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Our ever-changing language
May 01, 2014
To illustrate bad usage, I recently quoted a Sun headline: “A Crackdown is Harshing Head Shop Owners” (February 8, 2014).
I took issue with the word, “harshing,” and went on to say, “Harsh and its various forms ... are not now, nor ever have been verbs.”
In response, reader, J. Williams, wrote, “Maybe harshing is a slang word.”
Harshing is not slang. However, we actually can view this grating usage in a positive light if we look at it as an example of language change. It’s well-known that words do move from one category to another in a process called “conversion” or “functional shift.”
This shifting has been happening for centuries and is going on still.
Oxford tells us, “It is often said there is no noun in English that cannot be verbed.” Examples are: to doctor a drink; to position a picture; to soldier on. Similarly, many verbs become nouns. We speak of,  a swim, or, a cheat, or, a bore. All three were originally only verbs.
Oxford says some words don’t lend themselves to conversions and adds that the verb, to organize will probably never be nouned. We’re unlikely to say, “Let’s have an organize.”
Other verbs and nouns are too alike to change. Thus, believe and belief will very probably stay as they are and we’ll never say, “This is my believe.”
The utility of a word also hampers its conversion. Oxford states, “In law, there may be no need for jury to be other than a noun: No ‘I’ve juried several times.’ However, such a use cannot be ruled out” (Oxford Companion to the English Language).
Oxford was right about not ruling out juried. It is already used this way, usually in regard to judging panels in the arts. So, we hear, “The books were juried by well-known authors.” Authored is another example.
The late William Safire (1929-2009) dealt with functional shift which he called, “class cleavage.” In, You Could Look it Up, he quoted a U.S. senator who wanted an amendment worded so, “It could be changed through the process of evolution.” The senator then added, “Unfortunately, we don’t let it evolute.”
Safire, long-time language columnist for the New York Times, was horrified. He called the verb, evolute, “a bastard back-formed word.”
Even so, he admitted that language shift is common and noted that the verbs, to butter, to bridge and to fish, all started life as nouns.
The first time I saw a sign warning, “This door is alarmed,” I found it so ridiculously funny that I took a picture of it. These days, we see alarmed used in this manner all the time.
In addition to verbs becoming nouns and nouns shifting to become verbs, we also make nouns out of adjectives — a natural, a regular and a final. Verbs evolve from adjectives too — to dirty, to empty and to dry. Even phrases end up as nouns — has-been, also-ran and down-and-out.
So, who knows? Maybe harshing actually will become an acceptable verb form one day. But I won’t hold my breath.