Verb it!

I’ve been struggling for ideas for posts, so I turned to the online discussions I had with my classmates during my masters study in 2010-12, which we were able to save as text files.

One involved the use of technology-related nouns and verbs. The discussion thread was Google it! As the name of a website, Google is a noun (and upper case), but people soon began using it as a verb and writing it in lower case. Many people decry the verbing of nouns and/or using registered company or product names as generics (see generic trademark) but both are common procedures in English. I can remember people faxing (though fax was never a proper noun, and was an abbreviation of facsimile (another common procedure in English – I don’t think anyone ever facsimilied (btw when was the last time you sent a fax?))), and references to people telexing (which was originally an upper-case proper noun). Before that, people telephoned, then ’phoned then phoned. All of these are transitive verbs: Google it, fax the document to me, fax it to me, fax me the document, ?/*fax me it, phone me, ?telephone me. (See also telegram, telegraph (including its metaphoric use) and wire.) (I can also remember an advertisement (?for a graphic designer) informing us that we could ‘fax or modem’ our requirements to them.)

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begat

Lying awake in the middle of the night, I suddenly thought of the older, mostly biblical word beget. This was originally be + get, similar to be + come and be + have. It is irregular, originally beget, begat, begot and later beget, begot, begotten (cf get, got, gotten (for some people) and forget, forgot, forgotten). It is most famously used in the King James/Authorised version of the bible (1611), specifically in chapter 1 of the gospel according to Matthew, where “Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas [Judah] and his brethren” and so on.

This translates the Greek word ἐγέννησεν, egénnēsen, the third-person singular aorist active indicative of γεννᾰ́ω, gennáō, 1. to beget, give birth to 2. to bring forth, produce, generate. We can hardly say that Abraham gave birth to Isaac, but we could easily say that Sarah did, except that the word is almost always used in relation to men. At the other end of Matthew’s genealogy, it does not say that Mary begat Jesus, but rather that Jesus was born of Mary, using the passive voice of the same Greek verb. (Compare 1 Chron 3, where “the sons of David, which were born unto him” are listed.)

Later versions use either begot or was the father of. The Good news bible/Today’s English version avoids the problem by using “the following ancestors are listed: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah and his brothers” and so on. Other possibilities are the very un-biblical father and sire (both of which started as nouns).

Google Ngrams shows that the heyday of beget in all its forms was the 1650s, after which there was a slow decline to modern times. Surprisingly, though, there has been a rise in usage (especially of begat) since the 1980s, which I can’t find or think of any reason for. 

While researching for this post, I found a book by David Crystal titled Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language. Note that much of the language of the KJV comes from Tyndale (1526-30) and Coverdale (1535), and even the KJV’s original phraseology is in conscious imitation of the earlier style (and English had changed a lot in that almost a century.

It’s rather hard

I spent my childhood in various country towns in the Australian state of Victoria. My last year there was my first year of high school. Even now I remember that our science teacher pronounced graph as /gra:f/ (with the same vowel as in palm), in contrast to the prevailing pronunciation of /græf/ (with the same vowel as in trap). The next year we moved to a country town in South Australia, where I quickly discovered that absolutely everyone said /gra:f/ and absolutely no-one said /græf/, not even me after a few days.

In my previous post, I said that for words like bath, the pronunciation with /a:/ is more common in Australia. Between trap and palm is a spectrum of words which some people pronounce with /æ/ and others with /a:/. Graph is one example, but not graphic, which everyone pronounces as /græfɪk/, as far as I know. 

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