanny Burney, in her novel Evelina (1778), coined the word “Londonize” (“to make like London or its inhabitants”), according to this OED citation: “Her chief objection was to our dress, for we have had no time to Londonize ourselves.”

When the verb “shanghai” first showed up in the 19th century, Oxford says, it was nautical slang for to “drug or otherwise render insensible, and ship on board a vessel wanting hands.” Now, it also means to coerce or trick someone into doing something.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which uses the past participle, is from the March 1, 1871, issue of the New York Tribune: “And before that time they would have been drugged, shanghaied, and taken away from all means of making complaint.”

“Is verbing peculiar to English?” you ask. No, though “zero derivation” conversions (with the words unchanged) occur more often in English. Other languages generally add an affix to turn a noun into a verb.

We came across a guide to verbing in Costa Rican Spanish that includes many affixed examples, like these: café (coffee) to cafetear (drink coffee); galleta (cookie) to galletar (eat cookies), mujer (woman) to mujerear (chase after women—we might say “womanize”).

The OxfordWords blog, in the post mentioned earlier, says the conversion of nouns with their original spelling is “much more common in English than in other Indo-European languages.” It cites a 2010 article by the Irish writer Anthony Gardner in the Economist.

“What makes these leaps so easy is that English, unlike other Indo-European languages, uses few inflections,” Gardner writes. “The infinitive does not take a separate ending.”

So English can have a noun “act” and a verb “act,” while in French the noun action has to become the verb actionner.

Gardner says such noun/verb words are virtually unknown in German and Chinese, and not found at all in Arabic. However, he notes a couple of exceptions: essen means “food” and “eat” in German, and the Chinese noun meaning “thunder” can be used as the verb “shock.”

You mentioned the suffixes “-ize” and “-ify” in your question. Both have many uses in English, according to the OED, but we’ll mention only a few of them.

The suffix “-ize” is used, for example, to form verbs derived from Greek (like “idolize”) or Latin (“civilize”), as well as to make verbs from the names of people (“Calvinize”) and from ethnic adjectives (“Romanize”).

The suffix “-fy” or “-ify” is used to form verbs from Latin (“pacify”), jocular verbs (“speechify”), verbs that characterize something (“countrify”), verbs that describe attributes (“Frenchify”), and nonce verbs like your example “New Yorkify.”

We’ve written several posts that deal with verbing, including one in 2010 that mentions many common verbs derived from nouns, like “cook,” “thread,” “petition,” “map,” “jail,” “hammer,” “elbow,” “phone,” “hand,” and “farm.”

Here are brief descriptions of the people who gave English the eponymous verbs mentioned above:

  • Thomas Bowdler published an 1818 edition of Shakespeare “in which those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.”
  • Captain Charles Boycott was ostracized in the autumn of 1880 when he tried to evict protesting tenants from the estate he was managing in County Mayo, Ireland.
  • Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts signed a partisan redistricting bill in 1812 that created a district shaped like a salamander, hence “gerrymander.”
  • Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a French physician, proposed in 1789 that capital punishment should be by mechanical decapitation.
  • Étienne de Silhouette was the French Controller-general in 1759. The most common of several theories is that his petty economies were compared to the cheap outline portraits that were popular in France at the time.
  • Luigi Aloisio Galvani, the source of “galvanize,” was an 18th-century Italian scientist and a pioneer in the field of bioelectricity.
  • Friedrich Anton Mesmer (1734–1815) was an Austrian physician whose research in animal magnetism was a forerunner of hypnosis.
  • Louis Pasteur, a 19th-century French chemist, discovered the principles of vaccination, microbial fermentation and pasteurization.
  • Vulcan, the mythological Roman god of fire and metalworking, is the source for the name of a process for hardening rubber.
  • Capt. William Lynch and Justice of the Peace Charles Lynch, who both lived in Virginia in the 1780s, have been cited as sources for the term “Lynch law,” which led to the verb “lynch.” The OED considers Captain Lynch the most likely source.
  • Judge Robert Bork was denied a seat on the Supreme Court in 1987 after a heated Senate debate.
  • Humphrey Bogart, who often smoked in films, gave us a slang verb for monopolizing something, especially a marijuana cigarette.
  • John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718–92) is said to have spent 24 hours at the gaming table, eating only some slices of cold beef placed between pieces of toast.
  • John Calvin (1509-64) was a French theologian during the Protestant Reformation.

We’ll end by letting the critics of verbing have the last word. In a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip from 1993, Calvin tells Hobbes, his stuffed tiger, that “verbing weirds language.”

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