Thursday, December 22, 2005

Chill: On the verbalizing of (some) nouns

Some time ago, the esteemed (and Jayhawks-basketball-addicted, poor soul) Ariel asked if other VRPers would consider posting here. In a moment of weakness, I volunteered to do so, and Ariel graciously and perhaps unwisely took me up on my offer. I hope that this, my maiden post, won't cause him--or, for that matter, you good people--too much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

First, a little about me: I am the person responsible for Blog Meridian; I also happen to teach English, literature, and Humanities at a community college in Wichita. You should also know that I don't think of myself as being terribly Old School when it comes to things like split infinitives ("to boldly go" just sounds better rhythmically, even if, as my college prof once put it, the purity of the infinitive is violated) or using "I" in essays (essays are opinion, aren't they? Sometimes the first-person singular is perfectly appropriate in such writing) or ending sentences with prepositions. Spelling and apostrophes DO matter to me and, the usual reasons offered notwithstanding, I can't for the life of me figure out why we collectively have become so sloppy with such things. I also confess that I kinda cringe (still) whenever I read a sentence like "Everyone must do their work" but also recognize that the "generic 'he'" rightly belongs to the past.

But there IS something up with which I will not put. Some nouns have no business being used as verbs.

To be sure, English has a long, rich tradition of doing just that. Prior to beginning this post today, I did some actual research in the OED with the word "room," one of our very oldest words. What I wanted to know was, at what point did "room" come into use as a verb in the sense of "to occupy rooms as a lodger; to share a room or rooms with another." My suspicion was that that usage appeared fairly recently, and I was somewhat surprised to see that it in fact first appeared in 1828. But I was even more surprised to learn that "room" has been used as a verb to mean various things (usually, some variation of the idea of "to clear out" or "to make room") for as long as English itself has existed in written form. The only point is that this phenomenon of verbalizing nouns is and has always been intrinsic to English itself due, no doubt, to its lack of inflection, and there's no reason to get upset with that . . . in the abstract.

But: "interface" as a verb?? When referring to talking to/with people??? As in: "He and I needed to work out the details, but we just couldn't interface today"?? Or what about "office" as a verb (which, to my amazement, I learned today was in use in just that way around the turn of the century but disappeared (at least in print) until just recently)?? I know you may be thinking, "He's okay with 'room' as a verb, but not with 'office'?" Well, yes: "room" as a verb has a cozy, warm sound to it. But just as "interface" sounds, to my ears, like it strolls a little too closely in meaning to "intercourse" (which, of course, can also mean "talk") yet sounds way too machine-like to be anywhere nearly as appealing an activity as intercourse, no matter its meaning, "office" as a verb just sounds too cubicle-y, too steel-desk-y and Hon-five-drawer-file-cabinet-y, to suggest anything other than a strictly professional, strictly officious relationship between human beings.

Sometimes, I'm delighted with a new verbalizing. About a month ago, I was visiting a message board devoted to discussing Mark Z. Danielewski's novel, House of Leaves, and someone, in reference to, I think, someone else's new video game, posted, "I've been wanting to geek about this for the longest time." To my mind, using "geek" as a verb has the effect of humanizing tekkie-talk and those who engage in it. It reminds someone like me, someone basically ambivalent about technology (he says as he types on a computer for the sole purpose of sharing what little he knows with people he will, most likely, never, ever meet), that many of my fellow human beings are not just deeply moved by technology, it allows them to express something of what makes them human, individuals.

I have a theory, and a lament built into it. It's long been noted that English is especially well suited as a language for commerce, and I'm okay with that. That is so true, in fact, that it's been evident for some time that it is business and advertising that serve as the chief sources of change in mainstream usage. But if it is also true that a) commerce is dependent on efficiency, on "getting to the point" and the "bottom line" and b) according to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, the language we use shapes how we think about and behave in the world, I can't help but see a growing "chilling" of our language. Compare "I share an office with Jim" to "I office with Jim." They SAY the same thing, but in the second what defines the relationship is the space and the work that takes place in it, and not the people; in the first, what defines the relationship is the sharing of the space. Human interaction, in other words, gets affirmed over (but not to the detriment of) the work each engages in.

Of course there is value in concision. But if what the pursuit of concision loses is a human element--that is, if modes of experssion become structured in such a way that, more and more, we are defined by the work we do and not anything we might have to say about that work or the people we work with--then we have to ask ourselves, as we should about machines themselves, if our ever-more-efficient language serves to remind us, however implicitly, that we are people and that we deal with people. If the answer to that is "No," then we should be suspicious of the "efficiency=improvement" equation.

UPDATE: In Martin's comment below, he notes that "room" as a verb sounds odd to him. That's because that usage is primarily an American one.

Friday, December 16, 2005

In Defense of Niceness?

Last week when I was re-reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, I came across this:
‘Niceness’—wholesome, integrated personality—is an excellent thing. We must try by every medical, educational, economic, and political means in our power to produce a world where as many people as possible grow up ‘nice’; just as we must try to produce a world where al have plenty to eat.

For a few minutes, I could hardly believe my eyes. Lewis is one of my favorites. Obviously, Mere Christianity was written half a century ago, before “nice” gained the vapid, cover-all associations it has today. But still. I am partially a creature of my lingual environment.

I’m not sure I could have continued to love Lewis as much as I do if he hadn’t gone on to partially repudiate the initial nice paragraph:
A world of nice people, content in their niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world—and might be even more difficult to save.

Needless to say, I read that with a sigh of relief. The metaphysical thrust of Lewis’ writing had been effectively shoved into the backseat by the excessive niceness.

I’m choosing to believe that he did it on purpose, using niceness rather disgustingly to make a point. But this just goes to show, vocabulary can have profound effects on one’s relationships.