It’s rare to see the structure of a language changing before your eyes, but this seems to be happening with English compound verbs. Geoff Pullum at Language Log describes a developing pattern whereby a preposition plus a noun object form a new verb; his examples are upskirting (taking photos up womens’ skirts), overlanding (travelling overland, usually in an all-terrain vehicle), and downwalling (making descents of cliffs or office block walls on ropes). Not having run across any of these words, I was taken by surprise by the whole thing, and will be on the alert for other examples. As Geoff says, “One is an exception, two are a couple of anomalies, but three is a trend.”

(If I were the kind of person who makes snarky comments about bloggers’ grammar, I’d point out that you can use either the singular or the plural in forms like “two is/are a…,” but not both in the same sentence. But I’m not, so I won’t.)


  1. The great and venerable Moss (I can remember him blogging in 1999, when I still thought it a foolish, adolescent practice, or maybe I didn’t even think that then, only later) once quoted to me in conversation a Grateful Dead recording (do I have this right, Moss?) where the members of that venerable outfit referred to “fucks-upping”, if I have this right (Moss?), which is another nice way of putting the same elements in order.

  2. If you are following with your scorecard but are too lazy to do the math, let me point out that I did in fact use the word venerable twice in one sentence. I humbly beg yer pardon.

  3. The Grateful Dead’s “fucks-upping” is witty, because it is isolated, and self-conscious. “Downwalling” is something else. I know languages change, and theoretically I find that fascinating. Hell, in practice I find that fascinating. But am I a hopeless reactionary to say categorically that the first student who “downwalls” in a paper for me is going to get SOOOO much red pencil it will make her head spin?

  4. Hmf. The first thought that came to my mind was, “offroading” is the word I’d use, have been using for years when called upon to do so. I suppose that if we really wanted to, we could add up a number of these ersatz verbs that have been in use for fifteen, if not twenty, years.
    …Makes me think of what Newspeak might sound like, if devised by faceless SVP’s of Marketing rather than faceless bureaucrats.

  5. The upshot was I was bysurprised. Braindowned from latenight. Outsourcing the uptake means byproducts outlive their post-due-date.
    Back in the outback the girls still do that beehive thing, upswept and held in place by sandalwood combs, but downtown it’s upstaged by pre-war jive.
    A taoist guide to fence-building, with a duck for a McGuffin, for the weekend DIYer.
    By the generally venerable Jim Dodge.
    Most highly recommended.

  6. Upchucking? Downloading? Retrofitting? (is retro a preposition in Latin?). Bypassing? Of course these are not nouns, but verbs. At the same time, almost any noun in English can be verbalized. Is the novetly that the noun is made into a verb at the same time as the preposition is added?

  7. Of course these are not nouns, but verbs
    That’s exactly the point. Verb + prep has been common throughout the history of English (and indeed the Germanic languages); noun + prep is a complete novelty. Doesn’t “upskirting” sound strange to you?

  8. This kind of word building is by no means new in the Germanic languages, including English (cf. “bypass,” “bystander,” “tomorrow,” “atonement,” “throughput,” “input,” “outdoors,” “outhouse,” “inside,” etc.). In fact, this kind of word building can be demonstrated with examples from Old High German, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, and even Gothic. What English excels at is thus probably not really the use of adverbial particles as semantic extensors, which is common to all stages of Germanic languages, but the “verbing of words,” as a famous Calvin and Hobbes cartoon once termed it. “To rollerblade,” “to ski,” “to knife,” “to book,” etc., are all fairly good and not necessarily new examples of verbed nouns, for instance. (Nouned verbs are also common: “a run,” “a swim,” “a read,” “a cry,” etc.) Because noun verbing is a fairly conventional method of word building in English, it is only logical that the same adverbial particles that extend conventional verbs be attached to verbed nouns as well. The novelty should perhaps not be seen as much in the use of the particles per se but in a possible increase in the fashion of noun verbing, at least in advertising speak of late.
    Usually also there is a semantic difference between a nonseparable particle-verb compound (cf. “ongoing,” “to upload”) and a separable verb + particle compound (cf. “going on,” “to load up”). This issue must be playing a role as people say “to offroad” instead of *”to road off,” etc.

  9. Sounds to me more like a case of what happens when kids get a lousy education.
    “Well, it’s not really relevant to their lives.”
    Bull shit. You go and erect huge man-made cliffs all over the place, of course somebody’s going to try rapelling down it. It’s like telling a college kid you can’t get your computer to work. And when people do things for which the audience doesn’t have the vocabulary to describe, the audience will invent words to describe it.
    Besides, knowledge is never irrelevant, for you never can tell when you might wind up in a situation where a bit or ‘irrelevant’ knowledge could be useful.

