Verbicide: Committing Grammatical Murder & Other Verbal Crimes

February 3, 2010 by Steve Wacker in Technical Documentation

I recently used the term verbicide in a conversation, which amused one of my coworkers here at Wadeware. I’ve long thought of verbicide as a slang term, and that perpetrators were guilty of little more than sloppily twisting adjectives or nouns into verb form – as in “I’m working on my keyboarding skills.”

Some people who are stuffier than others about language issues (such as editors and English teachers) wring their hands and worry that such practices abuse the language. So just for fun I Googled – whoops, I mean I searched on Google for – verbicide and learned that it’s a real word, defined by dictionaries.

Merriam-Webster defines verbicide as “deliberate distortion of the sense of a word (as in punning).” This surprised me, because I thought that verbicide required a slangy carelessness or indifference to the intricacies of language. Deliberate distortion, as with puns, can be quite entertaining. (Which brings to mind that old favorite: “Puns are bad, but poetry is verse.” Sorry – I couldn’t resist. I’ll behave now.)

Onboarding is a classic verbicidal term in that it’s an adjective with ‘–ing’ stuck on the end to create a verb. It seems to be used increasingly these days in the world of marketing. This term’s sloppiness gets under my skin, and I try to discourage its use whenever possible. It’s probably derived from getting on board, which emerged from the train lingo of the 19th century. I also Googled getting up to speed, which the New York Times said emerged around 1974, although the Oxford English Dictionary says it’s a 19th century term as well. There’s also ramping up, which reportedly emerged around 1980. But… onboarding? That’s like saying “Good food happies me.” Or “I’m lating myself” when running behind schedule. Good grief.

I’m not sure if improperly used terms are verbicidal, but a popular one in technical writing (full disclosure: I’m a technical editor) is granular, which is used fairly extensively by writers who mean detailed or precise. Merriam-Webster defines this term as “consisting of or appearing to consist of granules: grainy,” which clearly is not what technical writers had in mind. But if you look a little further, a secondary Merriam-Webster definition is “finely detailed,” which clearly does fit the bill. Uh-oh…

But Wikipedia points out that granularity is not used consistently in different fields of practice: “For example, in investing, ‘more granularity’ refers to more positions of smaller size, while photographic film that is ‘more granular’ has fewer and larger chemical ‘grains.’” In my opinion, this inconsistency is a good reason to avoid the term altogether.

Back to that definition of verbicide, though. The notion of deliberate distortion got me to thinking about how language gets mangled. Who slaughters speech? Are there word murderers lurking behind every casual conversation? What about malapropisms? I thought they were uttered carelessly, so I questioned whether they belong in the verbicide family.

So I Googled – whoops, there I go again – malapropism and found a veritable cornucopia of information. Many writers and entertainers – from Shakespeare to Stan Laurel to Bugs Bunny – deliberately used malapropisms quite effectively. I also found the following hilarious entry on Wikipedia, which I just have to share:

It was reported in New Scientist that an office worker described a colleague as “a vast suppository of information” (i.e., “repository”). The worker then apologised for his “Miss-Marple-ism” (i.e. malapropism). New Scientist reported it as possibly the first time malapropism has been turned into a malapropism.

And by the way, did you know that a malapropism is also known as a Dogberryism or acyrologia? Neither did I.

Many of us are probably guilty of verbicide to some degree, but is it such a crime? What do you think? I guess I’m somewhere in between. I don’t think all language mangling is harmless, but popular usage (such as keyboarding) helps keep language effective and underscores the notion that it is constantly evolving. However, I do wonder how keyboarding came about. I seem to remember reading once
that …

Sorry, I need to stop now. A client just phoned to tell me that the onboarding materials I’ve been developing for them need more technical granularity – it’s going to be a long night with a lot of keyboarding…