Henry Hitchings gifts us with a fun read

The last time we encountered Henry Hitchings, he was getting flak from the New Yorker for his book The Language Wars. Now he has written an entertaining column for the New York Times about nouns that are repurposed as verbs — for example, “an epic fail.”  The process is apparently called nominalization. As in The Language Wars, he is not inclined to be judgmental about the way language changes:

Some regard unwieldy nominalizations as alarming evidence of the depraved zeitgeist. But the phenomenon itself is hardly new. For instance, “solve” as a noun is found in the 18th century, and the noun “fail” is older than “failure” (which effectively supplanted it).

“Reveal” has been used as a noun since the 16th century. Even in its narrow broadcasting context, as a term for the final revelation at the end of a show, it has been around since the 1950s.

“Ask” has been used as a noun for a thousand years — though the way we most often encounter it today, with a modifier (“a big ask”), is a 1980s development.

Some grammarians are still complaining about the converse trend — nouns used as verbs, as in “He chaired the meeting” or “He gifts us” in the title of my post.  Nouns also show up as adjective, as with the “fun” in my title.  Neither trend seems terrible to me, although I wouldn’t use those particular examples in formal prose; they need to marinate a bit more.

At work, my cold-eyed editors forbid the use of install as a noun, as in “During the install you may see various messages…”  But of course lots of computer terms double as both verb and noun: “After the reboot…”, “The download may take a few minutes…”, “If the compile fails…”.    Some of those usages sound better to my ears than others.  But none of them are wrong, exactly; they are just language in the process of evolving.

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