Sunday, September 22, 2013

To Gift the Gift of Neologism

"Necessity," wrote Thomas Jefferson, "obliges us to neologize," thus defending the idea of a living language and also creating the meta-coinage to neologize.

Neologisms are a favorite whipping boy of linguistic prescriptivists, people who hold high the standard of a pretty frozen canonical sense of a language; and they bash people over the heads (usually only verbally) who suggest that usages that depart from this standard, rather than choosing to observe and describe language as it is actually used in a variety of contexts and registers, from the literary to the colloquial, and acknowledge the inherent grammaticality even of non-standard forms of a language. (It should be pretty clear which side I come down on.)

In the same way that stupid criminals and inept terrorists make me feel better about the state of the world, ignorant prescriptivists make me feel better about the state of thinking about language: they're dinosaurs paving the way to their own extinction. (Not to mix metaphors or anything. I mean, it's not like a T-Rex could use a cement mixer to pave anything with those tiny little arms.)

I've been cognizant of this phenomenon lately because I just submitted an article to a journal that contains several occurrences of a word that is not a neologism, but is rather a relatively new revival of a usage that dates back to Shakespeare's time; yet it is, nonetheless, a favorite rallying cry for prescriptivists without a sense of history: the verb to gift. People who dislike the word tend to single out Apple, in particular, for special scorn for verbalizing the noun gift in its iTunes user interface.

But they're sorely wrong, as the word is attested as a verb as early as the sixteenth century and commonly in the seventeenth.

The revival of the usage of gift as a verb in common parlance is almost definitely related to iTunes selecting it as the verb of choice to indicate the action of paying for music or videos to be sent to somebody else in the same way that Netflix is neatly responsible for the restoration of the word queue to the American English vernacular.

It's definitely not new, though.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

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