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 week. Some of these verbs appear in Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, some of them appear only here.
(New batch, added 12/4/13)
Lament. To regret strongly. Ordinary mortals would utter a sentence like “I am sad that this happened” when a turn of events distresses them. A writer says, “I lament this.” The verb derives from the Latin for “weeping, wailing.” Into the English word is packed the senses of “to mourn, to express grief, to regret” and “to feel disappointment over something considered unsatisfactory, unreasonable, or unfair.” A mountain of heartache in a single syllable.
Lend/Loan. Shakespeare got it right when he wrote, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; / For loan oft loseth both itself and friend.” It’s pithy advice, and notice how loan is used as a noun. Nitpickers like to say that loan shouldn’t be used as a verb at all: to lend (a verb) is to allow someone to borrow something and loan (a noun) refers to what is lent. One caveat, though. It was indeed labeled a Yankee adulteration, but loan has long been a verb in American English and is not incorrect when used to describe a transaction of money (The bank loaned Stella $10,000 to help her establish her jewelry business) or physical goods. If you are writing in a figurative mood, use lend, as Shakespeare did with Lend me your ears.
LinkedIn. Social-media success story also shows how phrasal verbs have become darlings of the last couple of centuries.
Log on (to). Back in 1996, many writers and editors followed the verb log with into. The editors of Wired magazine (aka yours truly) tried to set them straight in the irreverent Wired Style:
“Keep the to discrete—don’t write ‘log onto’ or ‘log into.’ Unconvinced by our prepositional logic? Consider the difference between He came on to me and He came onto me.”
To use phrasal verbs without making mistakes, we have to understand them. Log on means “to access a computer or network.” When we’re done, we log off. Two phrasal verbs. In both, we must keep the verb and particle unconjoined in order to conjugate correctly: It’s log on, logging on, and logged on. After all, can you imagine the spelling train wrecks that would result if we started with logon? Could we live with a gerund like logoning?
Look after/ down on/ into/ out/ out for/ over/ up. You can accept responsibility for looking after your little sibling and still look down on him for crying. After your parents look over the homework you helped him complete, they’ll take him off your hands. As a reward, you might ask them to look into letting you borrow the car tonight, after you look up the ticket prices for that concert and confirm they cost less than child care money.
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.
Lurch. The act of moving forward suddenly. Different people see this verb differently—to some it implies an inability to control the limbs, an unsteadiness of foot, an awkward up-and-down. But how much more exciting it is than move or walk! And what other verb combines spontaneity and powerful momentum? A trace of “urgency” is embedded in the sound of the word, as is the spirit the gloomy butler with the basso-profundo voice on The Addams Family. (His name, you’ll remember, was Lurch.)
Mailto. This odd compound refers to the code that makes an email address in a text or HTML message clickable.
Make out. We might ask, “Can you make out those people sitting on the pier?” Then we get closer, and the question changes: “Oh . . . are they making out?” But phrasal verbs can add baggage without adding heft, and they can blur meaning instead of sharpening it: perceive is more precise than make out.
Make up. A little makeup goes a long way—as does a little make up. When a teenager made up a story to her parents about how her sister snuck out of the house, the latter made up a story about how she played hooky. Both grounded, they made up, and one made the other up with their mom’s expensive makeup.
Mashup. Another Internet age coinage. A mashup is an application that combines data, or functionality, from two or more sources to create new services.
Meander. To move or cause to move in a sinuous, spiral, or circular course. If you are walking aimlessly or going on a roundabout journey, you are meandering. But here’s what you probably didn’t know: the word derives from a river in modern-day Turkey, the Maiandros, which winds and wanders on its course. The words can suggest a lack of focus, but I rather like the idea of perambulating in a way that is unhurried, dreamy, open to change.