Word Of The Week: November 7th, 2009.

In a classic Calvin & Hobbes strip (okay, technically they’re all classics–Bill Watterson is a genius) Calvin tells Hobbes that he likes to “verb words”. It’s the process of taking nouns and adjectives and turning them into verbs. He even gives an example: “Remember when ‘access’ was a thing? Now, it’s something you do.”

This didn’t originate with Calvin, obviously. Words have been verbed probably as long as there’s been language. A good example is tinker. Originally it was a noun. A tinker is a person who, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “A craftsman (usually itinerant) who mends pots, kettles, and other metal household utensils.” This word dates back at least to 1265–that’s the OED’s first recorded use, anyway, and the word probably had a long oral use before it was written down. The etymology is unknown, although maybe it’s onomatopoeic–just imagine the sound of someone working metal against metal. In Scotland and Northern Ireland tinkers were called tinklers, which I always thought was an entirely different profession, but that’s another story.

By 1658, what I think is now the most common usage of tinker appears:

To work at something (immaterial) clumsily or imperfectly, esp. in the way of attempted repair or improvement; also more vaguely, to occupy oneself about something in a trifling or aimless way; to trifle, potter.

And again that’s just the first recorded written example that the editors of the OED could find. People were probably tinkering with the meaning of tinker well before that.

Hobbes finishes that classic strip by saying, “Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding.” He’s missing the larger point, though, which is that language is not fixed. It’s constantly evolving and changing and being stretched. The beauty of language is that we can expand it by tinkering with it.