When Nouns Verb Oddly

Verb meanings are slipperier than noun meanings


Jessica Love’s last Psycho Babble column appeared on Oct. 2, 2014. We are re-posting several of our favorite columns, including this one, published on May 22, 2014.

Life and especially literature are filled with incongruous wordplay: the moon scours the sea, the dead refuse to be blessed, a tide waits for someone to enter.

In these moments there is tension between the types of nouns a verb usually appears with—animate ones, perhaps, or people—and the noun it actually appears with. Reconciling the incompatible meanings can leave us uneasy, like we’ve squeezed a skirt over our shoulders. But we twist and yank and make the meaning work. Something always gives.

Interestingly enough, it’s often the verb. As researchers Dedre Gentner and Ilene France observed more than two decades ago, when a verb accompanies an ill-fitting noun—The lizard worshipped, The car softened, and Bill owned luck are examples from their study—we’re likelier to tweak our interpretation of the verb to befit the noun than to shift our interpretation of the noun to be compatible with the verb. Perhaps the lizard is bowing its head, or basking in the sunshine? Perhaps the car is collapsing under a heavy weight, and Bill is simply a very lucky guy? Only rarely do we consider that lizard might refer to an unethical preacher, or luck a four-leafed clover.

So what makes verb meanings so much more malleable than noun meanings? Nouns often describe concepts and (especially) objects with meanings that are directly tethered to the world around us. But verbs tend to describe relationships between concepts or objects: an owner and his possessions, a worshipper and a thing worshipped. “Relationships have to adjust to their participants, so words that name relationships need to adjust,” Anja Jamrozik, a PhD student who studies relational language at Northwestern University, told me.

In other words, precisely what it means to own is always somewhat context dependent. We own pets differently than emotions or property; corporations and cities own them differently than we do. So, given that even conventional meanings of verbs must shift to fit their nouns, it should come as no surprise that, at least in English, verbs are likelier than nouns to bend under semantic strain. (And with enough use, some of these newfangled senses may become conventional meanings in their own right. For this reason, verbs tend to have a greater number of conventional meanings than nouns—which in turn helps to explain why, in laboratory experiments, our memory for verbs is so poor: encoding one sense of a verb, but attempting to retrieve a second, is not ideal.)

Still, nouns aren’t all stodge and ennui. Synecdoche, metonymy, and plain old symbolism can push us to extend a noun’s meaning. Furthermore, some nouns are relational, or at least have relational senses. Mother can describe an ancestral or custodial relationship, bridge a connective one. As such, they are excellent candidates for sense-creep (and, not coincidentally, they can also be used as verbs).  And via explicitly marked metaphors and similes, relational senses in even nouns like circus—The people! The props! The pageantry!—become apparent. The circus dined earns us quizzical looks; dinner was a circus not so much.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jessica Love holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology and edits Kellogg Insight at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.


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