Saturday 11 August 2007

On bus

A South African correspondent writes to tell me of a nice noun/verb conversion. Evidently, someone who had graduated 'cum laude' told her that she had 'cummed her degree'. I hadn't come across that one before. And she asked about the unusual use of bus as a verb. Is this a new usage?

It certainly isn't. The Oxford English Dictionary has a first recorded usage of bus as a verb from 1838. But the word itself is unusual. It derives from omnibus, which is the dative plural of the Latin word omnis, so it means 'for all' - a 'vehicle for all'. I can't think of another instance where an old inflectional ending has risen to such English linguistic heights.


Anonymous said...

An interesting version of noun to verb conversion has happened in Dutch - or at least conversion of something which I think most English native speakers think of as a noun into something that is now regularly used as a verb in Dutch. Taalunie, the official body that oversees the Dutch language, has determined that 'facelift' (sic) is an English verb, and that when used in Dutch it should therefore follow specific rules of conjugation and spelling. The past participle is thus 'gefacelift’. ‘Rugby’ is also deemed to be an English verb and therefore has the past participle ‘gerugbyd’ in Dutch. Fascinating stuff. (For more see

More generally, it’s also fascinating to see the workings of an official body that sets rules of this kind. Regular harrumphing by Radio 4 listeners (among whom I count myself with pride) is one thing. Government-sponsored determination from on high of correct and incorrect spelling and other aspects of the language is quite another. Is there any research on these institutions? Which countries/language communities have them? (I am aware of French and German as well as Dutch.) Do the countries that give rise to them share particular characteristics?

DC said...

Very nice examples - and unusual ones, too, for virtually all discussion of conversion stays within English.

I've never compared Academy decisions - an interesting project. Studies would fall under the heading of 'language planning' - specifically, 'corpus planning'. Quite a few countries have Academies, Language Boards / Institutes / Committees, or the like, but they vary greatly in size and 'clout' (and money!), and the extent to which they make specific language recommendations varies greatly. Ones that have been set up to preserve an endangered language or react to a new political situation (eg Basque, Cornish, Galician, Maori, Gaelic, Croatian) are rather different in aim from ones like French or Italian which have several hundred years of history behind them. I don't know of a complete list, but I reckon there must be about sixty such institutions around the world, eg Danish, Hebrew, Arabic, Afrikaans, Icelandic.