E Pluribus Unum

A conversation about words


E Pluribus Unum

In my previous column, I invited readers to create hybrid words, ones that combine words or parts of words. Among many promising submissions, three original creations stood out:

stephood: parenting someone else’s offspring, courtesy of Miriam Ben-Yoseph

irretextable: a text message that’s unfortunately irretrievable (“In that irretextable tap of the send button I realized with horror what autocorrect had done to my career”), courtesy of Cindy Kai Anderson

swicky: sweaty-sticky, hot, humid weather (an alternative definition of this term can be found in the Urban Dictionary, “sweet, and yet icky”), courtesy of Colleen Richards

I also like tortphobia (fear of being sued) but find the “phobe” trope a bit overused. Malwear (unfashionable dress) is appealing, as is counterfit (overreaction to lousy service in a diner), but both are visual puns that would need explaining if used orally.

The –IZE Have It

Using nouns as verbs has become commonplace: friend, guilt, Skype, swiftboat (to name just a few). Verbing nouns this way might seem like a modern practice, but English speakers have done it for centuries. Shakespeare excelled at the art, as when he gave us “dog them at the heels” in Richard II. Harvard linguist Steven Pinker estimates that a fifth of all our verbs were originally nouns.

The transition from noun to verb isn’t always felicitous, however, not when so much monetizing, securitizing, and collateralizing is going on in the financial sector. No verbed nouns are more annoying than tortured coinages that end in “ize.” The observation of an NPR guest that human beings have a tendency to “catastrophize” gnashizes the teeth. So do self-conscious terms such as prioritize and accessorize, to say nothing of ones like compartmentalize, disincentivize, and recontextualize that add a suffix to multisyllabic words that can’t bear the extra weight.

Think of this as verbizing, a subcategory no more modern than other kinds of verbing. After hearing a music critic refer to a pianist’s concertizing, I discovered that this verb had been around since at least 1883, when a writer referred to “pigs and geese … ‘concertizing’ horribly.” A couple of decades later, the clever owners of a car wax company gave their product a name that was pre-verbed and jingle-ready: Simonize (“Motorists wise, Simonize!”). Today, marketers eventize products and services by incorporating them into events. Annoying.

One way to arrest this trend might be to take it too far. For an American Scholar tote bag, convert a noun into a verb ending in “ize.” (New coinages only, please.) The three most annoying examples will win.

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Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Ralph Keyes is the author, most recently, of The Hidden History of Coined Words, which has just been published.


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