Earlier this week, Poe’s Deadly Daughters celebrated the 199th birthday of the father of the detective story and the first anniversary of the blog itself. We particularly encouraged regular readers to post comments, and to our great pleasure, they complied. One topic that sprang up in the ensuing conversation was the use of verb forms of ordinary nouns, newly coined nouns, and brand names. Several people, both Daughters and our readers, expressed their distaste for such locutions as “to party,” “to blog,” “to Swiffer,” “to Netflix,” and “to Fandango.” I would assume they feel the same about “to google.” And there must be some folks out there, those who still say, “It is I,” perhaps, who have not relinquished their objection to “to contact.” I’m pretty sure that Nero Wolfe had something caustic to say about that one fifty years ago. What a tribute to the memorability of a mystery-fictional voice! But that’s perhaps a topic for another day.
To return to the issue of coining verbs: I dissent. Brand names are a separate issue: if you say that we “Fandango,” as my husband and I did last Saturday night when we selected a movie online and printed up our ticket from the computer before leaving home, you are merely demonstrating the success of a rather clever and charming advertising campaign. But when I blog or google, I am taking advantage of the great glory of the English language: its flexibility.
The French language is regulated by the Académie Française, founded by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635. Its first dictionary was published in 1694 and the most recent complete edition in 1935. (Yes, I googled it.) Instead of making this dictionary available to the public, the French make laws about complying with its dicta. Not surprisingly, these laws are increasingly unenforceable in a world that is changing so rapidly in our times that new vocabulary is constantly needed. Even back in the 1960s, when I spent two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in French-speaking West Africa, I remember being exasperated by French people’s invariable response to creative attempts to make an adjective out of a verb, a verb out of a noun, or a non-sexist replacement for a noun that applied to both genders (dentiste or poète, for example) carrying a male article. Ça n’existe pas! they would insist.
Well, if French wouldn’t do it, English would. As a result, English has replaced French as the global lingua franca, to the great chagrin of the French. The greatest task of the Académie Française these days is trying to stem the tide of Anglicisms in today’s French: le weekend, le businessman, l’email. In 2003, they chose the Québécois word le courriel as the official term for email. According to Laura K. Lawless, About.com’s expert on the French language, the French Ministry of Culture formally “banned the word e-mail in any government-related documents.” I haven’t seen any French governmental communiqués, but I keep in touch with French-speaking friends all over the world (including Quebec) by email, and I have yet to encounter the word le courriel.
It’s not merely about language, in my opinion, but about creativity and individual freedom. Any writer abhors censorship. Grammar and punctuation are a different matter. I still believe they clarify meaning, as amply demonstrated in Lynn Truss’s delightful Eats, Shoots & Leaves. But words themselves belong to us. So I not only will continue to blog and to google, but if I perceive an unmet need, I claim the right to coin a term of my own. Most recent example? The bane of my existence, cellphonistas, those narcissists who quack and gabble, mobile phone glued to ear, in crowded buses and on endless lines at the post office. So when the term "cellphonista" passes into general usage, remember you heard it here first.