Lexicon Valley

Verbing Weirds Language, but in a Good Way

Blankets blanket the ground for Nelson Mandela Day in Pretoria, South Africa. 

Photo by Stefan Heunis/AFP/Getty Images

We often think of parts of speech as immutable properties of words, but in some cases noun-ness and verb-ness are more like hair colors: You can switch them up without altering any core meanings. Consider the noun “a blanket” and the verb “to blanket,” each hooked into the same semantic life-source—something about layers, or one material spread over another. To ask which version is primary (for what it’s worth, the noun came first chronologically) is almost to wonder about the relative reality of actions versus things.

Adjectives are the same. Can you form a notion of happiness if you’ve never been happy? It seems as impossible as the inverse: comprehending happy when you don’t know what happiness is. (Happiness, for the record, is a warm puppy.) The revelation that all language rests on the aqueous foundation of other language can feel destabilizing. But the interplay among nouns, verbs, and adjectives gives us a chance to mull what mysterious substrate “a blanket,” “to blanket,” and “blanketing” might share in common. 

So I’ve been amazed at the awesome of antimeria, a rhetorical device that repurposes a word as a different part of speech than usual. In exposing that word’s ability to be understood across grammatical categories, antimeria—like polyptoton—does more than surprise or joke or streamline (or sow surprise or crack a joke or render prose more streamlined). Antimeria unlocks a word’s essence.

Thing is, a lot of people hate antimeria. To be precise, they hate the type of antimeria called nominalization, which transforms verbs or adjectives into nouns. Think globalization from global or formation from form. In 2012, a New York Times columnist took aim at the supposedly lifeless abstractions that arise when you jam a suffix onto an otherwise healthy verb or modifier. These “zombie nouns,” she argued, encourage writers to express their ideas in baroque helixes. ZNs sound vague and pompous. (They are an indication of a predilection for vagueness and pomposity.) A year later, also in the Times, Henry Hitchings announced that the real nominalization crisis had nothing to do with the grammatical walking dead. The problem was tech bros and bureaucrats deploying verbs as nouns without altering them at all. “It … really grates.” he fumed. “Why use ‘solve’ rather than ‘solution’?”

Perhaps solve feels fresher, livelier, and more vigorous. In the same way, an epic fail seems funny and vivid; an epic failure sounds like a headache or worse. Hitchings describes converted verbs as “jaunty,” “pragmatic,” and “less Latinate” than zombie nouns. To me, they convey a breezy confidence, a startup-friendly willingness to bend the rules. Plus, while anyone can fix or win something, producing a fix in the boardroom, or a win on the trading floor, would seem to require special expertise. (That whiff of jargon—watch me unveil a shiny new thing you’ve never heard of—may explain why Type 2 nominalizations delight execs and frustrate laypeople.)

But what about antimeria’s other trick: transfiguring nouns into verbs? Boy, do we verb. We verb stuff like crazed fairy godmothers in a pumpkin patch of concepts. Shakespeare alone activated such inanimates as cake, drug, kitchen, squabble, crank, and elbow. Some of the innovations go hand in hand with technology: You could telephone people as early as 1878 (the noun appeared in the 1830s); these days we text texts, email emails, tweet tweets, and DM DMs. Notable pop culture eruptions of noun-to-verb antimeria include “Let me librarian that for you” (based on another antimeria, “Let me Google that for you”), “Do you Yahoo?”, “ghosting,” and “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.”  

Why rhetoric in this way? Possibly to reverse the zombie bite of nominalization. If verb-to-noun antimeria can drain force and dynamism from language, noun-to-verb antimeria often syringes it back in, especially at the expense of convention or propriety. You usually see nouns moonlighting as verbs in informal conversations, or when the speaker wants to showcase his wit and sense of fun. In her ode to the unsubtlety of the essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” Megan Garber explained that author David Foster Wallace “could have easily Shown Not Told and Onion-Peeled and Sublimated his way through the story,” her converted verbs—“Show, Don’t Tell” is a philosophy; an “onion peel” is an object—signaling casual irreverence for those methods. In a similar vein, I’ve attempted to humorously deflect invitations to watch football with an apologetic “I don’t sports.” This is a lie: I tennis, which to me suggests something broader than “playing tennis” or “watching tennis.” By removing the verb that defines the specific relationship between subject and object, antimeria can allow for a capacious and abstract sort of identification: I tennis.

Are we practicing more noun-to-verb antimeria than we used to? In its concision, nebulousness, and flippancy, a statement like “I don’t sports” shares linguistic DNA with the growing “because X” trope. (I don’t sports because Science/Concussions/the Patriarchy.) But again, the lines between nouns, verbs, and adjectives have always deliquesced when one looked too close. The Times may think antimeria generates zombies and corporate jiveheads. Seen another way, the device keeps meaning from calcifying into rigid parts of speech, bequeathing us a flow of knowledge that flows and is continually flowing.