In 1917, The Nation's book reviewer objected to "the inexcusable irregularity of the style" in Helen Marie Bennett's Women and work: the economic value of college training, listing a number of specific "blunders" as evidence. One of these "blunders" can be found in the following passage:
College girls may not realize why it is that many of them are so anxious to secure at once a position that will "pay a good salary" without taking further training. Their brothers do not expect it, for they are choosing their profession, because it is the one of all others which they desire and because they expect to follow it all their lives. But because the girl expects to marry, she does not choose her occupation with the care which a man bestows upon his. Unless she is a genius or has within her an intensely strong urge towards some form of self-expression, she lapses into the easy choice by means of which she can lope along until her wedding day. She does not phrase it thus ignobly; but such is the status of her choice.
Can you identify the problem?
Here's the answer — I certainly wouldn't have guessed it. From [Book] Notes, The Nation, June 21 1917:
The reader of the book is likely to be exasperated by the inexcusable irregularity of the style. Thus the writer pleases when she inveighs against the catch-word "efficiency" and its use as a shibboleth. But she herself constantly sins in the same way by making everything "to function." In this day of slack style, much has to be overlooked, and Miss Bennett is probably not worse than many others, but it is inexcusable that the proofreaders of a reputable firm should allow so many blunders to pass. We note a few: science wreaks of machinery (p. 19); a nondescript salary (p. 24); raised as an intransitive verb (p. 30); urge as noun (p. 263), etc. The book has its value, but it should be pruned and carefully rewritten that it may not serve as an example of "English as she is taught" in our colleges.
Frankly, I was not aware that the use of urge as a noun had ever been a shibboleth. (And who knew that The Nation had such a snooty tone, back in 1917?)
But we can see from a quick check of the Google Books Ngram tool that 1917 was indeed just about when urge as a noun was starting its rise:
Less than 20 years later, a contributor to "The Lexicographer's Easy Chair" (in The Literary Digest for March 3, 1934) took a more relaxed view:
urge. — "M.A.J.", Wappingers Falls, N.Y. — Urge as a noun has been restored to the language gradually within the past twenty years, and can now be said to be in good standing again. As a noun, it was in restricted use in the early 17th century, then disappeared until Walt Witman brought it to light in 1884 in "Leaves of Grass": "O I am sure they really came from The, The urge, the ardor, the unconquerable will."
And by 1948, when the change was complete, Eric Partridge, Words at War, Words at Peace: Essays on Language in General and Particular Words, 1948, grudgingly allows that urge as a noun might be OK for some:
Urge as a noun has gone far to displace 'eagerness' or (strong) desire; appetition; (compulsive) aspiration; (powerful) ambition: and although it is disliked by purists and by not a few others, including myself, and has, in the form body-urge, been satirized in that delightfully satirical novel Cold Comfort Farm, yet is appears in the works of numerous thinkers and writers, for example Professor Whitehead, Sir Arthur Thomson, A.B. Cox, Olaf Stapledon.
I could also have looked at The Nation's complaint about Ms. Bennett "constantly sins by making everything 'to function'". This seems to be a reference to her three uses of function as a verb (along with 15 uses as a noun):
How does the college girl function in life?
She has a legitimate ambition to make her college training function.
This group of college women should be the first to give attentive study to the choice of occupations, studying to find the perfect means of self-expression, through which not only they themselves will function most perfectly, but through which society in general will benefit the most, and all women will find themselves high up on the mountain of opportunity.
The historical trajectory of function as a verb is similar to that of urge as a noun:
But reactions of this kind are generally short-lived, and go away once the rapid rise of a new form is over. Thus Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994) doesn't even have an entry for urge as a noun, or function as a verb, though it's admirably complete in giving advice even about questionable or outdated shibboleths. . Garner's Modern American Usage is similarly silent on urge as a noun, and makes extensive use of verbal function in its text: "… may also function as an adjective…", "… can (and usually does) function as a noun …", "… also function, of course, as verbs", "… questioned whether e-mail should function as a verb", "… these verbs and the idiomatic way they function", "… free by itself can function as an adverb …", and so on. In fact, Garner uses function as a verb in introducing his entry on Nouns as Verbs:
A type of semantic [sic] shift a little less common than the noun-to-adjective shift occurs when nouns function as verbs. There are scores of examples, such as appeal, bias, deal, function (as in the preceding sentence), handle, people, perfume, reward, room, silence, survey, and weather.
He warns his readers to "be wary of these innovations. They reek of jargon." But function as a verb is useful enough to him, and well enough established, for him to use it dozens of times. So the wariness has waned in this case — as it always does, I think, in cases of nouning and verbing.
N.B. I don't read century-old issues of The Nation for fun. I stumbled on that lovely little specimen of antique prescriptivist poppycock while researching the history of objections to new examples of zero derivation in English. It's worth remembering that if William Strunk Jr.'s little 1918 pamphlet of usage advice hadn't been enduringly rezombified by E.B. White, it might seem just as quaint to us today.
In fact, now that I think about, I wonder if there's some cultural continuity of New York City-based left-wing prescriptivism, running from (whoever reviewed books for) The Nation in 1917, though E.B. White and Dwight Macdonald, to Louis Menand and Joan Acocella at The New Yorker today.
Update — For those who may be curious about the nature of The Nation in 1917, an essay by Victor Navasky (who was editor of The Nation from 1978 to 1995) on "Oswald Garrison Villard" notes that
Under [Paul Elmer] More (1909-1914), a Sanskrit scholar, The Nation described itself as an "organ of thinking people, the exponent of sane progress, of wise conservatism." […]
After More came Harold deWolf Fuller, whom Oswald Garrison Villard considered a "very dull person . . . stubbornly narrow [and] utterly unyielding in his prejudices." H.L. Mencken captured this interlude in the magazine's history best when he wrote in the Baltimore Sun that "The Nation, since the passing of Godkin, had been gradually dying. It was, perhaps, the dullest publication of any sort ever printed in the world. Its content consisted on the one hand, of long editorials reprinted from the Evening Post, and on the other hand, of appalling literary essays by such pundits as Paul Elmer More. Villard, when he took it over, threw out the garbage and started printing the truth."
Those who wonder about the book reviewer's snooty tone about usage will find some explanation in The Editor's Speech of Welcome to the Semi-Centennial Dinner on April 9, 1917, which devotes a long paragraph to
How manfully the Nation has fought the losing fight to keep within their rightful provinces such sinners as "secure" "practically" "stand for" — the Lord He knows. But without being meticulous, the Nation can perhaps do more than a bit, by the cooperation of its readers, to prevent the English language from leading too licentious a career.
Can anyone tell us what sins "secure", "practically" and "stand for" were committing in 1917? I confess to being mystified.