Many years ago, I started teaching the English language and, as a result, learned much more about my mother tongue than I’d ever picked up at school. The more I learned, the more I fell in love (a novel experience for me – usually, enduring mystery is the clincher), and the more I wanted to know. I embraced all forms of English, welcomed them to the fold, while firmly promoting a standard I held dear. A standard based fairly and squarely on my parents’ and Eric Blair’s.
After a while, I became an examiner. It’s probably the work I enjoyed most. Meeting, and listening to, people from around the world, whilst assessing which exam board profile they fit, was both challenging and frustrating. I tried to be as flexible as possible, within the rules, to accommodate varieties of English which were mutually comprehensible. I have never been a hardliner with language: change ensures survival, and it’s that quality of English which has paid me adequately well over the years. Some colleagues were not so tolerant. An oft-repeated, post-exam, heated discussion was ‘that noun-verb thing’. Colleagues unfamiliar with iTunes would erupt into rage over a candidate using ‘gift’ as a verb.
To be fair, when I’d first encountered it, the American trend for making nouns into verbs had caused me to shudder (occasionally, it still does – ‘to desk’, anyone?). However, as with other changes, I realized that I needed to acknowledge it to deal with it. Ignoring what we don’t like does not make it go away. English is user-led, another secret to its survival and success, so respect for the user shows respect for the dictionaries of the future. A usage is coined, people adopt it, people like it, it endures, it enters the dictionaries.
Yesterday, I reflected on ‘that noun-verb thing’ again. There was a Greek General Election, billed as an opportunity for Greece to rethink itself and its relationship with the outside world. Going the rounds on social media was a Greek cartoon – easily translated and immediately understood. A man at a podium asks the crowd in front of him ‘Who wants change?’ Everyone raises their hand. Then, he asks ‘Who wants to change?’. No-one raises their hand.
This speaks to all of us. To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi; if we want change, we have to be that change. Acknowledge it, take ownership of it. The verb activates the noun. Let’s do it!