Kicking “Foot” as a Verb

Linguistic conservatives often complain about the tendency of nouns to be made into verbs, especially in the business world.


to access
to dialog
to interface
to leverage
to securitize
to trend

Internet and computer language is full of verbed nouns:

to friend
to blog
to text
to google

Other currently popular examples that annoy many people:

to impact
to effort
to parent
to medal

Turning nouns into verbs is a normal process in English, not at all uniquely modern. Richard Nordquist has a nice article about this process on About.com called “What is Verbing?” He points out that such familiar verbs as “rain,” “oil,” and “bottle” were originally nouns.

When linguistic liberals argue that because a new usage follows a well-established pattern it should be accepted, they’re confusing the argument. Such people often pride themselves on rejecting “rule-based” language standards and insist instead on following actual contemporary usage. The problem is that this argument is itself based on a rule: if a neologism follows a familiar pattern, it should be accepted.

But that’s not how people typically decide what is proper usage. Instead, new linguistic forms are accepted or rejected through a social process. When they are first introduced they tend to evoke negative reactions just because they are not traditional. That’s normal, and it’s useless to argue that people shouldn’t object to linguistic change because “language is always changing.” Some changes are widely welcomed, some are mostly frowned upon, and others meet a mixed reception.

The task of the creators of usage guides is to note when a new usage has evoked a significant amount of hostility so that writers and speakers can be warned that if they choose to follow it, they may get into trouble. That’s not at all the same thing as stating that a particular usage is “wrong.”

When there is a lot of money and/or power behind a neologism, it tends to become widely accepted (“leverage,” “google”). But if you were to say you want to “suitcase” your clothes in preparing for a trip, people would think you were being silly. We already have the perfectly good word “pack,” and there’s nothing particularly attractive about using “suitcase” instead.

That said, those who are annoyed by verbing can comfort themselves by considering that some words created by this process pass out of fashion and disappear. A favorite example of mine is the verb “foot,” meaning “dance.”

“Foot” actually has had many uses as a verb, including some which are still current. We say when we pay a bill that we “foot” the bill (because we pay the total at the foot of the bill). “Foot up” is sometimes used to mean “pay up.”

There are specialized uses of the verb in hawking and horsemanship.

But the verb “foot” meaning “dance” is the earliest of these. Around 1400, in the Middle English translation of the French Romance of the Rose, we find “If he can wel foote and daunce, It may hym greatly do avaunce” [many women like men who can dance well].

The most famous early example is from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Foot it featly [dance elegantly] here and there” (Act I, Scene 2, line 381).

The most recent example of its use cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1863, in C. Cowden Clarke’s Shakespeare-Characters: “The dance of fairies . . footing it to the cricket’s song.” Like this author, modern writers who use “foot” to mean “dance” are most likely to be alluding to Shakespeare’s use in a deliberate effort to sound quaint and twee [a very British word—look it up].

My wife, who sings a lot of Renaissance music, pointed out an example some singers may be familiar with in the third line of a Thomas Morley madrigal first published in 1594:

About the maypole new, with glee and merriment,
While as the bagpipe tooted it,
Thirsys and Chloris fine together footed it.

And to the wanton instrument
Still they went to and fro and finely flaunted it,
And then both met again, and thus they chanted it:
Fa la la!

The shepherds and the nymphs them round enclosed had,
Wond’ring with what facility
About they turned them in such strange agility.

And still, when they unloosed had,
With words full of delight they gently kissed them,
And sweetly thus to sing they never missed them:
Fa la la!

Note that Morley used “fine” as an adverb where a modern writer might have used “finely.” This sort of thing constitutes another pattern that’s not distinctively modern.

Want to see how Thirsys and Chloris might have danced? Check out “Now Foot It! Renaissance Dance Made Easy.”

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