An unexpected verbing

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English speakers have been verbing nouns and nouning verbs since before English was called English. Still, this kind of zero derivation (also known as "conversion") is only quasi-regular, like most other kinds of derivational morphology: it spreads word by word. And new conversions are sometimes surprising, like this one from "Red Sox Act Swiftly, Fire Valentine After One Season", AP 10/4/2012:

“This season was by far the worst we have experienced in over ten years here. Ultimately, we are all collectively responsible for the team’s performance,” Red Sox chairman Tom Werner said. “We are going to be working tirelessly to reconstruct the ballclub for 2013. We’ll be back."

“We thank Bobby for the many contributions he made and for the energy he brought each day. He is a baseball man through and through.”  [General manager Ben] Cherington, who replaced Theo Epstein last offseason, will headman the search for a replacement.

The conversion of head from noun to verb ("in many senses having no connection with each other, but formed independently on the n. and its phrases, at various times", as the OED explains) has been established for a while:

a1400   Minor Poems fr. Vernon MS. (1892) liii. 188   Hir herte holliche on him þat þe heuene hedes.
1670   Dryden Tyrannick Love ii. i. 15   They head those holy Factions which they hate.

But "…will headman the search…" is still worth a boggle, especially since "…will head the search…" would have worked. And some versions of the story that originally had "…will headman the search…" now have "…will lead the search…"

The verb lead goes back to "a Common Germanic weak verb (wanting in Gothic)"; and the noun lead (as in "take the lead") was derived from the verb at some point around 1300. But if we go back even further, we're told that those Common German verbs are themselves derived from a noun:

< Old Germanic *laiđjan , < *laiđâ road, journey (see load n., lode n.) […]

[Tip of the hat to Elliott Pinegar.]


  1. James said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 9:13 pm

    Well, "captain the search", so maybe "headman" by analogy. But it does sound odd, as if someone said he was going to "chairman" the committee (when "chair" is available, shorter, and established).

  2. David Morris said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 9:26 pm

    Ouch. Associated Press pays someone to write things like that?

  3. Eric P Smith said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 9:38 pm

    In the UK, this particular coinage would be politically incorrect, as it would be deemed to suggest that the general manager is bound to be male. The mere fact that the general manager of a professional men's baseball team will be male 99 times out of 100 would be no defence.

    I don't know if US folk are as hung up about that sort of thing. I suspect not.

  4. Eric P Smith said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 9:46 pm

    Oops, that should read "… that the person leading the search will be male…"

  5. Frank Y. Gladney said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 11:40 pm

    In _to stage-manage_ the production_ and _to babysit the child_ we have a VP serving as a V, so here we have a compound noun serving as a V. It's _to headman the search_ possibly because _to man the search_ is preempted by expressions like _to man the boats_.

  6. Nathan said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 11:43 pm

    Remember also that "man" is itself a verb that means "to be in charge of", although it's usually in charge of an area rather than an activity. "He will head the search" + "he will man the search" => "He will headman the search." There might also be some psychological mirroring of "man" from the sentence before, "He's a baseball man, through and through."

  7. Matt said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 12:00 am

    "Headman" is an old hockey term. To "headman" the puck is to pass it to the player at the front of the attacking team's formation as it passes through the neutral zone (i.e., the space between the blue lines) — to ensure, in other words, that the lead forward is leading the rush.

    Interestingly, as the once-dominant rush-and-shoot approach to offence, which pervaded the NHL in the 70s and 80s, has gradually given way over the past 30 years to a Soviet-inspired dump-chase-and-cycle strategy, certain words, such as "headman," that were more germane to the old attacking style have been rendered old-fashioned and are now largely out of regular use.

    "Headman" is being used in an entirely sense in the Bobby Valentine article, but it's worth noting that the term has history in a sport that's popular in Boston. Interesting case of atavism.

  8. Matt said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 12:13 am

    *entirely different

  9. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 12:15 am

    @Eric P.

    Interesting that in the thespian realm, the word "actor" could signify a 'player' of either masculine, or feminine gender, and yet I've heard of some lady actors who get their hackles up if they are called an "actress", as if somehow the designation of "actress" has a kind of diminishing status attached to it within the greater acting fraternity.

    Seems like a petty distinction to me. As long as a gal is gainfully employed in the acting profession, I doubt whether the label "actress", as opposed to "actor", is of much concern, or consequence. "The play's the thing", as the great Bard once said. (At least I believe it was olde Will Shakespeare?)

    In terms of designated committee positions, I much prefer chairman, or chairwoman, than the rather awkward chairperson.

