Tag Archives: Language

Friending, inboxing and googling: how verbing is changing the way we speak

Diary date: 3rd November, 1985Word cloud

It’s the Autumn of 1985 and I’m back at university again, this time for year 2 of my 4 year course. I leave my parents at home with a promise to call or send a letter soon, but with so many student distractions to get reacquainted with, it will be a while before I’m in touch.

If I didn’t pen many letters back then, I write even fewer now. All but the most formal have been replaced by text messages, Facebook, Twitter and the rest.

In fact, we’re in such a rush to communicate these days that we’ve even reduced the words we use to describe these activities to the bare minimum. Sending a text message is simply texting, just as contacting someone on Facebook is now Facebooking or inboxing them. Tagging a tweet on Twitter involves hashtagging and sending an email is obviously emailing. Linking up with people is friending, and falling out with them again is described by the Oxford University Press word of the year of 2009: unfriending. And of course searching online is now amply covered by the ubiquitous idea of googling.

It all makes you wonder why sending a letter never quite managed to become lettering, and why watching TV isn’t just TVing or tellying (although in our own linguistically progressive household, it has recently been shortened to simply ‘watching’ – just as standing in front of a mirror preening yourself has become ‘vaining’).

What’s happening here is something that English has a proud tradition of doing with gay abandon, and that’s ‘verbing’ – converting nouns to verbs as the language evolves. It’s not only technology that makes use of this trend – nouns as diverse as butcher, parent, showcase and chair all spawned equivalent verbs years ago that today we take for granted. Linguist Steven Pinker has explained just how common this phenomenon is:

…easy conversion of nouns to verbs has been part of English grammar for centuries; it is one of the processes that make English English. I have estimated that about a fifth of all English verbs were originally nouns…

What’s wonderful is the degree to which people care about these changes and how quick they are to take a view on whether they represent positive or negative contributions to the popular vernacular.

My favourite case in point is the recent spat between Swedish lexicographers and global Internet giants Google. When it was proposed that the word ogooglebar (literally ‘ungoogle-able’) should be officially added to the Swedish language as a word roughly meaning ‘something that cannot be found on the web using a search engine,’ Google objected and pushed for the definition to include reference to their brand. Believing that language should be independent of such sordid commercial concerns, the Swedes refused and promptly dropped ogooglebar from their plans.

Swedish lexicographers (playing at home on the moral high ground): 1, Google (playing away from home and forgetting that a language belongs to its people): 0.

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Is this on now or are you just watching it?

Diary date: 7th March, 1985

In between playing an awful lot of squash and revising fairly fruitlessly for a Swedish exam this week, my nineteen year old self seems to have spent a significant amount of time watching what might now be considered classic 80’s TV. Neighbours, Bullseye and Countdown all get a mention in my diary at one point or another.

TV options on a typical Virgin Media screen

Back then I had a small, portable black and white TV set in my room at university capable of getting BBC1 and ITV (or rather ITV1, as we have to say these days) on a good day, and BBC2 on a very good day. Channel 4 had been launched two or three years previously, but actually receiving it was still a distant dream. My remote control was a bamboo pole that just about reached the TV from my bed.

These days, we’ve got more channels than we have time to watch, and more ways of consuming them than we have time to understand. We’ve even got new ways of talking about what we’re doing. If you’d told me in 1985 that you were going to watch something on catch-up, or via live streaming, or that you’d been browsing online movies through your games console, I’d have thought you’d been reading too much William Gibson.

My favourite example of the way language adapts to new technology like this came the other day. I was sitting in front of the living room television and one of my children asked me, “Is this on now or are you just watching it?” Without me realising it, ‘watching’ something in our house has become a short-cut for viewing anything that is not currently being broadcast on a specific channel.

I guess we can’t complain that we weren’t warned about the pace of change when it comes to this kind of media. Back in October 2005, Bill Gates was clear that even TV technologies that seemed new at the time like Blu-ray DVDs would inevitably be the last of their kind:

Understand that this is the last physical format there will ever be. Everything’s going to be streamed directly or on a hard disk. So, in this way, it’s even unclear how much this one counts.

The reality is that everything always counts at the time it’s happening. Back in 1985 – when I was angsting about Swedish exams and changing TV channels remotely with a bamboo pole – Bill would have been a busy guy. Later that year, Microsoft launched a new operating system called Windows 1.0.