nouns into verbs

This photo caption in the Los Angeles Times some months back caught my attention.

summit

I was a bit surprised that the Times style guide allowed the use of summit as a verb. So I checked my three standard dictionary references to see what they had to say. In fact, all three of them have an entry for summit as a verb. American Heritage and Oxford Dictionaries Online say the verb can be both transitive and intransitive. Merriam-Webster only lists an intransitive form.

This, in fact, is the normal progression of language: towards simplification. “…helps wounded veterans summit the world’s tallest mountains” works perfectly fine and conveys the message clearly. Why say “…helps wounded veterans reach the summit of the world’s tallest mountains” when the simpler form works?

I remember being startled back in the 1970’s when my roommate said that someone “had suicided.” Not because of the act, but because of her use of suicide as a verb. But the principle is the same. Once again, all three of my dictionaries include suicide as a verb.

In one of his lectures on language from The Great Courses, linguist John McWhorter uses the analogy of someone trying to sweep back the ocean as the tide comes in. It is a losing effort. Language is going to change.

This is not to say that we should not maintain standards in grammar, spelling, syntax, and style. We should. At the same time, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge the fact that language does change.


2 Comments on “nouns into verbs”

  1. Interesting. I have always known summit to be a verb, as well as a noun. Wasn’t aware that this was an evolution.

    • Boston Pobble, Your comment made me do some additional research, as your command of the language is as solid as anyone I know. The result, to quote Alice: “curiouser and curiouser!” I pulled out my compact OED and discovered that the only verb form listed was marked as obsolete and meant “to submit, subject.” So I went to the OED online, courtesy of the Santa Clara County Library System. Summit is listed as a verb, both in the obsolete sense and as the intransitive “To take part in summit meetings.” But nothing about climbing a mountain. The Oxford Dictionaries Online, on the other hand, lists the transitive verb, “Reach the summit of (a mountain or hill).” Even more interesting than I thought when I composed the post.


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