Heavenly Verbs, Headache Verbs

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 7/1/14)

Bamboozle. According to VisualThesaurus.com, this verb was first used around 1700. While its origins are unknown, its meaning, “to deceive by trickery,” hasn’t changed since.

Bust. Did you know that this verb meaning “to smash or break” originated as one pronunciation of burst, but in the 19th century moved from being a nonstandard pronunciation to being a separate verb? (It now has its own past and past participle—busted. (The past participle of burst is just burst.) Bust and busted may sound like they belong in a Country-Western song, but both have been gaining respectability for a half century.

Compare and Contrast. When teachers tell you to compare and contrast apples and oranges, they’re telling you to compare them: to find how apples and oranges are similar and different.  Contrast here, meaning “to examine only for unlikeness or differences,” is redundant.  The only defense for compare and contrast that I can think of is that a catchy phrase helps students to immediately recognize the recurring assignment.

Complement/Compliment. To compliment is “to praise,” while to complement is “to make whole.” So when AstrologyCompanion.com writes, “Capricorn’s natural patience and diligence compliments Scorpio’s potent imagination and keen investigative skills,” the site is dead wrong in its spelling, if not in its star-readings. (The site meant to say that Capricorn and Scorpio complement each other.)

Forgo/Forego. Forgo means “to do without,” while forego means “to precede.” Remember this distinction by keeping in mind that forego means “to go before.”

Get. This diminutive verb has “gotten” a multitude of meanings in the past century, many of them casual. Theodore Bernstein, author of The Careful Writer, calls it, along with fix, “one of the handiest tools of the language.” It is right up there with be, see, have, do, and say as one of the most frequent main verbs of a sentence. Get has come to mean “earn,” “catch,” “prepare,” “seize,” “puzzle,” “kill,” “cause,” “memorize,” and “understand.” For starters. It can appear as a helping verb in any and all of the following permutations: get going, get sick, get started, get talking, and get tired. And check it out as a phrasal verb: get away with and get under way. Sometimes it’s just idiomatic, as in get a life, get it free, get it on, and get your goat. Then there is get married, which really set off Ambrose Bierce. In Write It Right, the 19th-century journalist and satirist opined that if got married is correct, we should also say got dead instead of die.

Peruse. It’s funny how some words evolve to mean their opposite. Take peruse and scan, for example. They both used to mean “to examine carefully,” and both have come to mean “to examine superficially.”

Pore/Pour. Pore over means “to read or study something carefully.” People often confuse it with pour, but if you pore over this appendix, you won’t be timid when pouring your heart out on paper.

Rack/Wrack.  Rack, “to torture or strain by stretching,” was named after the medieval torture device that literally stretched its poor victim apart. Wrack as a verb (to destroy) is hardly used anymore. Many of us feel racked over this distinction. Spell these expressions right: wrack and ruin, rack your brain, and nerve-racking.

Sanction. One would think that the verb and noun forms of sanction would function similarly, but they are opposites. In a legal context, a sanction (noun) is either the punishment for breaking the law or the reward for following it. But to sanction (verb) an act or decision is to authorize it.

Wreak/Reek/Wreck. If a high school hallway reeks of rotten eggs, you can assume that some troublemaker is wreaking havoc by letting off a stink bomb. If you’re the principal, you might worry that the incident will wreck the school’s sterling reputation.

Zoom. Like zap, zing, and zip, this verb is onomatopoeic. Zoom appeared in the first OED Supplement in 1933, suggesting the sound of something moving at a high speed and having to do with the sounds of bees and musical instruments. Things got complicated, though, after the aeronautics industry co-opted zoom to mean “climb rapidly and steeply,” and usage types began insisting it should not be used in place of swoop (moving downward) or speed (as in “zoom down the highway”). Ted Bernstein tsk-tsked this sentence in 1965: “At least twelve large hawks are making their homes atop city skyscrapers and zooming down to snatch pigeons.” More complications arrived with the advent of new technologies; zoom has a technical meaning among photographers and filmmakers (“rapid change in the size of an image”). Then there’s Aretha Franklin’s “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?,” which plays with the slang meaning “to fool” or “to take advantage of.”