©John Phipps 2002
Stop Me Before I Verb Again
Shakespeare used a vocabulary of tens of thousands of words, perhaps as high as 30,000, frequently making them up as he went (probably played a lot of Scrabble). After this historic vocabulary high point, our Mother tongue, as abused by all of us daily, has diminished to an average working toolkit of a few thousand words, almost all of which are routinely displaced by some combination of “like”, “you know”, “relate”, and “paradigm”.
This may not be a bad thing. As a professional (as in IRS Schedule C, not as in subsistence) writer, having fewer bullets to shoot means fewer decisions of which bullet to use. Plus, erudite writers with vast lexicons are now forcibly reduced to the level of semantically-challenged scribblers such as
I me I him
us me. But the best news is that the most powerful weapon in years in
the fight against clear communication has been deployed. I refer, of course to
the now-widespread tactic of making a verb (defined as a word in a sentence on
a blackboard that the teacher underlines twice) out of any word you wish. By
making sturdy nouns, adjectives, propositions, subcontinents, etc. into action
words, a small vocabulary can seem to express all kinds of new thoughts without
the added bother of actually thinking.
The result is a unique style of writing or speaking that can make you sound like the guy who hones the cutting edge. Magically, the burden of comprehension is on the listener or reader, as they try to interpret your clever reductionist substitutions. The added bonus here is, of course, that deliberate obfuscation is now practicable by even the most straightforward layman, something once limited to public relations specialists and Andersen accountants.
The classic example of this practice is the word “parent”. For most of my life “parent” was a noun meaning a person who had, to use the scientific terminology, sprung off. A few years ago, in one of the boldest pioneering moves in the history of lingo, “parent” became a verb defined as “to do the stuff that parents do”. The speed with which “parenting” became standard usage opened the floodgates or, as we now say, “floodgated” the development of a myriad of new verbs. Soon we were busy “partnering”, “dialoging”, and “networking”; devising new names for old activities in a self-deceptive simulation of innovation. In some cases we attached the ubiquitous “-ize” to lend an air of legitimacy to our verbing. This was good strategizing.
Throw away that thesaurus – any word can serve multiple functions, virtually extincting the synonym. Stylistically, it is hard to argue with the quantum leap these literary land mines have provided. Consider the following blurb:
Here in 2002, as our great nation roads to the future, one central question is brained by all good citizens: Will our country keep economying? The vigorous moneying of last decade seems to be sputtering, bummering the National Attitude.
Politicians of all flavors have worded on this troubling development. On TV, commentators pundit daily on the causes and cures. Only this is sure: nobody knows, except Chairman Greenspan. Unfortunately, his carefully Englished pronouncements are insufficiently jargonized to give much guidance.
But, as we all know, the American spender fickles. Even with consumer confidence aheading well in recent polls, recovery is far from being certainized. Only time will tell what history will reveal. Or maybe not. In either case, the important thing to remember is these pungent thoughts were firsted here by me.
As our language devolves its way back to grunts and gestures, this DIY approach could cause us to end up with 270 million lingoes with few common words except basic profanity. Already separate dialects exist for athletes, politicians, geeks, and women over 50 who communicate principally with eyebrow movements.
I myself, am relanguaging like anything. For example, I have coined the words “floodmare” – a realistic dream about sump pump failure; “hyperoptionated” – a trance-like state induced by War-and Peace restaurant menus; and “preproactive” – getting the jump on guys who are merely proactive.
I am also looking into word-buzzing – creating business slang like “rightsizing” or “off-balance sheet”. So far I’ve buzzed “subinteresting” – the act of rolling a 7% CD into a 2%; and “infraculture” – a word that can mean almost anything (I expect it to show up in the new farm bill regs).
Language – it’s not just for the literate.