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Meddling with nouns: who’s medalling now?

In the last fortnight, the Oxford English Dictionary saw a massive spike in searches for the verb ‘medal’.  Searches for ‘medal’ on our free Oxford Dictionaries Online site also increased dramatically at the end of July and have remained high for two weeks. While we at Oxford Dictionaries couldn’t possibly comment on the reason for this sudden surge, we can certainly provide some linguistic context.

 

The verbs medal and podium have attracted a lot of scrutiny recently, although neither word is particularly new. Here’s the OED definition of the verb ‘medal’. It shows that the earliest known usage of ‘to medal’ in a sporting sense comes from a Californian newspaper in 1966.

While the citations here are all from the US, according to the Oxford English Corpus use of ‘medal’ as a verb has recently become much more common in British English. What else can we learn from the Corpus? Use of ‘medal’ as a verb surged in popularity during the 2004 Athens Olympics, with three times more examples than we’d expect to see. There was also a peak during the Sydney Olympics in 2000, but not in Beijing in 2008.

‘Podium’ as a verb is listed on ODO, but it is not yet included in the OED (it’s definitely on our editors’ radars, though, and is being tracked for future inclusion). The extensive lexicographical research necessary before a new entry can be included in the OED has not yet been started, but so far it’s been confirmed that the use of ‘to podium’ in the sense of ‘to finish first, second, or third so as to appear on a winner’s podium’ dates back to at least 1992.

Verbalizing complaints

Some language lovers can get quite upset about the practise of verbalizing. Benjamin Franklin famously wrote to lexicographer Noah Webster that turning nouns into verbs is ‘awkward and abominable’, and Calvin and Hobbes agree that ‘verbing weirds language’.

A quick look at verbs in the OED that first appeared in the 20th century shows that around forty percent of them are conversions from nouns. This century is likely to see another increase as we continue to coin terms for new technology.

It seems that some conversions are less popular than others. While medalling and podiuming have brought out the haters, so have terms with an air of business jargon about them: incentivizing, actioning, and leveraging are also targets of public disgust. Texting, googling, skateboarding, and rollerblading, on the other hand, are perhaps more innocuous.

These conversions of nouns to verbs are much more common in English than in other Indo-European languages.  Why is this? Writer Anthony Gardner, when examining verbing in Intelligent Life, suggests:

What makes these leaps so easy is that English, unlike other Indo-European languages, uses few inflections. The infinitive does not take a separate ending, so while in French the noun “action” has to become the verb “actionner”, English can use the same form for both. In German (apart from “essen” meaning “food” or “eat”), such words are virtually unknown; the same is true of Chinese—though the noun meaning “thunder” can be used as the verb “to shock”. In Arabic such formations are not found at all.

The English language continues to develop apace, regardless of whether you think medalling and podiuming are winning words. I’ll give the last word to editor of the OED John Simpson who says “Just recently I was quoted on the medal-as-a-verb debate as saying ‘Get used to it!’ That doesn’t sound quite like me – monitoring the language neutrally as the OED does. But the sentiment is right: if people are using the expression then it’s out there as part of the language of today (and we have records of the verb since way back in 1966 in America). Will it be around tomorrow? Probably, but we’ll have to wait and see for that.”

Let’s dialogue: how do you experience verbalized nouns?