A Verb of One’s Own

Jeanne Matthews 2Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com

Verbing is all the rage.  People convert nouns to verbs all the time, what linguists call denominalization.  Over time, verbification has transformed thousands of words once used exclusively as nouns into verbs – cup, plate, fool, dress, nail, divorce.  Brands like Xerox, Hoover, Facebook, and Google have been verbed.  We invent the language as we speak it.  When there’s no adequate pre-existing verb that describes the action, we create a verb that does.  But when a person’s name becomes a verb, it is a characterization of the individual based on something he or she did – usually something unpleasant.

When Humphrey Bogart smoked a cigarette on screen, he let the butt dangle from his lips until it was nothing but ashes.  Unfortunately, he got verbed.  To “bogart” something has come to mean a selfish refusal to share, as in “Don’t bogart that joint.”  In Bogey’s case, selfishness is almost certainly a mischaracterization, but there are others who deserve to be immortalized as disparaging verbs.  Captain Charles Lynch, for example.  During the American Revolution he and his mob of militiamen rounded up people suspected of being British loyalists, tried them in a kangaroo court, and lynched them.  William Burke, an Irish strangler, inspired the verb “to burke,” meaning to smother.  In 1812, when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry redrew political boundaries so tortuously that one district resembled a salamander, the verb “gerrymander” was coined.  The U.S. Senate’s rejection of former Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork gave rise to the verb “bork,” used to describe a kind of political demonization.  Charles Boycott, an Irish land agent was “boycotted” by his community for evicting tenants who couldn’t pay their rent.  And who can forget Lorena Bobbitt who in a fit of rage grabbed a kitchen knife and “bobbitted” a significant part of her faithless husband’s anatomy?

In 1965, Paul Simon wrote a song entitled “A Simple Desultory Philippic,” in which he took verbing to the extreme.

“I been Norman Mailered, Maxwell Taylored…

John O’Hara’d, MacNamar’d…

Mick Jaggered, silver daggered.”

Obviously, not all eponymous verbs have a clear definition.  To “mailer” (transitive) could mean to write thirty-nine books, or it could mean to marry six times.  To have been “mailered” (intransitive) might mean that you were headbutted (as the highly strung author did to Gore Vidal), or stabbed in the heart with a rusty penknife (as he did to his second wife).  To be jaggered is anyone’s guess.

I’ve needed a verb that expresses that sick feeling you get when you realize you’ve hit “Reply All” when you intended to reply only to the sender and you sooo wish you could call back an embarrassing remark.  My nominee for verbification in this context is “weiner.”  Anthony Weiner, cumbered from birth with a name that has unfortunate connotations, first incurred the nation’s disgust when he tried to tweet an obscene photo to @one-girl, but hit the wrong button and suddenly everybody in the world knew what he looked like in his skivvies.  Since then, he has committed more and worse perversions, but I still think “to weiner” captures the essence of that particular social media oops.  “I weinered big-time when I emailed my sister that if Dad brought his girlfriend to Thanksgiving dinner I’d put poison in her Reisling.  Now the whole family’s freaking and the Feds are investigating me for making threats across state lines.”

Bones of ContentionMany people are born as verbs.  President Elect Donald Trump springs to mind.  His German immigrant grandfather, Friedrich Drumpf, Anglicized his surname and became Friedrich Trump.  Especially in the lead-up to WWI, there was considerable animus toward German immigrants from nativist Americans who feared that the nation would be swallowed up and destroyed by foreigners.  The Justice Department kept a list of Germans and imprisoned more than 4,000 on charges of sedition.  The Red Cross barred individuals with German names from joining.  Mobs attacked and lynched Germans accused of crimes.  German street names were obliterated, and the German conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was forced to step down.  Small wonder Friedrich decided to change his name.  It’s interesting that he chose Trump.  In the game of bridge, a trump card (trumpf in German) ranks above the others and will win a trick where a card of a different suit has been led.  To “trump” is to outrank or defeat someone, which seems prophetic in light of recent election results.

It remains to be seen whether the verb “trump” will acquire additional meanings during President Trump’s tenure.  What goes around comes around.  It’s possible that people named Gonzales and Hussain will deem it prudent to change their names to something safer.  If that becomes a trend, what’s a quick way to describe it?  I propose the verb “to drumpf.”  Hey, did you hear?  Mahmood drumpfed to Jones.