In the photo below you can see the word “gifting.” Gifting is used there as a gerund or the noun form of the verb. But “gift” is not a verb, you say, so how could it possibly form a gerund? Au contraire, mon frère. Gift is now a verb. What’s more, it is a transitive verb, which means it takes a direct object as in, “You gift me,” “I gift her,” We gift each other.” I suppose you could also say, “I gift the cufflinks to my brother in law, who was gifted with a frilly shirt with French cuffs for Christmas.” Of course, if you find yourself saying that, you’ve got bigger problems than transitive verbs.
“Gift him with the unexpected” appeared in an advertisement recently in a bus stop shelter. I stared at it until I realized that I had just been gifted with the unexpected use of “gift” as a verb. So the ad achieved its desired effect, sort of. And then there was, “Gift her with the greatest gift of all” flashing in neon lights in Times Square, which referred to diamonds and something about the magic of the season. The season isn’t about magic at all, but try telling that to retailers.
I don’t like this seemingly arbitrary change in language. It feels like the ground shifting beneath my feet and smacks of things #trending in social media. Already, Facebook has done away with “befriend” as a verb. Everybody now speaks of “friending” and “unfriending” as if they were coupling and decoupling railroad cars. And you can argue till the cows come home, as my grandmother used to say, that gift as a transitive verb appears in Shakespeare and Marlowe, but that doesn’t make it legitimate for today. Or do you also go around exclaiming, “forsooth”?
I try not to exaggerate. Honestly, I do. But how is this shift in “gift” not the latest volley in an assault on the English language, which is becoming simpler, less formal, and more direct with each entering class of college freshmen? That may be good for marketing, but what does it do to abstract thought? Orwell’s Newspeak was about doing away with abstract thought. Is that where we are headed?
I’m not a purist. I can live with the disappearance of “whom,” even in sources that claim to know better (i.e., The New York Times), and raise no objection to “Flickr,” “Tumblr,” “tonite,” and “donut.” But I cringe whenever somebody slaps their forehead and attributes a mistake they made to “my bad.” I feel embarrassed for them. And don’t get me started about “evil doers” or “takeaways.” Crudities abound.
All we have is words. Beyond their obvious uses, which you can find in most tourist handbooks (e.g., Où sont les toilettes?), words convey and make meaning. Getting them right and being precise in their use are very important. We shouldn’t change them on a whim or hand their governance over to the marketeers and ideologues of corporate America, who also abound.
Although thinking is not limited to language, words influence how we see the world and other people. If you want to appreciate how important names are, read Genesis 2:19-20, when Adam names “each living creature.” Why does this take place? Because naming completes creation. God help the children whose parents named them after a Tolkien character or Indian tribe. Would that be like a boy named Sioux?
Words can have a lasting impact despite the nursery rhyme about sticks and stones. Notice that I did not use “impact” as a transitive verb here. It is possible that the great threat does not come from the New World Order, Freemasons, or Jesuits but transitive verbs. Everything is turning into a transitive verb. And we wonder why we are becoming less civil.
So keep this in mind. You can give a gift. You can receive a gift. You can participate in gift giving. You can look a gift-horse in the mouth should you choose to do so, although that would be bad form. You can even acknowledge your sister as being gifted in algebra. But you can’t gift her a slide rule for Christmas.