Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 11 December 2004

A Lexicographer writes

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John Humphrys writes well, in this respect: his style captures exactly his broadcasting voice. That is a mixed blessing. Anyway, in his new book Lost for Words (Hodder and Stoughton, £14.99) he is worried about the mangling and the manipulation of English. On page 106 he states a principle: ‘Verbs can refresh a sentence any time they are needed — but not if they earned their crust as nouns in an earlier life.’

‘When and why did “progress” become a verb, as in “Let’s progress this development”?’ he wonders. ‘Probably about the same time as “impact”.’ But it is not difficult to discover that this speculation is wrong. Progress, having had a successful career as a noun since the early 15th century, took up a vacancy as a verb in the 16th; Shakespeare uses it. If Mr Humphrys’s hatred is not, as he first implied, of a noun recently turned verb, is it of progress newly used transitively (that is, with an object)? No, for progress, as in ‘progress this development’, has been so used since 1875 or earlier. The first citation in the OED refers to ores being progressed in a process, but less material objects are evident too. Nevil Shute was happy to write, ‘Progress the design and construction of the factory.’

What of impact? That too is an old word with several strands of meaning. The dictionary, no constant friend of Mr Humphrys, tells us it is indeed found earliest as a verb, not a noun. I’m not sure if Mr Humphrys is equally repelled by transvestite verbs donning nominal clothes. Here again, his real distaste seems to be for the transitive usage. Of that the OED provides an example from 1945, when Mr Humphrys was just interrupting his parents with his first lisping words.

Turn over a page or two and he’s regretting the omission of the preposition against after the verb battle, as in ‘The American force battles the insurgents.’ ‘No they don’t,’ he rules, ‘they battle against them.’ Then he shifts his ground, ‘Better still, they fight them. “Battle” is a noun.’ In fact, battle has been used, both as a transitive and an intransitive verb, since the 14th century.

So, what are we left with? Mr Humphrys dislikes a vogue for using certain verbs that can also be nouns. But that has more to do with voguishness than the age-old process of changing one part of speech to another. I applaud his antipathy to unlovely choices of words. It’s his reasoning I take issue with.