Tuesday, July 26, 2016

In defense of part-of-speech conversion: How I learned to stop worrying and love adulting

Pushback against “verbification,” the use of nouns as verbs is a thing, and it’s a frustrating thing at that, because it represents the worst kind of pretense and pedantry: the kind that’s demonstrably fucking wrong.

English (which is all I’ll speak for, here. If I slip and say “language” it should be noted here I still just mean “English.”) is adaptable. With shocking regularity, most behaviors that you hear griped about as a break with tradition and an act of destruction are not only well within the existent rules of English, they usually have been happening for a couple of centuries.

Verbification is not only an example of English’s adaptability, it is, as is usually the case, simply making a reappearance in public conversation as it has at various points over the past 200 years. (It’s likely been taking place much longer, but there’s specific modern evidence dating back to the early 1820s in the form of “medaling” in the Olympics).

To completely yank a rule out of my ass and use it to explain where I’m going, using nouns as verbs typically occur as a way to describe process or articulate a result (“I can’t adult,” the aforementioned “medaling” example, “championing a cause.”). The latter two are generally accepted because of either age or noble intent, whereas the former gets disregarded as it’s both a newer convention and not a part of any prestigious use-that said, if you give it long enough, it will be. Or it’ll disappear in a puff of smoke. You can never be sure until it happens (which is another reason to not be an asshole about this sort of thing).


A recent example I was asked about is “architecting a solution.” This comes up in business, especially in software, so it’s something I’ve heard a lot. Now, I don’t, by any stretch, claim this doesn’t sound incredibly douchey. And as much as I’d like to say it always is, I can’t. Very few situations like this are always any one thing or another. What it is, though, is a great way to explore the nuanced differences between language, language use, and language users.

So, we’ve established language and use, what’s left is language users. This is where intention and context come into play. We have to establish, right away, that there are no inherently bad words. This doesn’t just apply to profanity or slurs (although you can run into situations where nearly 100% of the time you will encounter justifiable offense, this is on a different axis than pedantic bristling and still doesn’t qualify something as inherently bad.) This also, of course, doesn’t mean it’s anything goes at all times. Context is a factor, as is propriety; all I’m saying really is there’s no objective leg to stand on in any argument against use, not really.

Now, this lack of a concrete quality of “bad” or “wrong” doesn’t mean there still isn’t room for douchiness. This is where the nuance comes in. It comes down to context, speaker intent, and speaker knowledge.

What is the goal of the speaker? Using the example cited above (“architecting”), and the definition of its noun form, (“A person who designs buildings and in many cases also supervises their construction,”) it implies that to architect, or architecting involves the enaction of, or enacting a process that would require a mastery of both design and implementation. This is fair, and can certainly come up in a hilariously wide range of contexts. (What I’m about to do is called contexting! Brrr. Gave myself douche chills). So, say, in business, say IT, the conceiving of, building, and managing of a major software solution definitely is a virtual or electronic act of architecture. Here’s where douche factor comes in, though.

Is this a term used by the described-architects themselves? Or someone in a peripheral role? I’d personally argue that a peripheral figure, especially one in a position of authority (CEO, senior sales manager, etc.), is using the term to demonstrate command over the people-as-resource that would do the architecting. In my experience this can be for the sake of personal ego just as much as it’s a sales tactic while, at the same time, an earnest attempt to show those in the role of virtual architect that they are skilled laborers, maybe even artists. There are just as many arguments to the contrary, though and ultimately, none of them rely on language construction.

Admittedly, one caveat to this could be the need to avoid confusion: architects (as the word more formally describes) are a specific group of trained, talented individuals; artists and craftspeople by most any definition. This is important to recognize because it’s where the aggrandizing (self or otherwise) use of the term outside of its original context has value and finds use at all, let alone as a verb. While avoiding confusion is a good reason to push back against certain word use, in this case, I think it’s ultimately weak tea.

Nobody is going to think that architects are any less special because we now use the word to elevate and describe other complex acts. If they did, we wouldn’t be able to “doctor” things up, (another common example of verbification) that also fails to devalue the original use.

Like almost everything with language, it comes down to this: you don’t have to like it, and you don’t have to use it, but you really, really shouldn’t argue it’s wrong. The odds of actually striking on something that makes no sense or has no opportunity of academic or historical defense are incredibly slim, so it’s better to just avoid that sort of pedanting all together.