20 November, 2011

From Nouns to Verbs

Back in the days when boys were boys and girls were girls, nouns were nouns and verbs were verbs (aside from the few exceptions that were both), and they would be brought together in time-honoured fashion through well constructed sentences. But in these days of Internet-speak, contractions and weird re-appropriation of numbers and symbols abound, and a word can mean just about anything.

One of the early examples of a proper noun becoming a verb was Hoover, which was the name of a large vacuum cleaner manufacturer. Their marketing people thought they'd be clever, and coined the term 'to hoover' as an alternative to 'to vacuum'. Smart move, you might say, to get people to associated the action exclusively with their brand. But in the end, it meant that they lost control of their own brand, as it was adopted as a common-use word. This is what is known as a genericized trademark.

More recently Google has become a verb. But in becoming the all-powerful owner of the Internet, Google no longer owns its brand, and indeed because of its use as a verb meaning 'to search the Internet for information', it actually now serves to limit the perception of Google's service offering and pigeon-holes it into just the search engine business, when in fact they do much more.

It's interesting to note that Microsoft's new search engine - bing - is a word that is screaming out to be turned into a verb. This is something of a departure from their usual naming style for their products.

This phenomenon extends to regular nouns as well. I always thought that a messenger was someone who delivered a message. But back in the 80s, I recall stockbrokers saying they would 'messenger' a document to a client. This was quite simply a lazy contraction, but with time, the word messenger was acknowledged as being both noun and verb.

The latest one of these is 'inbox'. Anyone who has an e-mail account has an inbox - it's the virtual place where your e-mail messages first land. For many years, it was a perfectly happy noun, until some lazy person decided it should be the latest grammar victim of Internet-generation communication. Yes, in modern parlance, if you want someone to send you a message, you tell them to 'inbox me'! Surely the only appropriate and correct response to this is WTF! Urban Dictionary has the right idea about people who use the term, the discussion about it here is quite amusing, and of course there are the mandatory Facebook groups in favour and against.

So what do you think? By all means, post on my blog about it, or even send me a message. But don't ever inbox me!

No comments: