In Defense of Verbing
What would you do if I returned from a weekend unplugged and said, “I’m so happy to be oned with my iPhone again?” Or if I came back from a wedding and remarked, “The oneing of Josh and Julie was beautiful?”
You might roll your eyes and tell me to go read Strunk and White. After all, I just committed a grammar violation. I turned the noun “one” into a verb. In other words, I verbed.
Verbing (yes, that is a real word) gets a bad rap today. People I know and respect cite this trend as an example of the breakdown of language. But I applaud it. In an age of speed scrolling through feeds and timelines, I appreciate verbing for slowing us down and making us notice the words we often take for granted.
I became enamored of verbing when scanning my Twitter timeline one day and seeing a tweet that proclaimed, “It’s time to introvert!” These four words caused me to completely stop scrolling, which is a rare feat indeed. I thought I was up on verbing: I’ve heard of adulting and baching it and read about the benefits of home-officing. But introverting was a new one for me. I reread the tweet. I thought about it. And then I realized the service verbing performs.
This grammar move is not meant to annoy us but rather to surprise us. It trips us up, and as we stumble, we see new meaning erupt from an old term. When nouns become verbs, a previously inert object gains energy. It goes somewhere. It transforms before our eyes and ignites our imagination. Change “introvert” from a noun to a verb and watch it fold in on itself, dive under the covers, hide in a deserted room. I like these images, probably because I myself frequently feel the need to introvert.
But what really sold me on verbing was the discovery that I could be oned with my iPhone. Oneing or being oned might sound like the newest and most inventive case of verbing. In reality, it’s very old. I discovered it while doing what I do best—medievalizing. I was reading the Revelations of Divine Love by the fourteenth-century mystic Julian of Norwich when I came to this sentence: “Prayer ones the soul to God.” This passage awakened my inner grammar queen. The last time I checked, “ones” wasn’t a verb.
Evidently Julian didn’t read the same grammar books that I did. Examples of oneing infuse her work, such as: “In our making God knit us and oned us to himself . . .”
And the conclusion of this idea:
“By the virtue of the same precious oneing, we love our Maker and seek God . . . ”
Julian’s oneing would not have sounded as jarring to her audience as it does to us. “To one” was a Middle English word meaning to unite or to join. Used today, it constitutes an egregious case of verbing.
I think this is why some translators of Julian’s work don’t use her original wording: they’re concerned that she’s breaking today’s grammar rules. These translators often change the word “oned” to “united.” So, Julian’s phrase “prayer ones the soul to God” becomes “prayer unites the soul to God.”
Despite my initial reservations, I found that I much prefer Julian’s strange little verb. How much lovelier oneing is than uniting! The unfamiliarity of this word makes me pause, reread, and really grapple with its meaning. Uniting implies a joining of forces, but oneing suggests a knitting together that can never be undone, a union so seamless that you can no longer distinguish its individual parts.
Now you understand why I spoke of being oned, rather than merely united, to my iPhone. My phone and I, we’re tight.
But oneing implies more than intimacy. In the works of Julian of Norwich and other medieval mystics, it describes union with God himself. It encapsulates the mystery of our creation and our very being. Oneing is divine, in every sense of the word.
Not all examples of nouns-cum-verbs are as poetic as oneing. But Julian’s treatise drives home the merits of a modern trend. Thanks to this medieval writer’s sensitive prose, I’ve come to approach verbing a bit like a mystic; that is, I’m ready to be surprised and disrupted, ready to see something new and possibly divine. I’ve been bejulianed.
Many of us will not spend our time reading medieval mystics, but we could all stand to be bejulianed. In an age of increasing verbiage and decreasing attention spans, we need language that disrupts; we need words that teach us about ourselves and the world instead of words that fly under our radar. In fact, it’s a thrill to discover that the English language can still trip us up. So when it comes to the Verbs Formerly Known As Nouns, don’t roll your eyes. Pause, reread, think, and imagine. And ask yourself this question: have I been oned to my iPhone today?