May 22, 2004

With a magical gesture, reveal the vanish...

Mark Liberman has pointed out, in response to a comment at Simple Bits, that the use of reveal as a noun is nothing new. If you find that odd, here's an amuse (or perhaps a disturb): it turns out that a great many English verbs used to make perfectly fine nouns, but somehow lost this ability. Some of my personal favorites include announce, arrive, remove, divulge, and annoy.

In Old English, there were numerous ways to make nouns from verbs. Some of these involved special noun-creating endings, like -nes (as in ābrēotnes 'extermination', from ābrēotan 'destroy'), -ung (as in smirung 'anointment', from smierwan 'smear, anoint'), and so on. Some were rather irregular (dǣd 'deed', from dōn 'to do'). But perhaps the most common way to form abstract nouns from verbs was to take the verb root and simply slap on case endings directly—often creating a strong feminine noun (ending in -u) or a strong masculine noun (no ending at all). For example, the verb faran 'to travel, go' had two nouns derived from it: fær and faru, both meaning 'way, going, journey').

Over time, the -u endings fell off (along with most of the verb endings), leaving many nouns that looked more or less identical to their corresponding verbs. Thus was born a robust process of "zero derivation." As a flood of French verbs entered the language, they acquired noun forms by zero derivation, too. Many of these deverbal nouns (of both English and French origin) have stuck with us, and we don't bat an eye at them (turn, slide, ride, bite, ...). But somewhere along the way, a bunch of deverbal nouns got lost. For example, Shakespeare writes in Hamlet IV.5 81: "Next, your own son gone, and he most violent author of his own just remove", where remove means death. (The OED defines this use of remove as "the act of removing a person by death; murder"). Remove just can't be used as a noun this way anymore.

The OED is a treasure trove of other examples:

1596 SPENSER F.Q. III. xii. 20 Without adorne of gold or silver.
1597 DANIEL Civ. Wars VI. xlvii, From all Disturbs to be so long kept free.
1615 CHAPMAN Odyss. II. 379 His wife should little joy in his arrive.
1616 LANE Cont. Sqr.'s T. IX. 476 The sweete boy, wailinge most rufullie his frendes distroie.
1651 Fuller's Abel Rediv., Beza (1867) II. 218, I am he To whom an infant can no relate be.
1654 GAYTON Pleas. Notes II. v. 54 Father, we are for fighting, not for pray.
1658 SIR H. SLINGSBY Diary (1836) 202, I shall now take occasion to make my recede from the world.
1787 J. NICHOLS in Welsted Wks. p. xxvi, This friendly announce is somewhat premature.
1781 T. TWINING Let. 8 Dec. in Recreat. & Stud. (1882) 108, I am not so unreasonable as to desire you to..answer all my asks.
1870 MRS. WHITNEY We Girls ii, Ruth did talk..when she came out of one of her thinks.
1880 HOWELLS Undisc. Country v. 85 He stared at Ford in even more amaze than anger.

Others include depart, reduce, produce, maintain, retain, detain, deploy, retire, acquit, greet, defend, divulge, startle, entertain, amaze, and vanish.

In addition to these examples, there are also some "frozen" deverbal nouns, which still occur, but only in a particular phrase or idiom: employ (as in "in his employ"), compare ("beyond compare"), fancy ("flights of fancy"), and say ("have one's say"). These, too, seem to go back to more general uses, such as:

1885 LYALL Anc. Arab. Poetry 21 There rises a lord, to say the say, and do the deeds, of the noble.

The real ask, then is not how "the big reveal" got its make, but rather, why is it such a startle? What caused the vanish of so many perfectly good nouns?

Incidentally, it's possible that all those live reveals on Trading Spaces are a rather different phenomenon. As a parallel, consider the word vanish. Until recently, this verb could also occur as a noun (1872 'MARK TWAIN' Roughing It iii. 33 "He..left for San Francisco at a speed which can only be described as a flash and a vanish."). Nowadays, however, the only people using it as a noun are magicians, who use it quite routinely to describe disappearing acts. For instance (quoted from a page on magic for kids): "With a magical gesture reveal the vanish of the coin, then make it re-appear wherever you want." It seems that the magician's use of vanish is meant to indicate the act, or performance, of causing something to vanish. The reveal seems to have a similar flavor; it sounds like a bit of reality-TV board-room lingo for a packaged act, that has slipped onto the screen.

Then again, recent creations like freshman admits (=admittees), new hires, and the like, might just show that zero derivation to create nouns from verbs in English is not totally dead, it's just having a dwindle.

Posted by Adam Albright at May 22, 2004 05:15 AM