A sampling of especially fetching, and frustrating, action words
Two chapters and three appendices in Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch exist to help you sort out and sift through some of the trickiest verbs in English. They might be verbs with irregular past-tense forms. They might be phrasal verbs, action words that change depending on the adverb or preposition they hitch up with. They might be verbs that are often used, misused, abused, and confused. These are the headache verbs.
But for every headache verb there is a heavenly one: a term that is endlessly rich and carries mysterious power. It may be a word whose meaning has shifted over time, so that it has many different layers of meaning. We want to understand them all, and to select the perfect verb for every sentence.
I will use this space to showcase both heavenly verbs and headache verbs, rotating a different set of verbs in every few weeks. Some of these verbs appear in Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, some of them appear only here.
(New batch, added 1/29/15)
OK, OK, this is a noun, but the third word is a gerund, so we’re including it here. The meaning comes more from the compound modifer “blue sky”: we’re talking about ideas that are neither not grounded nor realistic. Here’s an example from The Telegraph, in the U.K: “Despite the Government indicating it would loosen planning restrictions on new conservatories, it seems that was just blue-sky thinking.” If you feel like using it, points for going in a metaphoric direction. The problem is, this metaphor has become a cliché.
Fob off with/ on. Tourists were fobbed off with cheap cod described on the menu as “Fishermen’s Delight.” You could also say, The overpriced cod was fobbed off on unknowing tourists.
To give up. Meaning “to surrender,” this is the earliest known phrasal verb, appearing in 1154.
Hit the ground running. Originally this phrase was literal—it referred to Pony Express riders changing mounts without stopping, or hobos jumping off freight trains. “Hit the ground running” gained traction (so to speak) in the 20th century, for things like troops parachuted into a combat zone. Today it’s used figuratively, meaning to “begin a venture with great verve and skill.” Go for fresher phrasing. Try “launch,” or “catapult.”
LinkedIn. Social-media success story also shows how phrasal verbs have become darlings of the last couple of centuries.
Luck out. Luck out was commonly used during World War II to mean “to meet with bad luck; run out of luck,” as in a soldier who was a casualty of battle or a poker player who lost his chips. But, oddly, it is more often used today to mean “to succeed because of good luck.” Luck as a verb dates back to the 16th century, and luck out, meaning “to succeed by luck,” is consistent with older uses. Luck is also now commonly combined as a verb with particles, especially into.
Mashup. An Internet age coinage. A mashup is an application that combines data, or functionality, from two or more sources to create new services.
Meet with your approval. Bureaucratese for please you.
Muse. How many times have you used think without considering the options? In addition to mull (“consider at length”), ponder (“reflect on weighty thoughts”) and imagine (“form a mental image of something that is not present or that is not the case”), there is muse (“reflect deeply on a subject”), which suggests absorption, meditation, reflection. And who can’t love a word that harks back to the muses, the goddesses in Greek mythology who preside over the arts and sciences? Their spirits animate this verb, letting it suggest an artist at work rather than just a person lost in thought.
Pan out. Imagine you’re a Forty-Niner (from the Gold Rush, not the NFL) and you dunk your pan into the Mokelumne River. When you lift it up and a shimmering piece of gold sits in your pan, what you’re doing is literally panning out. Now we use the phrase to describe a result, especially a success: Only time will tell if the candidate’s promises will pan out.
Revert. This verb has been around for a long time—like since the 15th century. The Middle English verb came from the Anglo-French revertir, which in turn came from the Latin revertere, (v.t., to turn back) and reverti (v.i., to return, come back, from re- + vertere, verti to turn). Merriam-Webster defines today’s version:1) to come or go back (as to a former condition, period, or subject); 2) to return to the proprietor or his or her heirs at the end of a reversion; 3) to return to an ancestral type. (As an example of the first meaning, the dictionary gives “After the national emergency had passed, the political parties abandoned their shotgun unity and reverted to their partisan squabbling.”) Typically, it’s a phrasal verb: coupled with to. It is not a synonym for respond.
Wane/Wax. These antique verbs often appear in a lunar context: a waxing moon grows bigger; a waning moon is slipping into nothingness. Some other idioms help keep the senses distinct: to wax sentimental is to let emotions swell and pour out; to be on the wane is to be, alas, past one’s prime.