Monday, January 31, 2005

Fun with Denominal Verbs

Christian Brady is annoyed by some denominal verbs in English, particularly "defensing" as in, "Pittsburgh is going to have a tough time defensing New England and Tom Brady's arm." He also mentions "efforting," which I have not heard or read, but comes up on Google quite a few times. One that especially annoys me is "I suspicion" for "I suspect." Google on that one and you'll get more than a few, as well.

However, the formation of verbs from nouns is pretty productive in English, and the verbs to film, to pocket, to shape, to house, to napalm may have once raised the same hackles as *to defense and *to suspicion. When there is no morphological change marking the word-class shift from noun to verb, it is called "conversion" or (by some) "zero derivation" (meaning there is an invisible or zero morpheme).

Maybe *to defense and *to suspicion annoy because "defense" and "suspicion" themselves are derived nouns (from defend and suspect, respectively) and it is unusual for derived nouns to undergo conversion; it offends against the economy of language (as this article suggests). Why not just use to defend or to suspect? That doesn't account for the high annoyance factor of *to effort, however.

Denominal verbs are an essential part of many languages, but conversion as a linguistic process is not. In Semitic, the D-stem (Hebrew Piel, Aramaic Pael) is used to "verb" many nouns. For instance, I believe that the common verb dibber is a denominal formation from davar, "word" = "to make words, speak." (HALOT improbably connects it with devorah, "bee," and suggests the primeval meaning was "to buzz." I doubt this.) Another example in Biblical Hebrew is kihhen "to act as priest" from kohen (Ex. 28:1 and elsewhere).

It's actually quite fun to collect examples of highly unusual denominal verbs in Semitic. Giorgio Buccellatti at UCLA used to say that his favorite denominal verb was Arabic baumara "to shift into neutral," derived from the French point mort, "neutral gear." A famous one in Modern Hebrew is le-hizdangeff, "to walk down Dizengoff street (in Tel Aviv)." Another good one is le-hitcharben, "to make a mess of something," from חורבן, churban, "ruin." Syriac offers a host of denominal verbs, such as ethbarnash "to be made human," from bar-nasha, "human," which comes to have a theological significance.

Send me your favorite (or least favorite) denominal verbs, in any language, and I'll feature them in an update.

UPDATE: Thanks for your comments below. Keep 'em coming! Eliyahu asks a good question about the use of proper nouns in conversion. I think it's the same phenomenon, and happens a lot, as in "to Google." Jim, "to pastor" sounds all right to me; what do others think?

I discovered this website, which has some interesting examples. One of my favorite denominal verbs in English that involves affixation instead of conversion is "posterize"; if you're not an NBA fan you might not be familiar with it.


Jim said...

The one that always grinds me when I hear it is "pastor" as in "I pastor a church". Pastor is a noun, for Pete's sake!

Eliyahu ben Avraham vaSarah said...

I'm not sure if this counts, but its what sprang to mind when I was reading this post. The other night on CSI:NY a young gangster was instructing a kid to hit another guy with a baseball bat and told him to "Jeter him." Obviously a reference to Derek Jeter, shortstop for the NY Yankees. Or do proper-nouns constitute a separate phenominon?

Cb said...

Ed, the difference between "defensing" and "efforting" on the one hand and "to film," etc. on the other (and why it is so annoying to me) is that there are perfectly good verbs/verbal forms for the words being mangled.

When new words come into our langauge and there is conversion from noun to verb or vice versa this is, imho, natural and in fact is very economical.

Ken said...

"to xerox": I guess that works on the same principle as "to jeter". There's actually alot of those.

Related, but on verbs, is there a technical term for when a name comes to represent an attribute of that person, e.g., to pull a homer.

Have to agree that the annoyance of "to effort", "to defense" or "to suspicion" comes from the fact that there are terms that adequately express the same thing but that leaves the question, why is "to xerox" not (as) annoying?

I like "to pastor." It's like "to shepherd." In fact, I'd guess alot of occupations form verbal forms. Probably fruitful to look there for more.

Ben C. Smith said...


Some animal names come to mind. To parrot, to ferret (out), to pig out. Even to gopher.

A similar phenomenon that interests me is how stressing a different syllable in English can effect the change from noun to verb. For instance, an IMport is something to imPORT.

Jim Davila said...

The British abomination "to liase" (from "liason") is my (least) favorite. Has it caught on yet in the USA?