Ross Murray's Border Report
Ross Murray
Ross Murray
is a freelance writer living in Stanstead, Quebec. You can reach him at
Posted 03.08.06
Stanstead, Quebec


To noun or to verb, that is the question

My junior high English teacher died recently. Her nickname was "Crab." I have no idea whether she knew generations of students called her this but she certainly never let on. I suspect she knew but realized she could get more respect with this nickname than if we called her "Cookie."

Crab was old school. She taught grammar, which is now considered a quaint linguistic notion and not nearly as important as teaching children self-esteem and the concept of "close enough."

Though she would sometimes talk in horrible clichés ("I bet you dollars to doughnuts that if you don't pull up your socks you're going to fall by the wayside," she would grunt) she knew her stuff and she made it stick.

To this day, I can't entirely explain all the grammar rules or parse a past participle from a preposition, but the rules are there, permanently lodged in the back of my brain along with the melody to "Mr. Dressup" and the memory of my Aunt Dora's Yam-Liver Casserole. When it comes to language, I can usually tell when something is just plain wrong.

That's why I know that Crab would be spitting out an "Uh! No sir!" if she heard an Olympic commentator say, "Estonia's Igor Petrovanivich is hoping to medal again this morning."

Certainly I, Spawn of Crab, feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I hear "medal" used as a verb.

I'm sorry; I don't care if people have been declaring "Mendelssohn medaled in the moguls" since 1966. Most nouns transformed into verbs are abominations - like Aunt Dora's casserole.

On a practical level, "medal" sounds too much like "meddle." When I hear "We're looking at some major medaling in figure skating tonight," I don't think of gold, silver, and bronze; I think of French judges.

It's on a gut level, though, that I really object. The only thing worse, Olympic-wise, is "podiuming," as in "With that bobsled now fused to her skull, it doesn't look like Johansen will be podiuming this afternoon."

I'm all for creative wordplay. For example, a friend recently sent me a column describing how the writer reacted to a badly cut finger. In his panic, the writer thought about phoning the fire department. "But I can't look up their number without Macbeth-ing the Yellow Pages."

I like the humour of it, the obvious ostentation and exaggerated imagery. The writer is having fun. Plus, the reader gets to feel smug for getting the literary reference, which is good for the ol' self-esteem.

Similarly, I don't mind "googled" because it's both contemporary and fills a need - so much more practical than saying "I performed an Internet search on my girlfriend to see if she was lying about her parole conditions."

On the other hand, there's nothing practical or attractive when a reporter earnestly declares, "There is concern that the president's recent lobotomy will impact summit discussions." That's just laziness.

The anything-goes progressives will say I'm rationalizing and argue that language is in constant evolution. Don't be such a schoolmarm, they say, don't be such a Crab. They throw dictionaries at me and point to references with bony wagging fingers.

"See?" they exclaim derisively. "It's there. You are beaten, do you hear? Beaten!"

Fine. Let's do this then:

As I was columning this morning, having coffeed and bagelled, I had to de-work to outside the dog. The carrier had already newspapered, and as I downed to up it, something UFOed across the sky. Next thing I knew, I was aliened in this vast spaceship and lightyearing across the galaxy. I was completely close-encountered by slimy two-headed creatures, the biggest of which leadered towards me. "Wisdom us," it telepathied. So I sentenced: "We Earthlings conviction that self-inflicted evolution strongs us. For instance, we like to rearchitect our language every now and then."

And that's why the aliens war-of-the-worlded Earth.