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The dreaded semantic transformation



n A former newspaperman writes concerning an Arkansas Times columnist:

"Please stop [redacted] from contributing to the nauseating trend of turning nouns into verbs. In today's blog he says, 'One of Dabbs' first official acts, by the way, was firing the human resources employee who'd backgrounded her about Bryant salary law.' A few months back, he said The New York Times had 'front-paged' an article on a certain subject. Is that our old city editor rolling over in his grave I hear?"

To some people, seeing a noun become a verb is as horrifying as seeing Lon Chaney Jr. become The Wolfman. Yet this semantic transformation occurs frequently, and has been doing so for a long time, whereas The Wolfman appears only under a full moon. (Someone is trying to tell me there are newer and better wolfmen than Lon Jr. Newer, maybe.) Furthermore, condemnation of the practice is not so easy to find as it once was. Some of my usage books raise no objection at all, and others issue only mild warnings against excess. Garner's Modern American Usage says, "Although some writers enjoy referring to fast-tracking budgets, tasking committees, and mainstreaming children, be wary of these innovations. They reek of jargon."

Even Theodore Bernstein, whose "The Careful Writer" was published in 1977, stopped well short of nausea, and Bernstein was picky. "As to the conditions under which nouns become acceptable verbs, the answer is not clear-cut. There are writers (and, of course, speakers) who delight in novelty ... They are the ones who would elevator themselves to their penthouses ... The writer who has respect for the language will treat such antics with disdain. But he will not close his mind to the possibility that there is a continuing need for new words either to express succinctly new situations or to express old situations that otherwise require the expenditure of too much verbal effort."

I adopt the old legislator's position. "Some of my friends are for this bill and some of my friends are against it. I stand with my friends."

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