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13 April 2012

Etiquette issues #4: verbalising nouns

Bob can be contacted on:
My friend and fellow language teacher, Robert Mulligan—known to the world as Bob—writes with an interesting point which I fear confuses many Russians trying to unravel the mysteries of English. It is an old controversy, but one that doesn’t go away, namely the objection that some people have to turning nouns into verbs.
     Robert sent me this:
“A funny thing happened to me on my way to the classroom, which reminded me of an unintended grammatical confrontation I had with my daughter a good few years ago. (She is now too old to be argued with. Ooops! Too old with whom to argue? Whatever.) One of my students had apologised for not doing the homework with which he had been ‘tasked’. As if by magic, a supernatural, incorporeal being looking remarkably like my daughter arose before me and gave me ‘one of those looks’ that make mere males quake in their boots. I can still hear her witty words from all those years ago: ‘I can’t stand people who verbalise nouns!’ To which I replied: ‘In that case I’ll task you with erasing this canker from the English language.’ ‘Ha, ha! Very funny,’ came the reply. Suddenly a light frost descended over what minutes before had been a beautiful summer’s day. Only a large dose of pocket-money could relieve the situation so, standing on my dignity as best I could, I acceded to her request to ‘cough up the dosh.’ She was just as happy as if I had ‘paid the money’, which amused me as ‘cough’ is a noun and ‘to cough’ a verb. But it would have been more than my bank balance was worth to point this out to her.”
     Right, Miss Mulligan, you asked for it! Can you honestly say you have never “hoovered” the floor; “banked” the money, “eyeballed” a beefy boy or ignored his advances while saying, “I can’t be arsed.”? And did you not realised that you  yourself verbalised the noun “verb” when complaining about others doing so?
     P.G. Wodehouse’s hero, Bertie Wooster, regularly used to “trouser his change.” One of his books opens with the sentence: “I marmaladed my toast with a flourish.” That was written in, I guess from memory, the 1930s.
     I wonder when Bob’s confrontation with his daughter took place because, as far as I am aware, the issue of verbalizing nouns became controversial only in the 1980s when President Reagan’s Secretary of State, General Alexander Haig, got into the habit of answering difficult questions from journalists at press conferences by saying, “I’ll no comment that.”
     Suddenly the whole of liberal England discovered the evils of verbalized nouns, even though every speaker of English—including conservative Americans—claims, or should claim,  the freedom to use the language in any way he or she sees fit, subject only to the fact that he or she makes himself or herself understood.
     Perhaps I do the young lady an injustice. I had better be careful. Though it is no crime to compare an English lady with an American General, she sounds like the sort of person who might be quite prepared to “verbal” me by “bad mouthing” my reputation, such as it is. I may have to “bung” her a quiet bung. D’you think a couple of bob’ll do, Bob?


  1. Well, there was that notorious TV advertising campaign a few years ago, in which rather effete orange-clad men ran up to (presumably) innocent passers by and slapped them around the chops, with the sadistic voice-over claiming " You been tangoed". Now, then...in the same spirit, what can the verb "to mulligan" possible mean? Have you ever been 'mulliganed'. Answers on an electronic postcard please.

  2. Hiya! Does the frequency of your posting depend on specific things or you create articles when you have a special mood or you create when you have time? Waiting forward to hear your answer.