Today’s topic: antimeria
Today’s Friday coffee-break post discusses “antimeria”, something that drives linguistic purists mad, yet is a rhetorical tic that’s far more common than they’d have you believe.
Have you been “friended” by someone recently, or worse, “unfriended”? Did the boss send round a memo detailing his requests for “actioning” the last “marketing” proposals? Did you “Google” something today already? Or have you only just sat down for a Friday coffee break after finishing the “hoovering”? Antimeria is the process by which we use one type of word as another class entirely: most commonly, a noun used as a verb, or “verbing”.
It drives some people nuts. Bad management speak used to be one’s first exposure to egregious verbing. Ever been “down-sized”? It hurts, and not just because your manager is trying to avoid the blunt fact that you’re out of a job. Sales managers will “task” their teams to get out there and start “door-stepping”. Your office manager might tell you that he’s introducing “hot-desking”, which really means that the last person into the office each morning will have to sit at the crappy desk in the corner by the toilets. (The aggressive hot-desk policy, of course, has one fewer desks than employees, like the children’s party game.)
And the internet, once more, has a lot to answer for. Has someone PMed you this morning? Maybe not yet, but emailed? And texted. Or pinged. And what about “science” as a verb? Do you remember that iconic scene out of The Martian?
Is it a new problem?
But, as with all things linguistic, there’s nothing really that new under the sun. Shakespeare was an inveterate verber. Cake, elbow, blanket, graze – all nouns until Shakespeare got hold of them. And why did he choose to use those nouns as verbs? Because of their economy of meaning. Those theatre owners didn’t pay Shakespeare by the word. You could write “I pushed my way through the crowd, forcing a passage using my elbows as levers” or you could just say “I elbowed my way through the crowd”. We don’t take much issue when it “rains”. We “butter” our bread, we “lace” our shoes, we “bike” to work. Linguists call these denominal verbs, and where they’ve become commonplace, they’re unremarkable, efficient figures of speech.
So really, there’s nothing wrong with using nouns as verbs per se. Complications arise when the noun that’s used might not be particularly common, when its usage might be misinterpreted, or when proper nouns are used. A muscle freak might boast, for example, about “benching 400kg”. While those of us who couldn’t be dragged in to a gym by wild horses might have a vague idea that it’s something to do with exercise, we might not appreciate the enormity of their achievement. That management consultant who starts their presentation saying “I’m blue-sky thinking here”, or that millenial who says “I so heart Adele”? Slap them. It’s for their own good. They’ve lost sight of the main reason for verbing in the first place, which was one of economy of meaning.
Proper nouns are another problem area. Most people would understand the meaning of the verb “to boycott” because it has long since passed into common usage (which is why we don’t capitalise it anymore). But to “kanye” someone? The fact that in some circles “to kanye” means to steal another person’s moment of glory, is lost on a lot of people over thirty. But that’s what youth has always done: invent its own language so that “grown-ups” can’t understand them. Now when that millenial tells you that they really “downed” on that last episode of <insert name of trendy Netflix series here>, you can say to them “Oh, you’re using antimeria. How quaint”, they won’t understand you either. Ha!