A fugitive verb

Very imperfectly caught, out of the corner of my ear, Amy Klobuchar (the senior US senator from Minnesota) being interviewed on MSNBC’s Morning Joe this morning:

was outbested by

Not yet able to recover the context (eventually the tape will be available for viewing), but it’s crucial for determining what AK was trying to convey by choosing the unusual verb outbest (rather than plain best or outdo).

I then went to look at standard dictionaries to see what they had to say about the verb. NOAD2 and AHD5 (big one-volume dictionaries), nothing. The OED, nothing.

At that point, I expected that outbest would have been be excoriated by critics  as pleonastic, or as an illegitimate blend of outdo and best. But MWDEU (which catalogs such criticisms), nothing; and Garner’s Modern American Usage (which traffics in such criticisms), nothng. All I found by way of negative criticism is that outbest is not a valid Scrabble word. And a word that my built-in spellchecker will accept.

On the other hand, user-created dictionaries have an entry for outbest, though these entries aren’t very carefully framed:

Wiktionary: (transitive) to be better at something [supply: than someone]

Urban Dictionary: to do better than someone [supply: at something]

It appears that people who use the (presumably relatively recent) novel verb outbest are trying to convey something subtly different from, and probably more specific than, the verbs best and outdo.

The situation would be parallel to that of (novel) morphological conversions — nounings, verbings, and back-formations — as examined in my 2010 Stanford SemFest talk “Brevity plus” (handout here), where I argue that such conversions favor semantic / pragmatic specificity and social specificity as well as brevity. That is, the conversions are associated with nuances of meaning and nuances in their sociocultural contexts of use. You get something extra from them. As I believe you do with outbest, where I perceive some focus on the competitive aspects of outbesting someone in something. (But to explore that idea, I’d need an actual corpus of examples, with rich context supplied; so I have to leave the topic to someone with resources unavailable to me.)

For comparison, from OED3 on the alternative verbs:

OED3 (Dec. 2014) on the verb best: Originally British regional. transitive. To get the better of, to get an advantage over; to outwit. Also: to cheat, defraud [1st cite 1839; 2006 New Yorker If you get great ratings, no matter how much you paid, J. P. will feel you bested him.]

OED3 (Dec. 2004) on the verb outdo: … 2.  a.  transitive. To excel, surpass, beat; to be superior to. Frequently in passive, esp. in not to be outdone. [1st cite from Shakespeare, Coriolanus]  


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