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Verbing Nouns and Nouning Verbs

Alan wonders what to think about his co-workers "solutioning" problems.

By
Jonathon Owen, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #721
verbing nouns is one way we get business jargon

Does it make you cringe whenever someone says they tasked someone with something? Do you scratch your head when someone wants to know what the ask is or says that you need a solve for a problem? Do you run the other way when someone says they want to dialogue with you? If so, you’re probably like our listener named Alan, who called in to say that people at his work “keep hijacking nouns and turning them into verbs” while also turning verbs into nouns. 

This caller said that his colleagues often use “solution” as a verb, as in “Now’s not the time to solution this,” but then they’ll also use “solve” as a noun, as in “We have this problem, and it’s been really difficult to find the solve.”

You probably associate this sort of usage more with Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss than with Shakespeare, but it may surprise you to learn that some of these words are centuries old and, in fact, were used by the Bard himself.

'Dialogue' as a verb sounds like modern business jargon, but it goes all the way back to Shakespeare.

In Shakespeare’s play "Love’s Labour’s Lost," the Princess of France says, “But now to task the tasker.” And in "Timon of Athens," Apermantus says, “Dost dialogue with thy shadow?” And “ask” as a noun goes back a thousand years or more to Old English, though it mostly fell out of use and didn’t pop up again until the late 20th century.

English makes it easy to turn one part of speech into another.

Why are these formations so common? Because English makes it easy to turn one part of speech into another. Old English was a much more heavily inflected language, meaning that many words had endings to show gender, number, and case or to show conjugation. But most of those endings disappeared as Old English turned into Middle English, so verbs and nouns didn’t necessarily have distinct endings anymore. You could easily make one kind of word into the other simply by using it that way. Linguists call this kind of transformation “conversion,” meaning that a word is converted from one part of speech into another without adding any kind of suffix or making any other changes. 

So if turning nouns into verbs and vice versa has been a normal part of English for centuries, then why do so many people hate these words? There isn’t always a clear answer, but one possible explanation is that we tend to dislike usages that are new or that suddenly become more popular. For example, nearly a hundred years ago, people started using “contact” as a verb to mean “to get in touch with someone.” And as soon as people started using it, other people started complaining about it, saying that it was vague or that there was no need for it when we already had perfectly good words and phrases like “call,” “talk to,” or “write to.” But that vagueness is part of what makes it so useful: sometimes the means of contact is irrelevant, and so it’s nice to have a catch-all word. And once it stopped being new—and once people realized how handy it can be—people stopped complaining about it.

And as we said earlier, verbs like “task” and “dialogue” go back to Shakespeare’s time, but they were uncommon or had started to fall out of use until they found new life in the business world. That brings us to the next theory of why people hate verbed nouns: because they hate business jargon, and verbed nouns seem to be common in the business world.

When you 'host' a party, you're using a noun that's been pressed into service as a verb.

Of course, many verbed nouns have nothing to do with business jargon, and you probably use them without thinking about them. Have you ever hosted a party or emailed a friend or accessed a database? If so, you’ve used nouns that have been pressed into service as verbs, and no one seems to be bothered by these. Plus, they have the advantage of being shorter than phrases like “played host at a party,” “sent an email to a friend,” or “gained access to a database.”

Sometimes there are other shades of meaning that make a verbed noun preferable to the original verb. “Give,” for example, could mean to give something back to someone or give someone something that they’re just borrowing or that they demanded from you. “Gift,” on the other hand, specifically means to give something as a gift. That more specific meaning makes it useful in situations where “give” might be unclear.

Now let’s come back to the caller’s complaint about people at work using “solution” as a verb and “solve” as a noun. Sometimes it’s difficult to see what difference in meaning there is between “we need to find a solve” and “we need to find a solution” or between “we need to solution this” and “we need to solve this.” But sometimes the point of jargon is less about conveying a more precise meaning and more about establishing an in-group and an out-group. That is, using jargon might not always communicate better, but it can show that you’re part of the team. While it might feel silly to say that you’re solutioning a problem by finding a solve, doing so might have an important social function at work.

It’s still okay to dislike such usage, though it’s important to recognize that forming verbs from nouns and nouns from verbs is a normal part of English and has been for at least a thousand years. You probably use verbed nouns and nouned verbs all the time without even realizing it. So the next time someone at work says you don’t need to solution a problem, try to face it with a little less cringe and a little more resolve to find joy in the marvelous flexibility of the English language.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

This article was written by Jonathon Owen, an editor and linguist who blogs at arrantpedantry.com.

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