Verbing the Nouns

I saw a newspaper ad last week that really toasted my cheese – and then when I sat down and thought about it, I decided that my cheese could stand a tad less toasting, and I dialed it back.  Let me explain.

The ad was for the NBC network’s new lineup of situation comedies airing on Wednesday nights, and the headline proclaimed, without the slightest sense of shame… here, I’ll put it in big bold letters for you… WE COMEDY WEDNESDAY.

We comedy Wednesday? Really? We comedy Wednesday! Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you: since when is comedy a verb? I comedy, you comedy, he/she/it comedies? Will you be comedying later? I could have comedied all night and still come back for more? It’s absurd on the face of it, right? No wonder it raised my righteous ire. It’s a crime against syntax, that’s what it is, and I am the self-proclaimed sheriff of syntax, right?

Uh… hang on there, John. Wait, not so fast. Have you or have you not in recent weeks invented these words –

  • HOLDMITITE: The key ingredient in a hug.
  • PAULSHEIMER’S: Inability to remember the name of that band before Wings.
  • REFILLIBUSTER: To stall taking your turn to buy the next round.

 – and, in fact, many, many more?

Well, yeah, sure I have, but that’s different. I kind of make up words for a living. Well, for a Twitter feed. People expect it of me. I’m whimsical. I have the right. But “We comedy Wednesday?” Those guys don’t.

Well, why not? Because they’re not you?

Yes, exactly.

Well, at this point I realized that my inner dialogue was getting a little heated, and that’s when I reoriented myself and viewed the situation objectively. The truth is, I am kind of a grammar nit. When I see an apostrophe catastrophe (like “punks not dead” – grr!) I feel morally bound to correct it, or at least mock it. But the other truth is that I do reinvent the language every day, and I do it will full madness of forethought. (See? See what I did? I just did it there.) So in all fairness – and I’m all about fairness when I’m not all about correcting apostrophe catastrophe’s – I have to concede that if it’s okay for me to make up words and manipulate the language and invent new phrases like madness of forethought, then by golly it should be okay for the bright boys and girls of the NBC marketing department.

I just hope they know what they’re doing.

Because once you start down this slippery slope, the slope, uh, gets slipperier. Just last week an editor asked me to take something I’d written and concise it by twenty percent. Did he not know he meant condense? And if he can concise an article, why can’t he oven his food, notebook his thoughts or phallus his partner?

No reason. No reason in the world. And that’s what I mean by a slippery slope.

Still, when I stopped being righteously irate at the NBC marketing department, I realized that they had actually done me a huge favor. They pointed out to me where my own linguistic orthodoxy begins and my tolerance ends. Since I am generally intolerant of intolerance (as I am opposed to value judgments because value judgments are bad) I decided that I just needed to relaxify myself and open my mind to the post-modern (in fact post-everything because I just named it) concept of verbing the nouns. If I can get my spellchecker to see things the same way, then all will be right with the world.

For the sake of lending the credibility of research to this article (and/or wasting another 47 seconds of my life) I just now asked my spellchecker how it felt about relaxify (which it hates, and underlines in angry red squiggles). Then I noticed that, for reasons unknown, my spellchecker is currently set to British English, and is fiercely endeavoring, even as we speak, to change endeavoring to endeavouring – plus pretense to pretence, organize to organise, and even, if I would let it, stroller to pram. This just goes to show that everything we consider to be orthodox about language is nothing more than consensus reality.

What does this mean to you as a writer? Same thing it means to me. Lighten up! Yes, it’s great to be grammatically and syntactically correct – you don’t want to look like a bozo and not know it. But you’re a writer. You have command of the language, and you also have responsibility for it. Now part of that responsibility is to defend it, but part, also, is to extend it. And not for nothing, but this is how we avoid cliche in writing; so much of what we want to say has already been said, it’s incumbent upon us to give it a new spin, even if that require new words. So give it a go. Step outside your comfort zone. Try verbing some nouns. Or nouning some verbs. Dare to on occasion split an infinitive. Sentence fragment. At least make up some new words. I do it every day, and it’s great good fun.

Is someone bugging you at work, flaunting his authority hard-on? Well, that’s a harasshole, and he deserves to be labeled as such.

Is a situation comic and tragic at the same time? Sounds to me like it’s sadlarious.

Can’t think of a word to describe cocktail party food? Try drinketizers and see how that goes.

As you can see, the possibilities are endless. And you access the possibilities through the simple act of getting down off your linguistic high horse (one of the highest horses there is) and setting yourself loose in the fields of play.

We writers are concerned with our voice, as we should be. Our voice, the sum of our style, storytelling choices, character development, theme and perspective, is the thing that defines us as writers, makes us stand out in the crowded world of the written word. But I ask you: why shouldn’t your voice include, also, your creative approach to the language? That’s how the language grows, you know, and making that happen is as much your job as it is anyone’s.

Or let’s put it this way: If you don’t do it, the NBC marketing department will, and there’s no telling where that will lead.

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About John Vorhaus

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!

Comments

  1. says

    Hilarious post, John. I’m one of those stodgy types who rail against the use of nouns as verbs and other grammatical faux pas. Hmm, grammatical faux pas? Is that even grammatically correct? As you suggest, developing a unique voice can result in offending the grammar police, but we are writers. We own our words. Thanks for making me laugh once again.

