The Give That Keeps On Gifting: The Protean Nature of English Words, and Why That’s A Good Thing

2012-12-31 by . 8 comments

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English is constantly adding, modifying, and repurposing words.

Look, there’s one right now: repurpose. According to The American Heritage Dictionary, it is officially a word:

re·pur·pose tr.v. re·pur·posedre·pur·pos·ingre·pur·pos·es
To use or convert for use in another format or product: repurposed the book as a compact disk.

Etymonline cites its usage from 1995, so it is relatively new. It is made by adding re- to the word purpose, which can be either a noun or a verb. My money is on noun, because the new construct comes out of business or technical jargon and purpose as a verb is pretty seldom heard. Not that it would be wrong. In fact, it would not be surprising if purpose used as a verb were revived as a back-formation of repurpose.

In this season of giving, let’s look at the words give and gift. Give is a verb and gift is a noun, right? True. But haven’t you ever found some mechanical thing to be loose when it was supposed to be tight and said, “I feel a little give in it”? Of course you have. Verb has been nouned. You nouned it yourself.

Similarly, we’ve all heard someone use the word gift as a verb: “She gifted them all with front-row seats to the concert.” And whether our inner fussbudget winces or not when we hear it said that way, it is still a legitimate usage. Face it: the traditional verb form give doesn’t say as much, and simply isn’t as precise. “She gave them all front-row seats to the concert.” That doesn’t exactly carry the connotation of presenting them with a gift, does it? She could have been paying them back for prior favors, or because she lost a bet — any number of non-giftish reasons come to mind.

Who can forget the “regifting” episode of the immensely popular TV show Seinfeld? (Hmm, that occurred right around the time repurpose came into the lexicon. Coincidence?) And if we admit that the writers and actors on that show were all very gifted, we’ve now adjectived a noun. We might even have adjectived the noun very giftedly, in which case we’ve adverbed the adjective. It goes on.

There really is nothing to be afraid of. Languages change, and words get overloaded, adapted, modified. Some people abhor this condition. Some feel language should be as precise as mathematics: see John Quijada’s artificially constructed language, Ithkuil, if you don’t believe me. Me, I prefer the richness of everyday speech, and the creative way people adapt words to mean new things. Isn’t it more colorful and descriptive to say a basketball player bricked a shot, rather than falling back on the boring and pedestrian missed? A horrible shot in basketball looks like someone throwing a brick, not a ball, and if we verb the noun we get a shot that has been bricked.

Language is a living thing. Let’s never forget that. If words stop changing, a language starts dying, just as our bodies do if our cells stop dying and being reborn.

While we’re on the subject, let’s look at that verb: live. The noun form is, of course, life. Since the 1830s, the noun lifer has referred to a prisoner serving a life sentence. But wait a sec, didn’t it have to become a verb first? Isn’t a verb at least implied there: lifer, one who lifes? No? Let’s move forward in time and notice a shift in meaning: lifer now includes someone who is serving “for life” in the military. I recently read the book Generation Kill by Evan Wright, who was embedded with a platoon of Recon Marines that participated in the assault on Baghdad in 2003. After Saddam’s army was defeated, one of the Marines, Corporal Ray Person, is quoted as he grouses about the battalion first sergeant’s return to his meddlesome “lifer” ways. Person complains:

“The second they stop shooting at us, [that] motherfucker’s lifin’ us in his stupid fucking retardese.”

Ahh, there it is. Crude though his statement may be, his verbing of a noun that arose from the prior verbing of the same noun is pure poetry. And exactly right for the sentiment the soldier wished to express. What is a lifer sergeant doing to Marines when he makes their lives miserable with a lot of petty regulations? He is lifing them. And he is doing so in the imaginary-yet-somehow-very-real language Cpl. Person vulgarly calls retardese, which consists, presumably, of one stupid, ungrammatical statement after another spoken in a near-incomprehensible hillbilly drawl.

I hope you can’t find any give in my arguments. But I wish to gift you with one final thought on the protean nature of English. Wallace Stevens said it about poetry, but it goes for language in general as well:

    It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
    It has to face the men of the time and to meet
    The women of the time. It has to think about war
    And it has to find what will suffice. It has
    To construct a new stage.
In other words, it has to be a living, changing entity, continually adapting, being adapted, constructing a new stage. Fortunately for all of us, it is.

8 Comments

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  • StoneyB says:

    And even as this is posted there is on the front page of ELU a question about a comparative adjective repurposed as a positive adverb employed as a preposition in the superlative grade. Love this language

  • kitfox says:

    +100. I wish I could upvote blog posts. Well said.

  • Who is “Robusto”? That is one excellent piece of writing there. A pleasure to read, (almost) regardless of the content!

  • Those who wince on hearing gift used as a verb are probably labouring under the recency illusion. The OED’s earliest citation for the use of the verb gift meaning ‘To bestow as a gift; to make a present of’ is dated 1619.

  • I’m much more concerned about the verbs “to noun,” “to adjective,” and “to adverb.”

    :-) Excellent article!

    • Why, those are straight-forward applications of verbification of nouns, commonly known (by application of the process to its root) as “verbing nouns”.

      But as Calvin pointed out, “verbing weirds language.”

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