Episode 77: September 28, 2007
by Mignon Fogarty
Grammar Girl here.
Today's topic is verbification.
In September of 2007, police used a Taser on University of Florida student Andrew Meyer as they struggled to remove him from an auditorium where Senator John Kerry was speaking. The Web has been filled with debates about the politics of the incident, but a few of you asked about the language of the incident. Is it correct to say Meyer was tased or tasered, or should we hold that Taser is a noun and say Meyer was “zapped by a Taser”?
Tased Versus Tasered
In the heat of the moment, Meyer himself chose tased, shouting, “Don't tase me, bro.” Taser is actually a trademarked name, and the company, Taser International, also prefers tase as the verb. The company website contains multiple instances of phrases like “the subject was tased and incapacitated.” I also called the company and a friendly customer service rep named John confirmed that when they talk about incidents internally, they say someone was “tased.”
On the other hand, a Google News search produced about 1,800 hits for tasered and only about 200 hits for tased. So popular opinion is definitely on the side of tasered.
I'm surprised by the popularity of tasered. If you use laser as a model for Taser, you should come up with tase as the verb because lase is the verb form of laser (1). Both laser and Taser are acronyms, so using laser as the model seems like the obvious choice.
Nouns and Verbs
Also, even though it is an acronym, Taser sounds a lot like a noun that is derived from a verb. For example, writer is the noun that comes from the verb to write, and singer is the noun that comes from the verb to sing. If people used that model, then the noun Taser would lead to the verb to tase.
Nevertheless, although the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) does not include verb entries for tase or tasered, it does include an adjective entry for tasered, as in, “This jolt ... caused him to become ‘Tasered’.”
Since Taser is an acronym that stands for “Thomas A. Swift Electronic Rifle” (from the science fiction story Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle (2)), it's possible that people are subconsciously trying to keep the complete underlying meaning intact.
It's also possible that people are using other weapons as a model for turning Taser into the verb tasered. For example, gun becomes gunned and knife becomes knifed.
Remember to be Consistent
The “best headline” award goes to CBS affiliate WSLS in Roanoke, Virginia, for “Tased and Confused,” but even they seem confused because even though they use tased in the headline, they use tasered in the article, thereby violating my first rule for dealing with ambiguous language areas, which is to pick a style and be consistent (3).
Is it OK to Turn a Noun Into a Verb?
A larger question than whether it should be tased or tasered is whether we should blithely accept the idea that it is OK to turn a noun into a verb in the first place. I've certainly heard from people who find the whole process of verbification outrageous.
The first use of "verbification" goes all the way back to 1871, so the process itself isn't new. Other trademarks have effectively become verbs. For example, it's not uncommon to hear people say they “Googled” something when they have conducted a search at the Google website. I've never heard anyone object to the expression “microwaving dinner,” yet according to the OED, the first recorded use of the verb microwave was four years after the first use of the noun microwave. So it looks as if the word started out as a noun and was later turned into a verb.
The process of verbification goes even further back than the origin of the word verbify. For example, the noun medal, as in, “He won a medal,” originated in 1578; the verb medal, as in, “He medaled in track,” didn't come around until 1822.
The perception seems to be that people are verbifying nouns faster than they used to. And one complaint is that it's lazy writing to verbify words willy-nilly. For example, I was listening to Life Online with Bob Parsons, the GoDaddy CEO's podcast, and he was talking about a reporter who used the word “GoDaddification” to describe how the sexy “Obama Girl” music videos have affected the political landscape. To me, that's an example of a horrible verbification, and I can't imagine it was fueled by anything but laziness. Not only does GoDaddification sound awkward, it also makes the assumption that the reader is familiar with the GoDaddy commercials. Certainly a large number of people know about the racy GoDaddy commercials, but I think it's a leap to assume the entire audience would know what GoDaddification means. It would have been more elegant and universally understandable to say that the Internet generation is using video to sex-up politics or that Internet video has added a racy element to political campaigns.
Personally, I don't object to tased because its existence allows reporters to write cleaner sentences. It's much smoother to write, “Police tased the student,” than “Police stunned the student with a Taser,” and if readers know what a Taser is, they'll know what tased means.
Verbification has been going on for a long time, and it's part of how language evolves, especially when we're coming up with words for new inventions, like lasers, microwaves, and Web searches. On the other hand, creating verbs like GoDaddification seems outrageous and gratuitous to me. (But then again, maybe that's the point; I keep wondering if I'm just completely missing the joke on that one!)
That's all. Thanks for listening.
Don't forget to sign up for my free e-mail newsletter, which offers exlusive tips on a weekly basis. And while you're here, check out all the other great Quick and Dirty Tips podcasts. You can get advice on a broad range of topics; Legal Lad, for example, offers tips for a more lawful life. His episode about when it's possible to withdraw a guilty plea is a great example..
1. “laser,” Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/laser (accessed: September 20, 2007).
2. “Indepth: Tasers,” August 8, 2005, CBC News Online http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/tasers/ (accessed September 20, 2007).
3. Hatcher, A. “Tased and Confused,” WSLS.com, September 20, 2007 http://urltea.com/1n97 (accessed September 20, 2007).