  10. Thanks to all who have contributed to this thread. I find it very uplifting.

  11. Jamie, your examples are all irrelevant. Nobody’s denying the wordbuilding propensity of Germanic languages; it is this specific construction — verb made from preposition plus object noun — that is new: going down a wall = downwalling. If the difference doesn’t seem striking to you, fine; different strokes and all that.

  12. I mailed one of the guys at LL about this, but I’ll mention it here too — I’m pretty sure that the word “upskirt” is a Japanese innovation, and was adopted into American English from Japanese English. That would explain why it has a weird construction: because a non-native speaker constructed it.

  13. One of those has an alternative analysis, brought out by stress: I would say ‘óverlanding’, indicating it’s from ‘overland’, adverb, made into a verb by the usual zero affix. If it was ‘overlánding’ it would be a direct construction from ‘over + land’.
    It is very surprising to see an entirely new construction arise like this. However, compare another impossible construction, [OV] = V, as in *truck-drive, *deer-hunt. One reason adduced why this morphology is inaccessible is that the syntactic version V O ‘drive trucks’, ‘hunt deer’ is in direct competition. But with PN = V morphology there is no directly equivalent syntax N P, *’to wall down’, *’to down wall’.

  14. Oh, and may I suggest Geoff’s numerals are topicalized: agreement is with the appositive focus: X is a, Y are a.couple, Z is a…

  15. I wonder if downwalling arises through a secondary step rather than directly. I’m not a wall climber, but is there a jargon noun that functioned as an intermediate step here? Some googling reveals ‘downclimb’ is a verb (which is distinct from ‘rappel’), so a second possiblity is that it could be a back formation from that. Unfortunately, the only climbing I do is up and down URLs, so any experts out there to support or refute this?

  16. Great discussion, and Matt, that’s a very useful nugget of information. It would be quite something for Japlish to wind up influencing English grammar! (I hope the term “Japlish” is not considered offensive; the only other term I know is “Engrish.”)

  17. Thanks to all who have contributed to this thread. I find it very uplifting.
    Not to mention upbraining.

  18. NW, Google “to deer hunt”.

  19. Prepverbing as a way to create new verbs is more established than upnouning, I agree.
    A German host on a music-video channel I saw once in the 90s burbled that he had “totalen aus geflippt” about something, so prepverbing goes out of English too.
    (And didn’t Churchill once protest “If I hear one more ‘input’ or ‘output’ I shall upstand and outwalk.”?)
    Upnouning sounds more fun, though. I suppose ‘rapelling’ or ‘absailing’ is too obscure, so we now have ‘downwalling’. Are there not some older ones though? Outsourcing (I don’t remember ‘source’ was a verb until after that form arrived)? A lot of the time, it comes from management and marketing people who have the intellectual insecurity, the compensatingly forced self-confidence, and the self-publicising channels to quickly spread newly-coined terms. (eg ‘to impact’ for ‘to affect’)
    I’m sure there are lots of marketing gurus with whiteboards and coloured marker pens, spreading their own made-up terms like ‘throughcashing’ or ‘underproducting’ by judicious overcharting and downseminaring right now.

  20. Overwinter (to live through the winter or spend the winter, eg in Antarctica) seems to fit the preposition + object noun construction, and it’s been around since the 19C.

  21. Oops! Winter can be a verb too.

  22. I recall the conductor of the university jazz orchestra I was in telling me that that a certain bar was “where the uptempoing really begins.” But he was fond of all sorts of inadvertant linguistic innovation. He particularly liked verbing nouns: “I’d like you to really brass that note out.”

  23. To atone -> old example.

  24. In computational fluid dynamics the term “upwinding” is common, and the “wind” is the noun which blows leaves around.

  25. A couple other older examples besides atone:
    to inbound
    to inroad
    Most verbs analogous to “enshrine” come from a Middle English compound of “in” + “noun” (most still have the “in-” as an alternate spelling): cf. enthrone, ensnare, enclose, etc.
    to overboard
    to overproportion
    to offload

  26. while falling asleep the other night I was struck by the example: outlaw. A quick check of the OED shows that the noun form is ~100 years older than the verb. Slightly different from Kealii’s comment: Old, not middle english, and out, not in.
    One could add ‘in-law’ as well, though that’s a back-formation from mother-in-law, etc. right?
    That doesn’t discount the trend argument though, if there are three fairly new constructions and some old ones, it’s still plausibly a trend.

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