Annals of English verbing

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From Dana Loesch, Relentless, NRATV 8/22/2018:

Th- they’re trying to Al Capone the president. I mean, you remember. Capone didn’t go down for murder. Elliot Ness didn’t put him in for murder. He went in for tax fraud. Prosecutors didn’t care how he went down as long as he went down.

The whole Al Capone thing has been in the air for a while, thanks mainly to Mr. Trump:

But since this is Language Log and not Presidential Mob Boss Analogy Log, I want to focus on Ms. Loesch's skillful use of what Calvin called "verbing":

Hobbes (the tiger) to the contrary, several centuries of zero-derivation conversion of nouns into verbs doesn't seem to have rendered the English language incomprehensible — though some other zero-derivation techniques play a role in generating crash blossoms and other headlinese mis- and un-understandings.

Anyhow, Al-Capone-the-verb seems to be a case where the verbal form needs to retain the capital letters. But what I want to know is, how should the gerund-participle form be spelled? "Al Caponing"? "Al Caponeing"? "Al Capone-ing"? It seems likely that copy editors are going to need to have an answer to this question before long, if it hasn't come up already.

(For more on verbing, see "Shakespearing the reader's brain: A tragicomedy in three acts", 12/26/2006.)




  1. bill benzon said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 7:08 am

    I notice that Hobbes' last statement seems to be a critique of postmodern lit crit: "Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding."

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 7:18 am

    "Hobbes (the tiger) to the contrary". Interesting — I am reasonably confident that in <Br.E> we would write "Hobbes' position [or "views"] notwithstanding".

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 8:18 am

    Not that urbandictionary is super-reliable as a lexicographic source, but it does have entries for "Al Caponed" dating to 2005, although the one for this sense is 2014.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 8:22 am

    Should have added that the least predictable of the multiple senses of "Al Caponed" given by urbandictionary was "stoned" (in Cockney rhyming slang). Although that's the sort of entry where I don't presume it's necessarily a term in wide use among native speakers of rhyming slang versus a nonce creation of one person (possibly the person who contributed it to urbandictionary), and would want more information before concluding the former was true.

  5. Robert Coren said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 9:57 am

    @J.W. Brewer: According to my (limited) understanding of Cockney rhyming slang, that would quickly become "Al'ed" if it were widely used.

  6. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 10:18 am

    More name-verbing from Simon & Garfunkel:

    "I been Norman Mailered, Maxwell Taylored.
    I been John O'Hara'd, McNamara'd.
    I been Rolling Stoned and Beatled till I'm blind.
    I been Ayn Randed, nearly branded
    Communist, 'cause I'm left-handed.
    That's the hand I use, well, never mind!"
    — "A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara'd into Submission)" (1966)

    [(myl) Great reference!


  7. Jan said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 10:41 am

    Bowdlerise has to be the best-known Al Caponification.

  8. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 2:13 pm

    I think xeroxed probably beats bowdlerized for familiarity.

  9. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 2:32 pm

    Bowdlerize doesn't count as verbing since it has the -ize suffix. But lynch is just as old (1836); there's also boycott (1880).
    If I were to include the forename, I would hyphenate.

  10. Andrew Usher said,

    August 25, 2018 @ 5:45 pm

    'Xerox' isn't someone's name.

    Yes, English can verb names, and if the usages become established, the verb can then be lower-cased. In this case I think the first name would be dropped: 'caponing' (No, no one will think of 'capon'; that word is pretty archaic.) treating it as a normal English word, as 'lynch' and 'boycott' are.

    The fact that it hasn't been, though, in the many decades since Al Capone's conviction, makes me doubt this time it will hold up.

    k_over_hbarc at

  11. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 26, 2018 @ 12:39 am

    Andrew: Ferguson (as in Ferguson, MO) isn't someone's name either, but if a police chief says "I'm being Fergusoned," is that not an instance of the same kind of verbing Dana Loesch is doing with Al Capone?

  12. Terry Hunt said,

    August 26, 2018 @ 2:56 am

    With reference to J.W. Brewer's "I don't presume it's necessarily a term in wide use among native speakers of rhyming slang versus a nonce creation of one person . . . ."

    My experience of Cockney Rhyming Slang, speaking as the son and grandson of Cockneys though not technically one myself, is that rather than being a fixed lexicon, it not infrequently utilises elements of on-the-spot inventiveness, much like jazz improvisation, which those addressed are expected to have the wit to understand from context.

    The use of the term "Al Caponed" to mean stoned must be the invention of a single person, just as all CRS terms must have been once, but whether it has already caught on with others and become more widely employed (or at least recognised), or is a recent coinage, it will be valid rhyming slang if it be used in a contextually understandable way.

    Per Robert Coren, the reduction of a CRS term to only its first element (e.g. the use of "a Ruby" to mean a curry (from Ruby Murray) is a common but not inevitable process, and a CRS speaker will often still use the full term depending on circumstances, including the perceived "Cockneyness" or otherwise of the audience. I suspect "Al" for Al Caponed/stoned would be too ambiguous for such curtailment.

    Further iterations of CRS terms, e.g. "Aris" from "Aristotle" from "bottle" from "bottle and glass", meaning arse (my own father is wont to say "Shift yer Aris" meaning "Move your arse", i.e. "Get out of the way") seem to be more rarely applied, and the basis for whether this happens or not is not obvious to me.

  13. David Marjanović said,

    August 26, 2018 @ 2:57 pm

    Could Trump Be Al Caponed?

  14. Robert said,

    August 26, 2018 @ 3:33 pm

    And let's not forget "bork."

  15. Joe Fineman said,

    August 26, 2018 @ 5:32 pm

    Robert Graves, in his amusing essay "Lars Porsena" on bad language, recalls (IIRC) discovering that the CRS meaning of "Aristotle" was the only one in some vulgar circles. He happened to mention Aristotle (the person) in conversation at a pub, within hearing of the barmaid, who hastened to tell him that this was a respectable establishment & did not allow such language.

  16. Andrew John said,

    August 27, 2018 @ 5:44 pm

    Here's a nice recent example from The Guardian's minute-by-minute commentary on a soccer game.

    "Traore goes on a power dribble down the right. He walks past Mendy and loops long. Jota chests down and tries to Le Tissier a spectacular shot across Ederson and into the top right. It’s over the bar, but not by much."

    (The reference is to Matt Le Tissier, who is something of a legend in English football, and was particularly known for some extraordinary goals.)

  17. Andrew Usher said,

    August 27, 2018 @ 7:24 pm

    Joe, would you enlighten me as to why and 'essay on bad language' would be titled 'Lars Porsena'? The only context in which almost anyone knows that name is entirely different!

  18. Terry Hunt said,

    August 28, 2018 @ 12:33 am

    @Andrew John
    In the area where I now live, Matt Le Tissier is still commonly referred to as "Le God."

  19. Andrew M said,

    August 28, 2018 @ 8:14 am

    Andrew Usher: The essay is called 'Lars Porsena' because by the nine gods he swore.

  20. ajay said,

    August 28, 2018 @ 11:24 am

    Bowdlerize doesn't count as verbing since it has the -ize suffix. But lynch is just as old (1836); there's also boycott (1880).

    There's a fairly common form of verbing with a prefix – you might say that a particularly long-winded historian "out-Gibboned Gibbon", I suppose.

    Examples of verbing here:

  21. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    August 31, 2018 @ 12:26 am

    @ Andrew Usher:

    I am not sure why you think "capon" is archaic. When I go looking for a large chicken to roast, I look for a capon. I will have to look and see if the term is used on packaging now, but it is still a fairly active cooking term.

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