New Verbs

These are great days for new verbs. They multiply and flourish exceedingly. Perhaps this is partly due to the importance of advertisement in modern life; a new and snappy verb will catch the eye where an old one would go unnoticed. The paper shortage, and the hurry in which we all live, may also have something to do with it, for the apparent purpose of some of these new verbs is to say in one word what would otherwise need two or three.

New verbs are ordinarily formed in one of three ways, all of which have in the past been used to create acceptable additions to our vocabulary. One is the simple method of treating a noun as if it were a verb. This was the origin of the verb question, and of many others. The second is to add ise to an adjective, as sterilise has been formed from sterile. The third is by what is called "back-formation" that is to say forming from a noun the sort of verb from which the noun might have been formed if the verb had come first. In this way the verb diagnose was formed from the noun diagnosis.

The following are some of the words whose growing popularity is presumably due to our wish to make a single word serve for two or three:

To audition (to give an audition to).
To contact (to make contact with).
To donate (to make a donation of).
To enthuse (to be enthusiastic).
To feature (to make a prominent feature of).
To finalise (to put into final form).
To glimpse (to catch a glimpse of).
To hospitalise (to send to hospital).
To message (to send a message to).
To position (to put into position).
To publicise (to give publicity to).
To reposition (to put back into position).
To sense (to become vaguely aware of).
To site (to choose a site for).

These are generally regarded as new verbs, though the truth is that several of them are words of respectable antiquity dug out of an oblivion in which some may think they might well have remained. Only five of them are not included in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary published in 1933—audition, finalise, hospitalise, publicise and reposition. Contact is said to be "rare, technical", donate to be "chiefly U.S.", and enthuse to be " U.S. slang". The rest are recognised without comment as verbs.

Even if it were true that these verbs make it possible to express in one word what would otherwise need several—and in some cases this is arguable—that would not necessarily be a justification for trying to force into the language verbs as unpleasant as some of these are. All of them, except perhaps site (but see also Contact), may still give offence to some readers, and therefore should not be used by official writers; their duty is to follow recognised usage, not to innovate. The ultimate fate of these words depends not on the verdict of any individual but on popular opinion, which decides these questions in the long run, generally with good sense.

Still more is it the duty of all self-respecting writers to refrain from using those new verbs that are formed by pretending that a noun is a verb and using it in exactly the same sense as an existing genuine verb. Examples of these are architect for design, author for write, decision for decide, gift for give, signature for sign, suspicion for suspect. None of these is tolerable.

Other verbs base their claims on the plea that they represent something new, or if not actually new, something which is so much more in evidence than it used to be that a new word for it is justified. Among these are decontaminate, derestrict, pressurise, rationalise, recondition, rehabilitate, sabotage and service. All these have a good footing and none is likely to be driven out, much as some people may regret it.

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