December 17, 2004

O ye of little faithing

The idea that faith is a verb starts as a metaphorical turn of phrase, as Geoff Nunberg suggests, though a few folks take it literally:

(link) Blue faithed his way through his life ...
(link) Another way David faithed was to refuse the kings' armor and sword.
(link) Families need to learn how to “faith” problems as Nehemiah did.
(link) Thank you, Holy Spirit, for allowing us to experience and know what we have been faithing - THAT LIVING IS CHRIST!

A larger number don't fully understand the metaphor, I suspect, and just think of it as a way to express their belief that faith is an action or process rather than a static condition. However, in looking around the web, I noticed many examples that embody in linguistic form the idea of faith as a process, without involving verbal forms at all. A page on Faith Development has four of these:

Faithing is as much a verb or action as it is a noun.
Fowler states that a person comes to the activity of faithing through one’s community.
One of the problems with Fowler’s approach to faith development is that it describes a generic developmental faithing process regardless of the object of one’s faith.
An atheist goes through similar stages of “faithing” as a Christian.

The trick here is that -ing can be used to make process nouns out of verbs, but it also often is used to make process nouns out of nouns.

The OED explains that the original function of -ing1 is a

was to form nouns of action ... These substantives were originally abstract; but even in OE. they often came to express a completed action, a process, habit, or art ... and then admitted a plural; sometimes they became concrete ... By later extension, formations of the same kind have been analogically made from substantives ... and, by ellipsis, from adverbs ... ; while nonce-words in -ing are formed freely on words or phrases of many kinds, e.g. oh-ing, hear-hearing, hoo-hooing, pshawing, yo-hoing (calling oh!, hear! hear!, etc.), how-d'ye-doing (saying ‘how do you do?’); ‘I do not believe in all this pinting’ (having pints of beer).

Thus pinting is a noun for a process associated with pints (i.e. drinking them in company), not a noun derived from some hypothetical verb to pint; likewise faithing seems generally to be a noun for a process associated with faith, not really a noun formed from the possible verb to faith.

As evidence for this analysis, I'll note that the cited page on "Faith Development" includes 64 instances of faith used as as a noun, along with 4 instances of faithing used as a noun, and no instances of faithing as a verbal participle or faith as a verb. Similarly, the great majority of examples of faithing on the web seem to be process nouns of this same kind.

The OED goes on to explain:

The notion of simple action passes insensibly into that of a process, practice, habit, or art, which may or may not be regarded as in actual exercise; e.g. ‘reading and writing are now common acquirements’; so drawing, engraving, fencing, smoking, swimming. Words of this kind are also formed directly from ns. which are the names of things used, or persons engaged, in the action: such are ballooning, blackberrying, canalling, chambering, cocking (cock-fighting), fowling, gardening, hopping (hop-picking), hurting (gathering hurts), nooning, nutting, sniping, buccaneering, costering, soldiering, and the like. [emphasis added]

Faith as "process, practice, habit or art" is the notion that the theorists of "faithing" are aiming for, rather than what the OED describes as

...formations in -ing from substantives without a corresponding verb; esp. in industrial and commercial language, with the sense of a collection or indefinite mass of the thing or of its material; as ashlaring, coping, cornicing, costering, girdering, piping, scaffolding, tubing; bagging, quilting, sacking, sheeting, shirting, ticking, trousering.

In any case, the grammatical category of verb need not be involved in faithing. Nor is there necessarily any verbal faith in faithed -- as the OED explains, -ed has a long tradition of being added to nouns to mean "possessing, provided with, characterized by (something)":

-ed2 is appended to ns. in order to form adjs. connoting the possession or the presence of the attribute or thing expressed by the n. ... In mod.Eng., and even in ME., the form affords no means of distinguishing between the genuine examples of this suffix and those ppl. adjs. in -ed1 which are ultimately f. ns. through unrecorded vbs. Examples that have come down from OE. are ringed:--OE. hringede, hooked:--OE. hócede, etc. The suffix is now added without restriction to any n. from which it is desired to form an adj. with the sense ‘possessing, provided with, characterized by’ (something); e.g. in toothed, booted, wooded, moneyed, cultured, diseased, jaundiced, etc., and in parasynthetic derivatives, as dark-eyed, seven-hilled, leather-aproned, etc. In bigoted, crabbed, dogged, the suffix has a vaguer meaning.

Although such derivations have been normal since Beowulf, there was a brief attempt in the 18th and 19th centuries to ban them:

1779 JOHNSON Gray Wks. IV. 302 There has of late arisen a practice of giving to adjectives derived from substantives, the termination of participles: such as the ‘cultured’ plain..but I was sorry to see in the lines of a scholar like Gray, the ‘honied’ spring.
1832 COLERIDGE Table-T. (1836) 171, I regret to see that vile and barbarous vocable talented..The formation of a participle passive from a noun is a licence that nothing but a very peculiar felicity can excuse.

I like the idea of calling talented a "vile and barbarous vocable". I wonder why this bit of ignorant grammatical pontificating never caught on, while the equally ill-founded prescription against splitting infinitives did?


[Update 12/21/2004: John Cowan emails

I myself have used an "is a verb" sentence that I think is rather better than any of the ones you cite: "Viking is a verb". Now this is literally false, in that there is no verb *vike for viking to be the present participle of. Nor was it so even in Old Norse: the meaning of the root *vik-* is a little unclear, but the *-ingr* ending is clearly the PGmc *-ing* suffix meaning something like "one out of a group" and still surviving insweeting,darling (and revived by Tolkien in Beornings, the descendants of Beorn).

Nevertheless, what I mean to convey by this sentence is that there were no such people as "the Vikings"; a man might go in viking (to calque a little Old Norse) one year, and the next year return to the same location as a peaceful trader. The implication, then, is that "viking" is the name of an activity, even if not literally derived qua gerund from a verb.

OK -- but in that case, why not just say that "Viking is the name of an activity"?

John replies: "'Viking is a verb' is much more colorful and therefore memorable than 'Viking is the name of an activity', and neither one is literally true of English as she is spoke." ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 17, 2004 09:36 PM