Dot Wordsworth


Mind Your Language on a verb that should have stayed in obscure academe

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When Dickens wanted to buy a house in 1837, he wrote to Richard Bentley, who had started the magazine in which Oliver Twist was to be serialised, saying he had mentioned his name ‘among those of other references, to testify to my being “sober and honest”.’

Some people seem to think it was this kind of reference that was meant by the remarkable president of Magdalen College, Martin Routh, who stayed in office until his death aged 99 in 1854, shortly before which, on being asked what advice he would give to a young don, said: ‘You will find it a very good practice always to verify your references, sir!’ But he didn’t mean the kind given by a maid — or Dickens — but the references given in footnotes of learned books.

The Routh kind of references have surprisingly come into their own now in a turn of phrase I find annoying. An example came in a newspaper report about a McDonald’s advertisement featuring bereavement: ‘Some complainants have also referenced the proximity to Father’s Day.’ In this sense, the meaning of the verb referenced would previously have been expressed by mentioned.

There is a slightly different sense for which the verb is also now employed. Someone discussing the company Fever-Tree wrote of ‘the bark of the cinchona tree referenced in the company’s name’. Here we would until recently have said referred to.

The fashionable choice of reference as a verb derives from the making of academic references. In this narrow sense, the verb reference has been around since the 1950s, a century after Routh spoke of references as a noun. But I think to reference made the leap from obscure academe thanks to the cinema. When making homages, filmmakers, in the footage they produce, reference the work of predecessors.

In parallel with that development, computer folk, from the 1970s onwards, used to reference in the sense of linking to data locations or websites. This is not a usage familiar to me, but it rubbed off on some people.

It is hard to know how to resist the trend. If, every time they want to express the meaning ‘mention’ or ‘refer to’, people come out with reference, how can we stop them?