    I have a regular USPS postman, or 'mail delivery person', if you will, who just happens to be a woman. For me, to refer to her as my "postwoman", or "post-person" seems a bit odd, but I guess both are legitimate alternatives to "postman".

    Would we call a lady who was well-established, and highly proficient in her trade, a journey-woman, or would the more traditional journeyman cover all the bases—-basically all male and female personnel, alike?

    Seems like tradeswoman for a gal, sits fairly well, as a more gender-defining title than the more familiar "tradesman". Kind of a toss-up, there.

    The word "yeoman", as in say the sentence, "She did a yeoman's job in getting the assignment done on schedule.", is a bit of a puzzler. Strictly speaking, clearly SHE did a yeo-woman's job in that hypothetical instance, but me thinks there's no such word as "yeo-woman". Oh well.

    Hmm… other than the homophonic phrase that "Fonzi" Fonzarelli on "Happy Days" would shout out, on occasion, "Yo, woman!" (Groan)

  10. Billie Critchlow said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 2:01 am

    Why is 'Language Log getting his knickers in a twist about 'headman'? To me it is an example of stylish economy. 'Headman' as a verb implies not only that Cherington will lead the search, but that he has also acquired some temporary status of leadership over the search team that is separate from his position as manager of the general team. It works too, in the blokish, hierarchical context of sports reporting. I'm a fan.

    [(myl) Again and again, we observe that there are some people who can't imagine any reason for commenting on an interesting usage except to complain about it ("getting his knickers in a twist"). ]

  11. Jeroen Mostert said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 2:55 am

    @Alex: "The play's the thing / wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king" — not just any old thing. Like "now is the winter of our discontent [made glorious summer by this sun of York]", this one's usually truncated and taken out of context.

    I'm not sticking my hand in the hornet's nest of gender-neutral writing, though. I'll say I prefer gender neutral terms where they are available and generally accepted ("chair" fits the bill, as well as singular "they"), and I'll leave it at that.

  12. Nick Lamb said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 4:22 am

    Alex, the specific trouble with "actress" is that the word is tainted by its use as a euphemism (for prostitute) while "actor" has not suffered any similar taint. The same is not true (so far I know) for "postwoman" where it's purely about avoiding specifying the gender.

    Let me suggest a somewhat similar example from our names for rooms. The name "kitchen" for the room where you cook food is fairly unambiguous, but there are contexts where you might want to avoid using the word "bathroom" for a room with a bath in it because that word has been tainted by euphemism (depending on your dialect and culture this might seem really stupid)

  13. Yuval said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 4:45 am

    The conversion of head from verb to noun

    Do you mean "from noun to verb"?

    [(myl) Yup. Thanks for the correction. Fixed now.]

  14. richard howland-bolton said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 5:51 am

    Oh dear! In our household the perennial question is "Has Mr. Mail-man come yet?"

  15. Mr Punch said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 7:39 am

    Matt's right about hockey. But I read "headman" as a translation of "honcho," which has been a verb for some time.

  16. ERorie said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 8:00 am

    I think the preferred nomenclature is "mail carrier."

  17. David L said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 8:41 am

    I wonder if this is influenced by the fairly recent (to me, anyway) verbing of 'helm,' which I think is a Hollywood innovation. Movies and TV shows are 'helmed by' someone who would earlier have been known as a director (maybe producer too). This person becomes the 'helmer.'

  18. Erin Lazzaro said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 9:01 am

    My daughters (and my son) are "altar servers", but I still sometimes say they are "altar boys" because nobody who isn't active in the Catholic church knows what "altar servers" are.

    I suppose they could have gone with "altar children", but kids are also serving these days until they go off to college, where they used to be mostly preteens. An "altar child" taller than the priest might be more likely to balk.

  19. M (was L) said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 9:15 am

    In the US government, several organizations have the office of Chairman, usually when not headed by a Secretary.

    Let us put aside that the Secretary is an executive who may employ an Executive Secretary who is an actual secretary.

    Because the office of Chairman is established by law and so-called in the relevant legislation and regulations, there are many cases of females serving as Chairman.

    In very formal situations, they are addressed as "Madame Chairman" as a man would be "Mr. Chairman."

  20. M (was L) said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 9:20 am

    @Erin Lazzaro – The young people employed by professional baseball teams as equipment gophers, responsible for gathering and removing bats and balls from the playing surface when no longer in use in-game, are usually called batboys, ballboys, and ballgirls.

    Batgirls are fairly uncommon, perhaps because there are too many jokes about Barbara Gordon.

