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Friday, February 11, 2011

Of dead ends and dead locks

A rather intense argument broke out on a friend's facebook wall recently.

It all started when someone announced in indignant tones (I swear I could hear them leaping off the facebook page) that they had heard someone using "dead-end" as a verb. Shock horror. Clearly this was wrong. The assumption was that everyone would agree it was wrong, because, well, it just was. Another fb friend weighed in to agree.

But then someone else with a shit-disturbing streak (we'll call her WL for short) disingenuously asked why it was wrong. Well, harumphed one of them, it was a noun being used as a verb. Verb+noun was "standard" and besides clearer and more precise. WL, not sure why, for instance, "send a fax" or "make a phone call" was more standard than "fax" or "phone", nor how "dead-ended" was unclear and imprecise, countered that in that case we couldn't say this discussion was going to end badly, could we, and suggested everyone go and visit Verbs: it's ok to do this. Really! Interlocutor castigated WL for thinking she had a monopoly on language expertise (it's quite amazing how uncivil people can get with strangers on the internet), but retreated somewhat, saying that she wasn't against nouns being used as verbs in principle (though that is what she had said in the first round), but only to clumsy formations or infelicitous neologisms (implying that "neologism" was necessarily A Bad Thing). In her opinion, "come to a dead end" was felicitous and "dead-end" wasn't. I find these words are always trotted out when people are making language objections and have nothing objective to fall back on.

One can always find counterexamples; in this case, a good one is "deadlock" which (obviously, I would say) started out as a noun but is now used as a verb, at least passively, for example in the phrase "the talks are deadlocked", without anyone objecting that "the talks have come to a deadlock" would be better or more elegant or less clumsy (in fact I think the latter sounds clunkier). At least I don't think anyone would object, but I'm always amazed at what raises people's ire.

As for "dead-end", it seems to have been in use as a verb since about 1900. Not much younger than "deadlock", in fact, and certainly not very "neo-" for a "neologism"! It is in the Oxford English Dictionary, the Canadian Oxford Dictionary and even its abridged paperback version, which suggests we had plenty of evidence for it. In fact, I think any serious dictionary would be remiss to omit it.

1 comment:

  1. Ms. Barber,

    May we ask you - in all civility we could muster, according to our own capacity to judge it - what happened to those "funny"/"interesting" check boxes on your page ?

    May we also inquire about the importance of having or not having published comments on your page ?



About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.