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Repurposing Anthimeria

Elaine: “He recycled this gift. … He’s a regifter!”

When last we met, I mentioned some current examples of functional shifting, or anthimeria, especially adjective-to-noun (AT&T’s slogan “Rethink Possible”) and verb-to-noun (referring to someone as a good “hire”). I didn’t get into two notorious noun-to-adjectives, fun and cliché. Nor will I today. My theme, rather, is what seems to me the most popular recent switch, noun-to-verb.

Innumerable such transformations have taken place over the history of the English language, of course, and in recent decades they’ve tended to raise the ire of sticklers. You need think only of contact (now almost completely accepted—and in fact frequently offered as a “correct” alternative to reach out to) and impact (still contested, but not for long). For some reason, however, the last few years have seen an especially rich crop of noun-to-verb anthimeria (NTVA). Consider:

  • A couple of days ago, I read in The New York Times a Charles McGrath review of a thriller involving guns that “have been repurposed for additional killings.” The Oxford English Dictionary reports that the verb repurpose—meaning “To convert or adapt for a different purpose or for use in a different way”—dates from 1984, and was initially used in reference to recording formats. Now it’s everywhere, with, I see, 23 Google News hits in the last 24 hours.
  • All day long, I hear NPR corporate-sponsorship announcements along the lines of “Trader Joe’s products are sourced from non-GMO ingredients.” That’s source as a verb meaning, basically, get or procure, and it, too, has become increasingly common, frequently in the form locally sourced, referring to food products.
  • Task had some popularity in the 19th century as a general verb used much as we currently use tax, e.g., “His mind, tasked beyond its power, is running hither and thither, like some tortured creature on a burning surface, finding no position on which it can settle down and be at ease” (Representative Abraham Lincoln, address to Congress, 1847). Since the 1990s, task has been increasingly paired with with and deployed specifically. (“This Poor Dude Is Tasked with ‘Trying to Make MySpace Cool Again,’” headline, betabeat.com, October 2012.)

Repurpose, source, and task follow the model of contact and impact. First there is a verb phrase that expresses an increasingly common idea but is rather weak and ungainly: “make contact with”; “have an impact on”; “give a new purpose to”; “obtain from a particular source”; “assign someone the task of.” Then popular usage, with its impressive coldblooded efficiency, streamlines it, followed (with all deliberate speed) by acceptance among editors and other gatekeepers.

But an noun-to-verb anthimeria subset has an additional wrinkle in its provenance. These words started as verbs, acquired a noun form, then reemerged as a new, slightly (genetically?) modified verb. Exhibit A—at least as far as my students’ fondness for it is concerned—is reference. The OED reports that this has been used to mean refer to since the late 1950s, but I found it entering heavy rotation in papers and assignments only in the last few years. I am not so much a fan of this one, as I don’t see a particular improvement over the older form. Take this quote from Monday’s Boston Globe, saying that Representative Edward Markey disputed a news report “which referenced unnamed friends as saying Markey was rankled by the possibility of [Barney] Frank gaining the interim appointment … ” What’s wrong with mentioned, described, or referred to? Not much, as far as I can tell. It just makes you sound a little bit fancier and more official.

Then there is the verb used in this recent column in The Joplin Globe: The Patriot Act “gave the government broad new powers to surveil individuals and search their property.” My spell-check program puts red dots under surveil, but my spell-check program is behind the times. The OED identifies it as a back-formation from surveillance, defines it as “to exercise surveillance over (someone),” and has citations dating from 1960. Since then, the word has extravagantly taken off; the Google Ngram graph below suggests a nearly 1,000 percent increase.

Relative use of “surveil” between 1960 and 2008

I’m pretty OK with surveil, as it is not the same as survey—or, rather, it denotes a particular kind of surveying. It’s still kind of an odd word, as writers on The Simpsons recognized when they titled (a venerable NTVA, that) an episode “To Surveil, With Love.”

Another television comedy originated the king of modern NTVAs. I refer to Seinfeld, in a 1995 episode in which Elaine accuses Dr. Tim Whatley of being a “regifter” after he gives Jerry a label-maker that Whatley had originally gotten from her. Regift is perhaps the most long-lasting of Seinfeld‘s many catchwords and catchphrases, though “Yadda yadda yadda” and “Not that there’s anything wrong with it” certainly have their proponents.

Regift led to another transitive verb, gift (Dwight Garner in the Times reports that the publicity materials for a line of books called “The School of Life” extol their “handy, giftable trim size”). And now we’ve gone all the way back to noun, as in this recent comment to a Yahoo blog post: “Giving someone a ‘regift’ and saying, ‘you can get rid of this if you want to,’ is really lame, in my opinion.”

I will be truly impressed (not surprised, but impressed) if any Lingua Franca readers can name a root that’s gone through more anthimeria than that.

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