Friday, September 25, 2009

Verbing weirds language

You know, I just kept looking at this comic thinking, "I don't have a goddamn idea what to do with this." I'd go away, come back later, and then say to myself again, "I still don't have a goddamn idea what to do with this."

So let's talk about the verb form of this literary device. "Leitwortstiled." How does one leitwortstil a work of fiction? The obvious answer, I think, is to start with a work of fiction that already exists in some form (even if its existence is only in your head, and you haven't written anything down yet), and you introduce a leitwortstil as if this was a wonderful idea you just had to make the work better.

There is the broader question, though, of whether one can indeed make any noun at all into a verb, to which the answer is a firm, "It depends." The only determining factor is whether a person can understand what you mean from the given context. In T-Rex's use of "leitwortstil" as a verb, we know what he is trying to say, even if (in my opinion) he is completely wrong about leitwortstiling the word "frig." A real world example of a noun that has become a verb is Photoshop, which is sometimes abbreviated to 'shop. This is, of course, the act of radically modifying a photograph, usually through the use of Adobe Photoshop, to put things there that weren't there before, or vice versa.

A real world example of something that is not a verb is "tree," as used in the following context that I heard it from my roommate: "The dog treed the cat." [Editor's note: I have since determined that this is a perfectly cromulent use of "tree." See comments below.] What he was trying to tell me was that the dog chased the cat up a tree, where she stayed for some time as the dog barked at her. I was completely stumped, though, and had barely a clue what he was talking about. I asked him to repeat himself, and then said, "What on earth are you talking about?"

What we had here was a failure to communicate. The problem was not necessarily that I had never heard anyone else use "tree" in the way my roommate was using it, though it would have helped if I had. The more general problem was that for any usage of "tree," as a verb, that I could think of on my own, none of them would have involved a dog chasing a cat up a tree. To me, the most natural use of the word "tree" as a verb would be "to plant a tree, or several trees." I could see this being a useful shorthand for landscapers, or people who replant forests. I could even see my roommate's use of "tree" being used among animal and wildlife workers who see those kinds of chases happen regularly.

In neither of those scenarios, though, does it become a good idea to start tossing around that kind of terminology with a lay person. What you have there is industry jargon. There's nothing wrong with an industry having jargon, because they're usually doing specialized tasks that need a specialized language. Using jargon with an outsider, though, is going to lead to communication failure at best (as in the above example). At worst, though, it is going to be a dick move, because some people like to talk over your head and use words you don't understand in order to show how smart and important they are. But they're not. They're just dicks.


Orion said...

That verb sense of tree is entered in every dictionary I had the patience to check: see e.g. . A failure to communicate is not always your interlocutor's fault: that's why people make dictionaries.

Sophasaurus said...

I will admit that my statement about "tree" not being a verb is false, if it is an accepted definition in the dictionary. However, I could have added emphasis to my broader point by saying, "Whether or not a word is in the dictionary, what matters for successful communication is whether the listener understands the speaker." Though the verb form of "tree" is in the dictionary, as I mentioned, it was not a usage of the word I had ever heard before. If someone has to go to the dictionary to ascertain your meaning, you are probably not communicating effectively. Sometimes you really do need to use a big, fancy word that your listener might not understand, but it's hardly troublesome to explain that word, and elaborate on what is meant.

I did make it sound like my roommate was being a bit of a dick in the scenario I described, for using a word I could not understand, then expecting me to understand it. This is because he does this sort of thing quite often. Like myself, he is a man with volumes of esoteric knowledge, but unlike myself, he frequently refers to this knowledge as if other people should know these things.