15 Words You Might Not Know Could Be Used As Verbs

sKrisda/iStock via Getty Images
sKrisda/iStock via Getty Images

Shakespeare was well known for his linguistic inventiveness, and one of his favorite tricks was taking pre-existing words and reusing them as different parts of speech, a process variously known as semantic conversion, zero-derivation, or anthimeria. And, more often than not, that process involved using nouns as if they were verbs—in fact, Shakespeare was the first writer to use words like cake, hinge, blanket, elbow, champion, humor, lapse, and petition as verbs, which is well worth remembering next time you try elbowing someone out of the way, or championing their cause.

Not all of Shakespeare’s “verbed” inventions caught on, however, which is why you’re unlikely to hear anyone saying that they have barbered themselves (he used barber to mean “to dress or trim a person’s hair” in Antony & Cleopatra), or that they have scarfed (“wrapped around”), bonneted (“removed a hat as a mark of respect”), bassed (“spoken in a deep voice”), or estated (“bestowed or bequeathed an estate”). But these are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to words you probably didn’t know could be used as verbs—so why not try dropping some of these into conversation?

1. Tiger

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, tiger has two verb senses—you can use it to mean “To act, behave, or walk to and fro, like a tiger,” or, for obvious reasons, “To mark like a tiger with lines or streaks of contrasting color.”

2. Moon

Using moon to mean exposing one's backside dates back to the 1960s, but long before then, moon was being used as a verb variously meaning to move listlessly, to pass your time idly, or to daydream. All these earlier senses likely derive from the same root as words like moonstruck and lunatic, referring to the idea that the moon can have deranging effects on people.

3. Crab

Crab can be used to mean to move sideways, to nit-pick or complain, and to beat with a cudgel, referring to a crab-stick, a cane or club made from the wood of the crab-apple tree.

4. Horse

As a verb, horse can of course be used to mean to fool around or make fun of—as in horseplay and horsing about—but feel free to also use it to mean you're carrying someone on your shoulders, or carrying something away forcefully, or working to the point of exhaustion.

5. Racoon

The English novelist Elizabeth Gaskell used the word raccoon (in the form of raccooning) as a verb meaning “to wander about at night.”

6. Magistrate

Both magistrate and master derive from the Latin verb magistrare, meaning to rule or govern. Probably based on that, in 17th century English, magistrate was used as a verb meaning to dominate or behave domineeringly.

7. Vandyke

The Flemish Baroque artist Anthony van Dyck was so well known for his portraits of aristocratic figures wearing ornately-cut lace collars (like King Charles I) that in the 1700s, that particular style of collar (and, in the case of Charles I, that particular style of facial hair) came to be known as a Vandyke. And, alluding to the undulating, in-and-out shape of the collars, you can also use the word vandyke as a verb meaning to walk or travel in a zigzag.

8. Honeycomb

Referring to the network of hexagonal “cells” in a beehive, you can use the word honeycomb to mean to weaken something by boring holes into it—either physically or metaphorically—or to become hollow or insubstantial.

9. Heaven

Heavening might sound like a clumsy modern invention, but heaven has been used as a verb since the 17th century, meaning to (metaphorically) transport to heaven—in other words, to make someone extremely happy.

10. Canary

A century before it began to be used as the name of a bright yellow bird (native to the Canary Islands), the canary was a lively dance (native to the Canary Islands). As a consequence, you can use it as a verb meaning to dance in a lively manner. The Canary Islands themselves, incidentally, are named after dogs (the name is derived from the Latin phrase Canariae Insulae, which means the "island of dogs.")

11. Liver

As a clipped form of deliver, you can use liver to mean to unload cargo, to surrender or hand over, or “to return to the person in authority a piece of work which one has finished.”

12. Spider

For understandable reasons, you can use spider to mean to ensnare or entrap—or, alternatively, to creep or walk like a spider.

13. Rebecca

As odd as it might sound, you can use the girl's name Rebecca as a verb meaning to destroy a gate. It derives from a series of protests against toll gates (and general economic hardship) in mid-19th century Wales.

14. Peter

Because St. Peter is said to hold the keys to Heaven, in 19th century slang, his name came to be used in all kinds of different senses referring to locked or unopenable items. (Perhaps thanks to that key ingredient in gunpowder, saltpeter, it referenced how to break into them as well). So a peter was a till or a safe, a peterman was a thief who steals baggage from vehicles, and a peter-hunter was a crowbar used to break the chains attaching luggage to carriages, a crime known as peter-claiming or the peter-drag. Similarly, as a verb you can use peter to mean “to use explosives,” or, should you ever need it, to blow the door off a safe.

15. Buttonhole

Probably derived from the image of forcing a button into a narrow hole—or, according to the OED, as a corruption of the term button-hold, meaning to grab someone by the buttons—you can used the word buttonhole to mean to engage someone in a tedious or longwinded conversation against his or her will.

