To Friend or Unfriend? The Evolution of Nouns into Verbs

by Molly Rookwood

Published at 2019-03-06

In 2009, “unfriend” was the Oxford American Dictionary’s Word of the Year, leading to teeth-gnashing of grammar purists across the world. How could this be? How did “unfriend” become a word at all, when “friend,” until not so long ago, wasn’t even a verb, but merely someone with whom you enjoyed spending time?


The English language, like all languages, is constantly evolving. “Unfriend” may still seem strange to us, ten years later, but once we had “friend” as a verb, it was only a matter of time before “unfriend” joined it. As to how we wound up with “friend” as a verb, we must look at the process known as “denominalization.” This process, also known as “verbification,” or, more colloquially, as “verbing,” is the process of taking a noun and turning it into a verb.


There are those who resist these changes, or who view denominalization as further proof of the decay of the modern world. This viewpoint, however, overlooks the fact that language has always evolved this way. Think of the way you google information (no longer just the title of a website, the verbified “google” has a lowercase “g”), mail a letter, ship a package, or host a party. Each of these verbs evolved, at some point, from a noun to a verb as it gained prevalence in society.

A Short History of Verbing

Many verbs that we take for granted had their origins as nouns. As Chi Luu wrote in an article for JStor Daily on March 9, 2016, “Some people are only happy with denominal verbs when it rains. We’re also not fazed by them when buttering our bread, lacing our shoes, elbowing our way out of a crowd or petitioning the president to stop bombing villages. We can now emailtextfriend, and blog without difficulty.” These verbs do not feel as abnormal to us as “friend” or “unfriend” might, but this is only because they have been in use for slightly longer.


In fact, denominalization has been occurring for as long as the English language has been developing. Shakespeare, perhaps more famous for his disregard for rules of language than anyone else in history, was a great fan of making verbs out of nouns. In Richard II, the Duke of York declares, “Tut, tut! Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle: I am no traitor’s uncle” (Act 2, Scene 3, Line 86). Earlier in Richard II, we get, “Within my mouth you have enjailed my tongue, / Doubly portcullised with my teeth and lips” (Act 1, Scene 3, Lines 160-61). Within these three quoted lines, “grace,” “uncle,” “enjailed,” and “portcullised” all take nouns and denominalize them.


If Shakespeare, four hundred years ago, could verbify nouns, surely we must accept that this is far from a new convention. As Henry Alford wrote in 1870, “I do not see that we can object to this tendency in general, seeing that it has grown with the growth of our language, and under due regulation is one of the most obvious means of enriching it. Verbs thus formed will carry themselves into use, in spite of the protests of the purists.”


Modern-Day Trends

Denominalization, then, is no more a modern threat to the English language than are the grammar purists who fight against it. Preservation and evolution battle in language as they have always done, and as they will continue to do. Such is the way of things.


I wonder, though, whether the rate at which society changes today means that language must evolve at a similar pace. You could neither google before the internet was invented nor text before the cellphone appeared. As new inventions appear and society shifts at a never-before possible speed, we continue to experience a need for new, corresponding verbs.


We live in a society that moves quickly and constantly looks for ways to become more efficient. Within our language, we increase efficiency by “texting” instead of “sending a text,” by “elbowing” someone out of the way instead of “nudging them out of the way with our elbows.” We, as a society, never want to use three words when one would suffice, and denominalization reflects this.


Even denominalization can be denominalized. If “denominalization” is too much of a mouthful (and I will admit, I have had to think through its spelling every time I typed it in this blog post), we can verbify things instead of denominalizing them, or, even more efficiently, we can simply verb them.


What Should Editors Do About Verbed Nouns?

As editors, we work to follow rules about a language that is constantly evolving. This, unsurprisingly, can cause difficulties. When do we decide that a denominalized word is acceptable as a verb? Do we decide only when the Oxford English Dictionary tells us so? When the word has made its way into common usage to the point where “emailing” someone is equally palatable to “sending an email”?


For editors (and, I’m sure, for dictionary writers), judging the correctness of language is a mix of art and science. We must follow the rules and avoid anarchy, but we must also be sensitive and attuned to the fact that our language is constantly changing, as are its rules and usage. We must be both rigid and adaptable, and I, for one, find that quite exciting.


So, the next time you cringe at a verbed noun, consider all of the other verbified words in your vocabulary—how you bussed to work, then emailed your co-worker, phoned a friend, and interviewed a possible new hire. We verb nouns all the time, and so the language evolves.



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