Shoddy speakers damage the language


Recently, I was reading an article in the Reno Gazette-Journal written by a University of Nevada, Reno business college staffer named Kylie Howe. It began, “I recently had the pleasure of touring Salman Ahmad through the entrepreneurship ecosystem in our very own Biggest Little City.”

We’ll put aside the notion of an ecosystem (living organisms in concert with air, water, minerals) combined with entrepreneurship (starting a business or organization).

When I read about “touring” a person in Reno, I was reminded of the first time someone told me he was “graduating high school.”

“Where are you graduating it to?” I asked, thinking perhaps it was like the time in 1967 that Abbie Hoffman tried to levitate the Pentagon.

“Tour” is a noun and also can be used as a verb, as in “Salman Ahmad toured Reno.” But if Ms. Howe toured Salman Ahmad, it suggests she crawled over his body.

The distasteful practice of converting nouns into verbs is not, I suppose, all that surprising from someone who comes from the world of business and public relations, in which everything is grist for the mill. But it should be disturbing coming from the academic world, where language is supposed to be valued.

This practice has become common enough that — and I suppose this should not surprise us — the word “verb” itself, a noun, is being used as a way to describe the practice of turning nouns into verbs. This term is “verbing,” as practiced by “verbifiers.”

New York Times columnist and Nixon speechwriter William Safire once wrote, “The verbifiers become more offensive when they turn a coinage into an instant cliché: as ‘to impact on,’ rather than ‘to have an impact’; or ‘to critique’ for ‘write a critique’ (or the more direct ‘criticize’). But at least the shorteners can claim the advantage of brevity. The abomination is the creation of a wholly unnecessary word. ‘To author’ has replaced ‘to write’ in the vocabulary of those who consider authors more important than writers. (At some opening night of a well-­authored play, I intend to leap up, shouting: ‘Writer! Writer!’)”

Safire then received a letter from a reader who reported seeing a sign in New York City: “This door is alarmed 24 hours a day.”

Most verb conversions seem to be the product of either pomposity or laziness, and I remember a rationalization by a Washington Post writer that went something like this: “The language evolves. That’s the excuse I use every time I abuse it.”

Of course, most people in the United States, where respect for language is, shall we say, more restrained than elsewhere, regard those like Safire and Edwin Newman who try to defend the language as fusty old fogies. Our schools do not do a particularly good job — or any kind of job — of educating our people on why language is important.

Here’s an example. The terms “literally” and “figuratively” conflict with each other. But thanks to sportscasters and other similarly shoddy speakers who have misused it, “literally” has come to mean “figuratively,” seemingly a contradiction in terms.

A couple of years ago it was reported that this usage has become so widespread that dictionaries have given up the fight and have redefined it to mean what it actually opposed.

Here’s the consequence: There is no synonym for “literally.” We have abused the word so badly that the English language no longer has a term for its original meaning. We murdered a word and now have no way to express its former meaning. And some anti-­intellectual somewhere no doubt believes the change has gifted the language.

Dennis Myers is a veteran Nevada journalist.