This list was first published in 2016 and republished in 2019.

The Ohio State University Is Trying to Trademark the ‘The’ in Its Name

As any good Ohioan knows, there’s a big difference between an Ohio state university and The Ohio State University. But with countless other public colleges across the state, including the similarly named Ohio University, it’s not hard for out-of-towners or prospective students to get confused. To further distinguish themselves from other institutions (and to capitalize on merchandise opportunities, no doubt), The Ohio State University is pursuing a trademark for the The in its name.

According to Smithsonian.com, trademark lawyer Josh Gerben first broke the news on Twitter, where he shared a short video that included the trademark application itself, as well as examples of how the university plans to use the word on apparel. One is a white hat emblazoned with a red THE, and the other is a red scoop-necked T-shirt with a white THE and the Ohio State logo beneath it. Gerben predicts that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will initially deny the trademark request on the basis that those examples aren’t sufficient trademark use, but the university would have an opportunity to try again.

The Columbus Dispatch reports that university spokesperson Chris Davey confirmed the trademark application, saying that “Ohio State works to vigorously protect the university’s brand and trademarks.” He’s not exaggerating; the university has secured trademarks for legendary coaches Urban Meyer and Woody Hayes, plus more than 150 trademarks and pending applications across an impressive 17 countries.

The school's 2017 request to trademark the initials "OSU" provoked an objection from Oklahoma State University, which is also known as OSU, but the two schools eventually decided that they could both use it, as long as each refrained from producing clothing or content that could cause confusion about which school was being referenced.

The Ohio State University, perhaps most famous for its marching band, public research endeavors, and legendary athletic teams, is not impervious to social media mockery, however.

Ohio University responded with this:

And the University of Michigan, OSU’s longtime sports rival, suggested that it should trademark of:

However bizarre this trademark may seem, it's far from the weirdest request th Patent and Trademark Office has ever received. Check out these colors and scents that are also trademarked.

[h/t Smithsonian.com]

Where Did the Term Brownie Points Come From?

bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

In a Los Angeles Times column published on March 15, 1951, writer Marvin Miles observed a peculiar phrase spreading throughout his circle of friends and the social scene at large. While standing in an elevator, he overheard the man next to him lamenting “lost brownie points.” Later, in a bar, a friend of Miles's who had stayed out too late said he would never “catch up” on his brownie points.

Miles was perplexed. “What esoteric cult was this that immersed men in pixie mathematics?” he wrote. It was, his colleagues explained, a way of keeping “score” with their spouses, of tallying the goodwill they had accrued with the “little woman.”

Over the decades, the phrase brownie points has become synonymous with currying favor, often with authority figures such as teachers or employers. So where exactly did the term come from, and what happens when you “earn” them?

The most pervasive explanation is that the phrase originated with the Brownies, a subsect of the Girl Scouts who were encouraged to perform good deeds in their communities. The Brownies were often too young to be official Girl Scouts and were sometimes the siblings of older members. Originally called Rosebuds in the UK, they were renamed Brownies when the first troops were being organized in 1916. Sir Robert Baden-Powell, who had formed the Boy Scouts and was asked to name this new Girl Scout division, dubbed them Brownies after the magical creatures of Scottish folklore that materialized to selflessly help with household chores.

But the Brownies are not the only potential source. In the 1930s, kids who signed up to deliver magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal from Curtis Publishing were eligible for vouchers labeled greenies and brownies that they could redeem for merchandise. They were not explicitly dubbed brownie points, but it’s not hard to imagine kids applying a points system to the brownies they earned.

The term could also have been the result of wartime rationing in the 1940s, where red and brown ration points could be redeemed for meats.

The phrase didn’t really seem to pick up steam until Miles's column was published. In this context, the married men speaking to Miles believed brownie points could be collected by husbands who remembered birthdays and anniversaries, stopped to pick up the dry cleaning, mailed letters, and didn’t spend long nights in pubs speaking to newspaper columnists. The goal, these husbands explained, was never to get ahead; they merely wanted to be considered somewhat respectable in the eyes of their wives.

Later, possibly as a result of its usage in print, grade school students took the phrase to mean an unnecessary devotion to teachers in order to win them over. At a family and faculty meeting at Leon High in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1956, earning brownie points was said to be a serious problem. Also called apple polishing, it prompted other students in class to shame their peers for being friendly to teachers. As a result, some were “reluctant to be civil” for fear they would be harassed for sucking up.

In the decades since that time, the idiom has become attached to any act where goodwill can be expected in return, particularly if it’s from someone in a position to reward the act with good grades or a promotion. As for Miles: the columnist declared his understanding of brownie points came only after a long night of investigation. Arriving home late, he said, rendered him “pointless.”

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