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A Million Little Pieces Of My Mind

Verbing Nouns

By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 3/4/2024
Posted: 10/6/2023
Page Views: 440
Topics: #Linguistics #Etymology
It's been said there isn't a noun in the English language that can't be verbed.

I love language and am an amateur linguist, more in the sense of how languages evolve than in actually being able to speak many. Or any, other than one. (When I've traveled to foreign countries, I make a point of learning Please, Thank you, Where's a restroom? and Excuse me!, which actually cover 90% of my interactions with locals.) But I've become fascinated by the idea of the same word doing double duty as a noun and a verb.

Language is a living, evolving entity that reflects our changing world. It's one of the things that makes it so fascinating! I also love history, and language details exactly how the world has changed. For example, the ancient Greeks had a special word for burning a neighbor's house down for fun. (It tells you something about the Ancient Greeks, and us, that they did and we don't.)

But whether your high school teacher was more Lucy Ricardo or more Superman, it's unlikely that you were taught any more of etymology than how to spell the word…if that! But that's why graduating high school, or even college, is no reason to stop learning.

I came upon an observation years ago that has always struck me as interesting. It is, There isn't a word in the English language that can't be verbed. Here are a few examples of common English nouns that are often used as verbs:

  1. Book

    As a noun, it refers to a set of printed pages that are held together inside a cover. As a verb, book can mean to reserve something, like a hotel room or a flight. For example, I booked a flight to New York.

  2. Google

    Originally the name of the search engine company, google has become a verb that means to search for something online. For example, I'll google the recipe.

  3. Text

    As a noun, it refers to the written words in a book, document, or other written work. As a verb, text means to send someone a text message. For example, I'll text you the details.

  4. Mail

    As a noun, it refers to letters and packages delivered by postal service. As a verb, mail means to send something through the mail. For example, I need to mail this package.

  5. Water

    As a noun, it's the clear liquid that we drink and that falls from the sky as rain. As a verb, water means to pour water on something, usually a plant. For example, Don't forget to water the roses.

These examples have vastly different histories. For example the track from Google the online search engine to google the verb is straightforward enough. (And the origin of Google's name is actually interesting in its own right.) But some words, like book, have an even more intriguing history. So let's follow that first example and trace the evolution from reading material to sleeping in a hotel.

The story starts with a tree. Traditionally, the proto-Germanic peoples held the beech tree in high regard. In those days and in that part of the world, there were no shamans or priests; kings and chieftans performed rituals and it was they who wrote runes or words on beech trees to summon the spirit world as well as communicate with future generations. The beech tree was held in awe because whatever material words were inscribed on took on the power and magic of the gods. Beech trees can live for a very long time. The typical lifespan of a European beech tree is around 150-200 years, though some can live up to 300 years. (American beech trees can live as long as 500 years!) That meant that people could see the runes left by kings long dead; thus, in a sense, kings, through the beech tree, became relatively immortal. Powerful magic!

But this set up the stage for associating beech trees with writing, and the ability to communicate beyond time. So the Germanic root *bōk-, a cognate to their word for beech, became bōc in Anglo-Saxon/Old English, and book in modern English.

So much for the noun. But when did it become used as a verb? That began as far back as the 1200s, with the verb form bocian, which meant to grant or assign by charter. Land grants in those days, while handwritten, were composed on enough pages to bind into a leather-bound book. So one might say, The King booked me this land.

Over time, as systems of making reservations developed, the term book started being used as a verb meaning to reserve something, since a reservation, whether for a train, hotel or restaurant, means to put your name into a book. So (I'm surmising here) people probably started by saying, Put me in your book, and eventually shortened it to, Book me. The earliest known usage of book to mean to register a name for a seat or place; issue (railway) tickets is from 1841 and that of to engage a performer as a guest is from 1872.

Now, there's another use of book as a verb, especially if you were a teenager in the '70s about to be caught smoking. Let's book! you might have whispered hoarsely to your friends, meaning, Let's depart with haste!

I could make up a perfectly believable origin for that: I could say, since making a plane reservation would be the first step to going somewhere, Let's book! could have derived from that. That's believable, right?

I could, but I won't, because that would be an example of folk etymology, what happens when non-experts such as myself make guesses and pass them off as fact. I admit I'm often tempted, but thanks to the internet, when I have such a guess it's easy to verify and/or find out the truth.

In this case, the book of leaving quickly and the book of making reservations, are what linguists call false cognates. That is, they are two words that sound the same (like cognates) but are actually unrelated.

In this case, the phrase book it meaning to depart hastily originates from the 1930s Black slang expression bookity-book, which was used to imitate the noise of scampering away. (Think of the musical cue when Fred Flintstone is about to make tracks.) By the 1950s, bookity-book was shortened to book and by the 1970s took on the meaning of to move quickly in youth slang.

Having an awareness of word origins and how they came to be used as they are today, is essential for understanding our own history and how we think.

Also, it's fun!