Well, when it’s pestering/annoying/badgering someone.
But also, when it’s French.
Or French-speaking, at least.
Let me explain.
Recently, I’ve been giving lessons in a company, which requires contractors to use a security card to gain entry. At the scanner on the way in and out of the car park there’s a sign that says:
Tout le monde doit badger.
In English, this would translate as Everyone must badge. Badge in this case being a verb meaning to scan your badge (it’s a card really, but close enough). In French you see, most verbs end in -er, so if you want to turn a noun into a verb, you usually just put -er on the end. Of course it’s not rare to use English words like badge in another language, but it’s less common to change an English noun into a French verb. Which is why I was so struck by the word, and didn’t consider the fact that it looks the same as the word badger (cute little woodland animal) for a while.
What’s happening in this case is a process called verbification, which is the conversion of another type of word (in this case a noun) into a verb. It might involve a slight change in structure (such as the verb to verbify, coming of course from the noun verb), or no change at all. It feels like a very modern process, but has in fact been going on almost as long as we’ve used language. Access, drink, stop, strike, talk, sleep, divorce and thousands more were all originally only nouns before becoming verbs. It would be hard to imagine not using such common verbs.
But people, myself included, tend to find modern verbifications annoying. Consider some odious middle manager who wants you to “action” something, perhaps after “workshopping” it. If he’s looking for an estimate, he might ask you to “ballpark” it. Or an obnoxious TV chef berating his underlings to hurry up and “plate” their food. Olympic athletes might expressing their hopes of “medalling.” Personally, I find these irritating, and you might too. But why, if we have no problem using to sleep, for example, as a verb?
I think the main reason is a dislike of change. I’ve always used to sleep as a verb, and only recently realised it had originally not been a verb. But with the new verbifications above, they’d all existed only as nouns in my lifetime (in common usage at least: to medal has been around since the early 19th century), before people started using them as a verbs, and we resist change like that. You can say that humans are a bit resistant to change in general. but I think it’s particularly true in terms of language. As language is the most direct expression of our thoughts, it feels very much a part of our self-identity, and so it disturbs us when people use language in a new way.
This is compounded when there’s a sense that the new verb isn’t really necessary. What’s wrong with saying to win a medal, or to put food on a plate? Yes they’re slightly longer than single-word verbs, but are they that clumsy to say? We’d got along fine using such expressions before, so we get irritated when people start to use these new verbs. And it seems lazy too, because they’re so much shorter. It’s interesting to contrast these verbs with new verbifications that don’t annoy people. I’ve no problem saying that I’m googling something, or skyping someone. These are of course very new verbs, but they fill a niche. We could say searching instead of googling, but it’s specifically searching online, which to google sums up nicely. Plus, to google sounds like a verb. Ditto to skype. It’s much snappier than to video chat (chat also originally having been only a noun). And we usually use Google or Skype for these functions.
So while I try to accept that languages naturally evolve, and modern verbifications are not so different from older ones, I still can’t help get irritated when I hear about someone “medalling” or “actioning” something. That being said, I do like badger, simply because it makes me imagine a cute little badger with a security guard’s hat checking people’s security cards at the entrance to the car park. That’s a change I can live with.
EDIT: I can’t believe I forgot my least favourite verbification – to deplane, as in, to get off a plane. There’s just so much wrong with it! First, the use of the prefix de- suggests that to plane is also a verb in this context, which of course it isn’t. Second, de- is being used incorrectly in this case. It normally means to remove, as in to destress, to de-ice etc. Deplaning might involve removing old aeroplanes from an airport, but if you’re a passenger, you can’t simply deplane. I’ve no tolerance for that word.