Erikka Askeland: TV medals with verbs on an Olympic scale

THERE is an aspect of the London 2012 Olympics that is making people uncomfortable, even irate, and it’s not the sometimes overly revealing nature of the competing mens’ shorts.

What is getting peoples’ collective goat is the telly presenters’ use of the word “medal” as a verb. As in, “she medalled in the women’s canoe slalom”. Or “Britain expects to be medalled in the shooting men’s double trap”.

It sounds terrible, like the worst kind of laziness and a creeping example of what has become a trend for “verbing” of the English language.

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The trouble is, there are many nouns that have been widely accepted as verbs throughout the history of the English language. But while some sound fine and illustrative – shouldering a burden for, example – others are like chewing on tin foil.

But verbing is not just a trend, it is also now “trending”, particularly as people take to the forum of Twitter to make statements about how much they hate the use of medal as a verb.

Much of the fault of nouns becoming verbs, what linguists call functional shift, is down to technology. The increasingly instant and distant nature of communicating means that new uses of words become adopted much more quickly. It also gives us new practices that require names and ways to describe them. The same people complaining about “medalled” probably have no compunction about Googling themselves.

It is a jargon issue too. You can blame economists for first using “trend” as a verb, as in “employment is expected to trend below par”. These men and women with an awkward but accurate grasp of language also gave us the horrendous but technically necessary phrase “negative growth”. In both cases, we understand what they mean but it doesn’t make it better.

But corporate speak is an offender of a different order. If, like me, you have an impulse to slap people who needlessly append “going forward” to their statements as a way of trying to sound officious, then you will probably also start feeling pugilistic when they tell you to “action that” after you’ve “dialogued”.

The vexed usage of “to medal” has even caused a row at home. Key to the usually harmonious state of my domestic affairs is that both the Man in my life and I are pedants, but with an understanding that language changes through time and use – if not, we would still be saying things like: “Forsooth, dear heart, but wouldst thou pass the wine”.

Initially, both of us agreed the medal problem was inelegant and should probably be discouraged but not banned outright.

For one, it introduces confusion. Imagine Sir Chris Hoy in his twilight years recounting to strangers in a bar his triumphs: “I medalled at the 2012 Olympics,” he would say, which to his listeners could just sound as if he once interfered at the London competition in a bothersome way.

But I thought I had rather trumped with my reference to the Oxford English Dictionary. According to this pedant’s argument killer, medal as a verb is not new, coined in 1822 by no less than Lord Byron. Well if the great romantic poet used it, I argued, then those presenters on the Beeb have a point, even if Byron insisted on rhyming Don Juan with “new one”.

But the Man wasn’t having it. To use the verb medal as in “Team GB is hoping to medal in the Olympic tiddlywinks this afternoon” is a travesty no different from “Partick Thistle is hoping to goal in Saturday’s game” he argued, although he was quick to add that it wasn’t the prospect of his beloved team scoring that would deserve ridicule in that particular example.

But damn him if he wasn’t right. Reading the OED’s examples more closely, people don’t medal, they are medalled, a slight but important distinction that lovers of the language should defend until no-one is left arguing at the pub through exhaustion.

Except that now, I fear, the game is lost. The verbarians at the gate – the TV presenters and the sporting men and women – have now adopted the ugly, 
brute intransitive form and it is leaching into common usage. We 
might just have to calm ourselves 
and accept the truth imparted by Calvin to his patiently put-upon stuffed tiger, 
Hobbes, of the titular cartoon strip: “Verbing weirds language.”