Word play, some of it uncomfortable

The “Back Talk: A Conversation About Words” column (by Ralph Keyes) in the American Scholar for Autumn 2014 takes up two topics: “E pluribus unum”, on invented portmanteaus submitted by readers (one of which is a bit uncomfortable for me); and “The -ize have it”, on verbing via -ize, with an invitation to readers to submit their own inventions.

Portmanteaus. Keyes’s choices from the submissions in this category were stephood, irretextable, and:

swicky: sweaty-sticky, hot, humid weather (an alternative definition of this term can be found in the Urban Dictionary, “sweet, and yet icky”), courtesy of Colleen Richards

Ouch. Only too close to home.

On Keyes. Keyes is, among other things, a word enthusiast. From Wikipedia:

Ralph Keyes (1945 – ) is an author and lecturer who has written 16 books including Is There Life After High School? … [and] The Courage to Write

… Keyes’s books have dealt with topics in popular culture such as risk-taking, time pressure, loneliness, honesty, and human height. More recently he has turned to language: researching quotations, words, and expressions. Nice Guys Finish Seventh and The Quote Verifier explore the actual sources of familiar quotations. I Love It When You Talk Retro is about common words and phrases that are based on past events. His most recent book is Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms.

On the plus side, enthusiasts have their sheer enthusiasm going for them. On the minus side, they have little or no professional training, tend not to consult the literature in the field they write about (and might not even know about it), and depend instead on their personal reactions to the material they write about. For Keyes on verbings with -ize, these drawbacks are significant.

What he wrote (with some crucial stuff at the end bold-faced):

Using nouns as verbs has become commonplace: friend, guilt, Skype, swiftboat (to name just a few). Verbing nouns this way might seem like a modern practice, but English speakers have done it for centuries. Shakespeare excelled at the art, as when he gave us “dog them at the heels” in Richard II. Harvard linguist Steven Pinker estimates that a fifth of all our verbs were originally nouns.

The transition from noun to verb isn’t always felicitous, however, not when so much monetizing, securitizing, and collateralizing is going on in the financial sector. No verbed nouns are more annoying than tortured coinages that end in “ize.” The observation of an NPR guest that human beings have a tendency to “catastrophize” gnashizes the teeth. So do self-conscious terms such as prioritize and accessorize, to say nothing of ones like compartmentalize, disincentivize, and recontextualize that add a suffix to multisyllabic words that can’t bear the extra weight.

Think of this as verbizing, a subcategory no more modern than other kinds of verbing. After hearing a music critic refer to a pianist’s concertizing, I discovered that this verb had been around since at least 1883, when a writer referred to “pigs and geese … ‘concertizing’ horribly.” A couple of decades later, the clever owners of a car wax company gave their product a name that was pre-verbed and jingle-ready: Simonize (“Motorists wise, Simonize!”). Today, marketers eventize products and services by incorporating them into events. Annoying.

One way to arrest this trend might be to take it too far. For an American Scholar tote bag, convert a noun into a verb ending in “ize.” (New coinages only, please.) The three most annoying examples will win.

Keyes supposes that a trend towards verbizing could somehow be arrested, in this case by mockery, but impulses towards linguistic innovation are never that fragile. And Keyes proposes to judge submissions according to how annoying they are — to him, presumably, since I can’t imagine a defensible independent metric of annoyingness. But worst of all, the requirement that the coinages be new is virtually impossible to check: new to Keyes, possibly, but new, period, no way. Keyes has simply no idea how much verbizing has been going on in English, though it’s not hard to get some estimate of this amount.

For years, I collected verbizing examples for intro morphology courses I taught at Ohio State and at Stanford. This was “fortuitous collection” — examples that I just happened to notice. About ten years ago I plugged into collections being made by Beth Levin, with some input from Larry Horn. Quickly the number of examples climbed into the thousands. Periodically I’ve posted on some of these — most recently on bumpkinization, on this blog on November 4th.

Now let’s call in the professionals, in particular lexicographer Orin Hargraves, who looked at verbizing in a Language Lounge column on Visual Thesaurus on 8/1/11. From that posting:

Though it doesn’t appear in English until the late 16th century, when documentation of contact with Romance languages became increasingly available, -ize has been unstoppable since. It is now freely tacked onto words and roots of any origin — not just Greek and Latin ones, which are the languages of -ize’s pedigree. Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary has about 1500 -ize verbs as headwords; the OED has about 2200.

The years from 1950 to 2000 were a golden age of -izing, when hundreds of new -ize verbs appeared in English. Many were regarded with derision when they first appeared, and those that were Americanisms (many) were often sniffed at by the Brits. But these verbs are all mainstream today, used by all without scare quotes or glosses.

Representative examples: computerize, containerize, incentivize, Mirandize, prioritize, securitize, texturize, weaponize. (Note that Keyes detests — is annoyed by — incentivize, prioritize, and securitize.)

But my files also include many nonce creations: hostilize, sinisterize, disjointize, religiousize, donutize, etc.; including a large number based on proper names, whose interpretation depends crucially on the context of use (Gitmo-ize, Manhattanize, Nascarize, Walmart-ize, iPodize, WASP-ize, Keplerize (referring to a Menlo Park CA bookstore), Vermontize, (Christopher) Walkenize, etc. In the face of such facts, how could we judge that an example is “new”?

[Clarification added December 5th: I’m not objecting to a non-professional writing a column on language; there is, after all, a substantial market for language-related light entertainment, a market that can be served by enthusiasts as well as professionals. But the American Scholar is an organ of Phi Beta Kappa, so that its coverage of linguistic matters should be respectable on the scholarly front, and not merely invite the airing of language grievances. My judgment is that Keyes on verbizing went over the grievance line.]

One Response to “Word play, some of it uncomfortable”

  1. Dennis Preston Says:

    Swicky is indeed close. At least you don’t suffer as poor Ralph Fasold does. Every time I type him in he comes up in the correction as “fizzled,” (I know; I should add him to my dictionary.)

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