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 1/23/13)

Twitter. To make high-pitched sounds, as of birds. The social media company may have stolen this for its brand name, but let’s not forget that the verb means “to give a call consisting of repeated light tremulous sounds.” The action word goes back to Middle English and Chaucer, who used it to refer to the continuous chirping of a bird.

Underlay/Underlie. Underlying this pair is the distinction between transitive and intransitive. Underlay means primarily to lay one thing under another, especially for support. Workers underlay highway structures, for example, with concrete buttresses and pillars. Underlie is more common; it means to lie under something, especially in the figurative sense. A well-informed and grammatically adept political commentator would say, The causes that underlie the 2008 economic recession are not fully understood, but many signs point to the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. To make matters confusing, underlay is also the past tense of underlie.

Uplink. Gained currency in the Internet age; one of those odd techy phrasal verbs where not only are the verb and particle smashed together, but the particle precedes the verb. 

Upload. Gained currency in the Internet age; one of those odd techy phrasal verbs where not only are the verb and particle smashed together, but the particle precedes the verb.

Verbed. I verbed the remaining nouns quickly so I could get back to my lunch.

Vex. To be a mystery or bewildering to. There are unpleasant associations with this word, as we use to indicate how we make others feel annoyed, frustrated, or worried, especially with trivial matters. It comes to use from Old French vexer, and before that Latin, where vexare meant “shake, disturb.” I like the sense of mystery it holds, though, as well as the fact that it rhymes with hex and, well, sex.

Visit with. Be careful with this phrasal verb. The Cambridge Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs defines it as to spend time talking with someone you know. This is different from to visit, which may not even involve a conversation. So think about whether you need that particle.

Walk out on. “At least my husband didn’t walk out on me.”

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.

Wangle/Wrangle. To wangle a pay raise is to get it using devious or manipulative methods. To wrangle with one’s boss over a pay raise is to argue angrily about it. Wrangling is probably more honest, but wangling gets you that raise. The gray areas exist because people sometimes use wrangle to mean “to obtain by wangling.” Some dictionaries accept this usage; others don’t. The main point is that they are two distinct, useful words, all the more useful when writers keep their meanings separated.

Wed. Ever since the French marry pushed the Anglo-Saxon wed out of the aisle, wed has commonly been used figuratively, as in Paul, a Catholic priest, may not be married, but he is certainly wedded to his work, or Paul’s sermons wed poetry and piety.

Work out. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this phrasal verb, even if it can be a bit colloquial. But you might be copping out rather than giving your brain cells a work out in choosing it. Would resolve or exercise or calculate be more precise?