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  2. says

    In my case, you’re megaphoning the choir. I love lingoing new words. Enjoy reading them too, as long as they come in modest doses and are used in dialogue or comedic pieces, where they don’t destorify me.

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  3. says

    I have enough trouble with real syntax, let alone the ficticious variety. I’ll leave that to the more clever. My current rage, OK annoyance, is referring to a soldier as a troop. As in “four troops were injured today.” Oh those nutty journalists….

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  4. says

    Ha! I love harasshole and also think that consising an article is genius, actually.

    I get upset by slogans like, “Live Adventurous.” My venting has given my husband (a non-writer) knee-jerk reactions in meetings where he mutters under his breath, “-ly, it’s adventurous-ly.”

    Funny stuff. Thanks for sharing.

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  5. says

    I’m guilty as charged. Since I write ad copy along with novels, I just never know what will pop out to try to make the product or service stand out in a cluttered marketplace. I’m fairly certain I would not come up with We Comedy Wednesday, mostly because it sounds like a monkey is speaking and also because I’d likely choose alliteration, instead. It’s sad how low we stoop. I’m sure there’s a ROFL Wednesday planned soon.

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  6. says

    I’ve been making up words for years.

    But I’m allowed to.

    I’m an English teacher.

    And I’m assuming that one erroneous apostrophe in there was intentional. :)

    Fabulous piece. Foshizzlicious!

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  7. says

    I have been referred to as a grammar Nazi (which I find highly offensive) and the Mother Superior of writing, so I feel your pain. But I also routinely break the rules to which I so strictly hold others accountable. Why? Because it’s my right. This piece was funny and inspiring. I’m off to novel.

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  8. Evelyn says

    Hi John. I enjoyed the delirium which was sparked off by WE Comedy Wednesday. I am new to American television as I have lived more than 45 years abroad. As a consequence, I had to have some of the names of the TV channels explained to me. I was told that WE stands for Women’s Entertainment. The phrase in question is thus technically correct. However, your version is far more amusing.

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  9. says

    Thanks for sharing! I get stuck in this conundrum all the time – “That sounds so dumb… wait… I’ve done it myself.” You’re totally right that reacting to We Comedy Wednesday is a gauge we can use to know our limits on verbifying nouns – the corny gauge, if you will. Making up words or reinventing words is part of the fun, I’ve found, of writing – it’s playing with the angles and the colors of the language and really turning it from just plain ol’ writing to art… striving to master communicating on multiple levels of a simple sentence and its syntax than just one. I digress, but words are my passion…

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  10. Carmel says

    I was so afraid you were going to say, “Don’t do it! You can’t do it!” Because I rarely do, but just this morning I turned two nouns (at once) into a verb, and I was particularly liking it.

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  11. Linda Pennell says

    Very entertaining post, John!

    I, too, cringe at some of the verbal creations popping up everywhere. Of course, the folks who publish American English dictionaries tell us that language evolves rather than remaining static. I suspect the Oxford people may feel a little differently, but I digress.

    Taking the concept of verbing nouns a step farther, I see a new board game in the making. One day we may shout, “Hey kids, let’s board the new Verbing game you got for Christmas.” Has a nice ring, doesn’t it? Or maybe,”Anyone up for Regrammarertizing?” Maybe one day we will car to the buy so we can mall new shoes. The possibilities for gleeful relanguaging are endless.

    Fiction (or non-fiction) on!

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  12. says

    I’m a little frightened for myself over how hard I laughed reading this. I always knew I was a grammar geek, but there ARE extremes. My laugh was perhaps a bit megalomaniacal.

    But in truth, nouns can legitimately become verbs if enough people USE a noun as a verb – as in Google. But then that, as you rightly pointed out, is by consensus.

    Not to mention the fact that in order for NBC to COMEDY Wednesday, their shows would actually have to be funny…

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  13. says

    My friend’s husband coined the term “dramacidal.” And I use it all the time. It does feel a little different for individual people to do it than for corporations. Though I don’t know why since despite what anyone says a company can’t write its own headlines. It takes people to do that.

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  14. Ray Pace says

    “They’re only words and words are all I have to steal your heart away…” Beegees lyrics.

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  15. says

    My linguistics training, and the two sides of it, are warring against each other here. I was originally a prescriptivist, all about the RULES and how language SHOULD be used and what is PROPER. Over time I did relax as I became interested in how language evolves and words are introduced or meanings change, etc.; I became much more of a descriptivist. But still, some of these terms, especially the ones invented by business or marketing departments, grate on me. I just can’t help but think some of them are stupid, especially the little portmanteau words that are designed to be cute. (Yet not always. I don’t mind shipping names, i.e. combinations of fictional couples’ names into a single term.)

    …This really is a fascinating exercise in where my tolerance ends. I’m getting nostalgic for my good old linguistics days, and am tempted to collect data and analyze it to see if I can find any patterns or if it is all as random as it seems.

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  16. says

    Thanks as always for the groovy comments, campers. You know, I thought this was a relatively new screed for me, but then I realized that I’ve been honking this horn all the way back since CREATIVITY RULES! published in 2000:

    “To name a thing is to own a thing. When you make up new words, or move old words into new contexts, when your word choice is an act of creation and not just selection, you take ownership of the language. And language is a writer’s clay.”

    For more on how to own the language, you might want to check out that book. I think you’ll see a link on this page. -jv

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  17. says

    Beautiful post!! The ironicalness is that…. You made at least two unpurposeful, terrible typos that create dyspeace within my heart!!

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