December 15, 2004

Faith, hope and charity -- all verbs?

When I claimed that faith is one of the few monosyllabic English nouns that have resisted being verbed, I should have hedged. In response to my observation that the OED's published citations for verbal faith end in 1605, Jesse Sheidlower checked Oxford's archives and emailed four unpublished citations from the 20th century:

1928 DJUNA BARNES Ryder (1990) xxxiv. 150, I spaded not because I faithed. I faithed me that Wendell was a large account, lost in a small and trifling balance.
1990 Los Angeles Times 19 Oct. 14 Says Charles, the vicar who has been de-faithed but not defrocked: `You didn't destroy my faith. It was already destroyed. You simply described the vacuum.'
1991 ARTERBURN & FELTON Toxic Faith iii. 57 You may have the most incredible, powerful, mature faith in the world, but if God has a different plan, you will not be healed. You can't `faith it' into a divine intervention that God knows might lead you away from Him rather than toward Him.
1992 Washington Post 18 Apr. B6 This week he received a phone call from a woman dying of cancer. She was filled with hope, not despair. `Instead of freaking out, she faithed out.'

Jesse added:

No clue what Barnes is talking about. This is apart from _faithed_ adj. 'having some (usually specified or evaluated) faith'. And, of course, this doesn't change the fact that OF COURSE _FAITH_ ISN'T A VERB.

I was wrong to be so categorical about the lexical category of faith, but I also agree with Jesse's implication that these citations don't really give us much new evidence on the subject.

Out of context at least, Djuna Barnes' "I faithed me" is certainly mysterious. Online reviews describe her novel Ryder as "[imitating] the style of Shakespeare, Chaucer and the Bible", and "written in arcane language that mimics the diction of Chaucerian and Restoration bawdy". The following quote from the book sounds this same note:

"Let thy lips choose no prayer that is not on the lips of thy congregation, for though it is not given to all men to pray alike, nor blame alike, it is not shown thee to know the difference in these matters. Therefore when thou dost ask for the mercy of God, do thou ask it as thy neighbour seems to ask it. And when thou art pitiful, be pitiful like thy sister and thy brother."

As Calvin put it, "verbing weirds language", and perhaps Barnes verbed faith in search of some Calvinist weirding. That's Calvin the 20th-century cartoon child, not Calvin the 16th-century resident of Geneva. Or maybe it's both: until I read Ryder, I'm not sure.

I'd argue that the second example, "de-faithed", is not reliable evidence for verbal faith. Expressions of the form de+NOUN+ed, meaning "deprived or relieved of (one's) NOUN(s)", can be freely created for just about any noun at all. If someone has had his headphones confiscated, he can be described as "de-headphoned" without giving us significant evidence that headphone is starting to be used as a verb in any general sense. No one happens to to have used "de-headphoned" within the ken of Google, but that's just an accident of history, it's Out There waiting to be born. Picking a few nouns at random, I find credible web citations for "de-trousered", "de-coffeed", "de-oranged", "de-cookied", "de-computered", "de-virused" and so on. This doesn't mean that trouser, coffee, orange, cookie, computer and virus have become verbs -- they might be, but this isn't good evidence.

The third example, "you can't 'faith it' into a divine intervention", is a genuinely verbal use of faith. But the authors' quotes flag this as a concocted usage that needs some special attention from the reader. And "faith it" has not caught on among religious writers to any significant extent -- the word string occurs frequently on the web, but all of the first 100 examples that I checked were things like

Finding my faith: it came in an envelope ...
Faith it is.
But without faith it is impossible to please him ...
What is the definition of faith? It's in the Bible ...
Knowing that while reason is somehow at the basis of faith, it is not the whole basis ...

The fourth example, "instead of freaking out, she faithed out", is as equivocal as "de-faithed". Intensive constructions of the form X out, X-ed out and X-ing out (with various meanings) are fairly common with words that are not otherwise used as verbs. Google has 25 hits for "charitied out", compared to 3 for "faithed out". This shouldn't lead us to conclude that charity is eight times more verbal than faith, but rather to doubt that either word is really very verbal at all.

Some other X out examples:

All truffled out.
The band launches into "The Passenger," the venue's giant disco ball flares up, and she dorks out completely.
Or will they fluke out completely and win, just to vex the odds-makers?
My comprehension sucks when it comes to nerded out geek language ...
He called when he got into town and we duded out to the max for a few hours.
I enjoy swimming the oceans, riding my BMX, travelling around, listening to jazz, and duding out with my buddies.
I think the people I know and read might be all a little electioned out at this point.
Clear Channel's all computered out. They call it progress.
We tried many a beer (although by the time we got to Redbones, Rose and I were feeling pretty beered out, and had pecan pie and vanilla custard instead),

In some cases (like spazz out?) the X out construction may result in the development of a verbal use. But the mere fact that a word is used occasionally in the X out construction doesn't mean much by itself -- and especially not when it's used in a parallel pattern like "... instead of freaking out she faithed out".

So in conclusion, any English noun can be verbed, but some are more resistant than others. Syntactically speaking, faith is just about as purely a noun as an English word can be. Theologically, you're on your own: this is Language Log.


Posted by Mark Liberman at December 15, 2004 09:45 AM