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Functional-shifty characters: what’s wrong with this verb?

Loathsome. Wretched. Horrible.

These were the words used on a recent Twitter debate about a new usage. If it had gone on much longer, people would doubtless have weighed in with the other heavy hitters of language criticism: Clumsy! Infelicitous! Abomination! Why or how these new usages merit such opprobrium is never explained objectively. After all, the worst condemnation of all is: neologism!

What usage prompted such condemnation?

“I will immediate your request.”

There’s always the shock of the new with these usages, but the tweeps felt that their intense dislike of this word was supported by a principle: it is just flat wrong to “use an adjective as a verb”. Many would second this opinion.

With only 140 characters at their disposal and the high-speed, instant-reaction pace of Twitter, commentators were not likely to slow down, mellow out, moderate their language, and investigate whether any of our current verbs perhaps started out as adjectives.

Rounding up ‘adjectiverbs’

But, never one to shy away at a challenge, I readied myself for that very task by clearing off my desk, smoothing my furrowed brow, and telling the kids to quiet down. I would let nothing blunt my razor-sharp intellect or dull my wits in my quest to round up examples of, well, let’s call them “adjectiverbs”.

Of the many methods we have in English for creating new words (compounding, affixation, derivation, acronyms, blends or portmanteau words, coinage, borrowing, back-formation), what is known as functional shift (sometimes also called “conversion”), where a word starts out as one part of speech and then becomes another, evokes the most ire. For the life of me I can’t think why. Flying in the face of reams of evidence to the contrary, people thunder, “You can’t use nouns as verbs or verbs as nouns!” as if every word had a God-given part of speech which is forever immutably fixed. If you open any dictionary randomly, you will see that many words are used as more than one part of speech. Perhaps my favourite is “but”, which merrily covers all the bases, trailing with it this string in the OED: prep., adv., conj., n., adj., v., and pron.! It needs only to become an interj. to complete its dance card.

What’s wrong with functional shifts?

In fact, functional shift is one of the great efficiencies of English, and we can do it with great ease because we don’t have to bother about different endings for nouns, verbs, and adjectives, as other languages do. If we cleaned out of the language all the verbs that started out as nouns (I couldn’t even begin to approximate the number), we’d annihilate a large chunk of our vocabulary.

Adjectives don’t morph into verbs as much as nouns do, but that’s because there are just way more nouns than anything else in the language. But even if we narrow down our investigation of functional shifts to adjectives, the number is quite dizzying (not enough to cause you to faint, though). You may be astounded by how common some of them are. In fact, I’ve already managed to fit 23 into this article, none of which have probably struck you as loathsome.

You’ve probably figured out which ones they are, but in case you missed some, the complete list, along with their current first recorded dates in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), is at the end of the article.

Turning adjectives into verbs gives us an efficient way of saying “make or become x”, with x being the quality expressed by the adjective. We bare our teeth, tidy our rooms (sometimes), dim the lights, thin sauces, muddy the waters, tame our unruly hair to pretty ourselves up, wet things and dry them, and so on. We perfect our golf swing so that we can equal our previous performance. Meat browns in the frying pan and paper yellows.

Adjectives are also good for making phrasal verbs meaning “do something in an x way”. These tend to be on the informal side: we tough it out, rough someone up, and dumb down our presentations.

So, can you immediate a request? There’s no linguistic or grammatical reason why you can’t. It’s quite clear that there’s no rule in English against “using adjectives as verbs”.

In fact, that request? If it’s one I’ve sent in for payment, I can’t help thinking I would like you to immediate it as fast as you possibly can!

First recorded adjective First recorded verb
prompt before 1425 1428
second 1297 before 1586
slow c. 888 ?1522
mellow 1440 1575
moderate before 1398 1435
shy Old English 1650
ready c.1200 before 1225
clear 1297 c. 1340
smooth before 1050 1340
quiet before 1382 before 1398
blunt ?c.1200 1398
dull Old English c. 1374
round c. 1300 1325
fix c. 1374 1400s
complete c. 1374 1530
clean 883 c.1450
approximate 1646 1671
annihilate 1388 (the adjective is now archaic) 1525
narrow Old English Old English
dizzy c. 1340 c. 1501
faint before 1300 before 1375
astound c. 1315 (the adjective is now archaic) 1600
fit c. 1440 1574

Please note: some of these words do have earlier senses, but the dates given in the above table correspond to the first known usages of the senses we refer to in the article (which demonstrate the functional shift from adjective to verb).