It’s that season of the year, and gift-giving is in the media. The New Scientist “holiday special” (December 19 through January 8), for example, has a piece by Robert Rowland Smith on the nature of gift exchanges. But, more to the point for a blog that is mostly about language, there’s Margaret Visser’s op-ed piece in the December 23 NYT: “Why We ‘Gift'”.

Visser starts by distinguishing gifts freely given from gifts given

to people we scarcely know or for whom we feel little warmth — to clients, colleagues, children’s teachers or people we ought to remember but seldom do. Giving them spills over into the calculating, the public, the area of social pressure and of obligation.

In effect, this is obligatory giving, though in our culture we don’t think of it that way.

This leads Visser to a point of language:

The lack of a word for what for us has clearly been felt by users of American English. An obsolete verb, “to gift” … has been picked up and given new work to do. “Gifting” is often used now for handling people objects disguised as gifts for the purpose of carrying out conventions and socially imposed duties.

There are several things to worry about here. First, to gift never went fully obsolete (certainly not in Scots English). Next, more recent uses are probably fresh verbings of the noun gift, rather than revivals of the earlier verb; certainly, they attract the sort of passionate peeving that dogs so many innovations (especially verbings, nounings, and back-formations); critics say they are not only unnecessary but also pretentious or jargony.

And, finally, the idea that the innovative verb gift serves primarily to refer to obligatory giving is an interesting speculation, but one I have seen no evidence for. People who use the verb gift usually defend it — quite reasonably, to my mind — by saying that give is too non-specific, and that gift can be used to convey specifically ‘give as a gift’ (covering voluntary gifts as well as other sorts). MWDEU has a nice discussion of innovative gift, by the way.

A syntactic note: the verbs gift and give participate in somewhat different diathesis alternations:




2 Responses to “gifting”

  1. John Lawler Says:

    In Spanish, this is even clearer. Dar is usually not used to refer to gift-giving, for which there’s a special verb regalar, with associated noun regalo, both translatable as English ‘gift’. This has usage consequences: since dar never means ‘give a gift’, the imperative Dame ‘Give me’ can be used in many situations where one would seem to be rudely asking for a gift in English.

    The extra syntactic affordances you mention are somewhat reminiscent of steal s.t. (from s.o.), rob s.o. (of s.t.), rip off s.t./s.o..

  2. David W. Fenton Says:

    Related: re-gifting.

    Indeed, strangely enough, “to re-gift” seems to me a more natural usage than “to gift”.

    David W. Fenton

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