Why Do Kids Say "Versing"?
It's older than you might think.
Ron M. wrote,
"The phenomenon of using the word 'verse' instead of 'versus' seems relatively recent, but to this 56 year old's ears, it's driving me nuts. I first started hearing this about 15 years ago when my sons were interested in Wrestlemania. They and their friends would be talking about who was wrestling who and would use the word 'verse.' I would gently correct them and tell them the correct word is ‘versus’ ... Latin for 'against.' It seems like suddenly this mis-usage is rampant. I'm actually hearing professional sportscaster making this error!"
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Jackie also provided an example. She wrote,
"Before a soccer game ... my kids say, 'we are versing' such and such team. I would love to know what kid started using the verb form of 'versus,' but it certainly stuck!"
Versing: It Starts with the Children
When I first started getting questions about "versing" to mean "playing," I thought it might be a regionalism, like how people are more likely to say "spendy" in Oregon than in Florida; so I surveyed people the Grammar Girl Facebook page, and what I found instead is that it's an age-related phenomenon. People say "versing" everywhere, but they're nearly always kids. Although it's not unheard of among older people, my Facebook followers reported hearing it most often from elementary school kids.
It seems to be especially common in Australia and New Zealand. It could just be a statistical blip because I have fewer followers in those countries than in the U.S., but Keryn from eastern Australia wrote, "'Verse' is a very common formulation here, especially among TV sports journalists. I even saw it on a billboard outside our local football stadium—Team A 'verse' Team B."
Kids say 'versing' everywhere. (Red=a person reported hearing "versing." Blue=a person reported they had never heard "versing.") See the whole international map.
Versing: How Old Is It?
"Versing" is not as new as many people think, although we'll get to the reasons that it might be spreading in a minute.
As Ron noted, his kids were using "versing" 15 years ago. The oldest report of hearing it comes from Bob P., who says his sister used it more than 30 years ago in New York when she was in middle school. He wrote, "She would almost exclusively use it in the past tense, as in 'We versed Mrs. Smith's class in a spelling bee.' It was also typical for her to use it when forms of the verb ‘to play’ seemed wrong—you wouldn't really 'play' another class in a spelling bee, but you would 'play' them in kickball, which is what she would say."
Versing: I Thought My Kid Made It Up
[[AdMiddle]A lot of parents who commented seemed to think that their kid made it up; they didn't realize that it is widespread. [An One possibility is that 20 and 30 years ago, kids did occasionally make it up by mistaking the preposition "versus" for a verb.
It's actually quite logical for kids to think that if "Sue dances with Joe" goes with "Sue is dancing with Joe," and if "Squiggly sees Aardvark" goes with "Squiggly is seeing Aardvark," that "Mrs. Smith's class versus Mr. Javier's class" leads to "Mrs. Smith's class is versing Mr. Javier's class." "Versus" sounds like a verb to them, not the preposition that it is.
So it's reasonable to think that every once in a while, kids did make this mistake and used "versing" for a while until someone corrected them or they got older and realized it was wrong.
Versing: The Video Game Connection
Anecdotal evidence seems to point to "versing" making its way to the mainstream through video games that came out in the '90s.
Ben Zimmer noted in a post to an American Dialect Society discussion group that you could find comments that used "versing" to mean "playing" on gaming newsgroups back in the mid-1990s. For example, one gamer offered this advice on a Sony video game list in 1995: "When versing the black car, remember that the first is a warmup lap..." A couple of my Facebook commenters noted that their kids started saying "versing" when they started playing Pokemon, and Pokemon was created in the '90s.
The first entry for "versing" showed up on the Urban Dictionary site in 2004 and reads "Derived from the common term 'vs.' in video games where choices are either 1 Player or 2 Player (commonly listed as 'vs.')." Martie on my Facebook page said her boys use it and "I tried to correct them, but learned it's the gaming lingo."
My theory is that either kids were exposed to phrases like "A versus B" much more often because of video games, and they started making the verb mistake themselves more often and in groups where it got reinforced, or that some of the games that came out in the ‘90s actually used "versing" as a verb. Either way, it spread, became more accepted, and eventually also made its way into sports.
At this point, "versing" falls into the category of slang. It seems similar to "woot," which also has roots in gaming. Older people might not have heard it before, but most kids know what it means. It has a place in niches like gaming and maybe even sports in some regions or countries, but it would seem wrong to most adult Americans if they saw it in USA Today or on CNN.
Versing: The Old Meaning
"Versing" actually was a verb about poetry before kids started using it the way they do today. The Oxford English Dictionary has it being used as far back as the year 10001 to mean "to compose or make verses." My favorite example is a sentence from 1909: "He began to verse extemporaneously in her ear."
Other Video Game Terms: Pause
"Versing" isn't the only gaming term that has made it into real life. Two people reported that their kids say "pause" or "pause game" when they need a break when they're playing outside.
Versing: Are We Reversing?
Finally, I'll leave you with this joke from Janice C. She asked, "[If kids say 'versing' to mean playing another tea, If they play them again, are they reversing?"
If you or your kids play a game that actually uses "versing" as a verb, if the game says something like "You are now versing player 2," please leave a comment and let me know.
Ben Zimmer e-mailed after this article was published to point me to a later post to the American Dialect Society group that I had missed: In 1984, the New York Times noted the word "versing" and called it New York "high school slang meaning to complete against another school's team."
1984 is much earlier than the other examples, and one would think "versing" must have been quite widespread to merit a mention in the Times (although it could also just be that the writer's kids and friends were using it a a lot).
Although two anecdotes aren't enough to let us draw meaningful conclusions, the Times mention combined with Bob P.'s story about his sister using "versing" around the same time in New York makes me wonder if "versing" got a regional start in New York. It could have spread from there or arisen elsewhere independently for the reasons I cited in the original article above.
1. Note: I said "the 1600s" in the audio podcast, but when I double-checked later I found much older examples.