Saturday, August 23, 2008

How nouns become verbs

New words are created through a process termed ‘functional shift’ where a word takes on new meaning by functioning as a different part of speech. For instance, the word ‘anchor’ was a noun but came to be used as a verb with the addition of ‘anchoring’ and ‘anchored’. Similarly ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ have gone through a functional shift. These words were used as nouns but they came to be used as verbs, creating new entries in the word list. Their meaning as verbs also came to be quite different from their meaning as nouns. The classic sentence ‘mind over matter’ demonstrates clearly the meaning of both nouns. As a verb, ‘mind’ takes a different dimension as it can mean ‘distressed, annoyed, object to, take care of, warn about, be inclined’. ‘Matter’ as a verb means ‘having significance, to be of importance’. These two nouns represent a graphic functional shift, creating verbs that are totally unrelated to the original word.

The word ‘blanket’ originated in old French where ‘blanc’ means ‘white’; it denoted ‘un-dyed cloth’ to refer to a material used to cover anything to give warmth. The metaphorical use created a functional shift as a verb in sentences like this one: ‘the snow blanketed the area’. It also went on to create an adjective as in the expression ‘blanket ban’ for a ban that covers everything possible. Another use of ‘blanket’ as an adjective was created for the expression ‘blanket finish’ to signal a ‘close finish’.

‘Must’ is another such word. Earlier, it functioned as an auxiliary verb in sentences like this one: ‘you must read your textbook in time’. Later, it was used as a noun in sentences like ‘your textbook is a must’ and even as an adjective ‘this textbook is a must read’.

English being the lenient language it is, there are no boundaries or limits to the functional shifts that can take place. Of course, changing needs and times do demand new labels to feed the word frenzy. So, it is perfectly acceptable to ‘google’ your classmate or ‘sms’ your address or ‘carpool’ to work.