  21. Mark said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 10:09 am

    Had I read that cold, not here, I'd have guessed that it was an editing mistake. Say they were choosing between "head the search" and "man the search" and wound up leaving the combo in there. Presumably helped out by the fact that headman is in their dictionary so it didn't highlight the mistake before press.

  22. Billie Critchlow said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 10:09 am

    @ myl. My "knickers in a twist" was inspired by your "worth a boggle".

  23. Joe Green said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 10:37 am

    @Nick Lamb: Euphemisms are by their nature highly variable, but really, actress = prostitute? To me an actress is merely potentially a derogatory term for a woman who is not a very good actor. And for what might bathroom need to be a euphemism? That's really puzzling. Don't tell me it's for the room where the toilet is to be found, when the toilet is to be found in the bathroom (i.e. the same room as the bath).

  24. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 11:25 am

    I associate the noun "headman" (as distinguished from the NP "head man") with colonial/ethnographic sorts of contexts, meaning a local political leader of a non-white and "primitive" group of people. And the first page of google books results is mostly such uses: e.g., "we the undersigned and headmen of Red Lake band of Chippewa Indians . . ."; "The [Thalaki] villagers often choose a close patrilineal relative (younger brother, son or nephew) of the former headman, and in some villages the post has been in the same family for several generations."; "Headman's enterprise: an unexpected page in central African history"; and the nicely progressive-sounding "The headman was a woman: the gender egalitarian Batek of Malaysia – Volume 1."

    So verbing this particular noun makes it sound to me as if the Red Sox are some exoticized non-white ethnicity whose handicrafts end up being displayed in the "natural history museum" rather than the proper art museum across town.

  25. Jim said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 12:21 pm

    "I suppose they could have gone with "altar children","

    Erin, sorry, but that is just a really morbid image. No wonder no one uses that term.

    There used to be an expression in the Army "to honcho X", "..would you honcho X?" that specifically meant a very provisional and temporary leadership over some effort and the group making it. And fortunately 班长 is both conveninently ungendered and conveniently opaque that no one can object on PC grounds.

  26. Brett said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 1:42 pm

    @Nick Lamb: Although I recognize the usage, "actress" as a euphemism for (a certain kind of) prostitute sounds extremely dated to me.

  27. M (was L) said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 1:53 pm

    @Joe Green – I've had that exact problem; visiting an apartment in Iron-Curtain Poland, I asked for the "bathroom" and my American interpreted the question in Polish; our host was briefly puzzled and conflicted but chose the path of courtesy and showed me to a room containing a shower, sink, and mirror. On the opposite side of the corridor was room containing the toilet.

    I don't know if this was Communist-era wierdness, or post-construction modification, or what? They had a more-or-less literal "water closet."

  28. M (was L) said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 1:54 pm

    *American interpretor interpreted

  29. koj said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 7:56 pm

    As a previous commenter has mentioned, to those of us who came of age in countries where the toilet is generally kept in a separate space from the bath, asking for the bathroom might get you nowhere. Or, at least, only to somewhere you can have a bath, not somewhere you can take a slash.

    In Canada, where I live, the room where the toilet is kept is euphemistically called the 'washroom' and I once actually witnessed a young (13?) boy being disciplined by a teacher for asking to go use the 'toilet' rather than the 'washroom'.

  30. David Morris said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 8:49 pm

    When I was teaching in Korea, I horrified an American colleague/friend at a restaurant by asking him where the toilet was. He said "Do you want the bathroom?". I said, "No, I don't want a bath, I want a toilet."

  31. maidhc said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 2:49 am

    "Mail carrier" or "letter carrier" seems to be standard. Our mail has been delivered by a very nice lady for a number of years now, and I really couldn't see referring to her as "the postman".

    I think the rather awkward "chairperson" is yielding to just "chair" as in "X is the department chair". Although in Britain I think "chair" refers to an endowed position?

    "Heroine" is a word that to me seems useful and not demeaning, but it seems to be falling out of use.

  32. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

    The holder of an endowed position has a chair (the John Smith Chair of Meteorology, or the like), but we don't say that they are a chair. When a person is a chair, that means that they are the head of department.

  33. Steve Fishboy said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 8:33 pm

    Has any research been done yet on another class of zero derivation, which seems to turn bare infinitives into nouns, as in "Search is what consumers care about" (a decade ago that would have been "searching"), or "Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud" (rather then "computing")? These forms are so violently jarring to me that I have to believe this is an entirely new mechanism operating in English.

    [(myl) Um, yes? Pick a set of random monomorphemic nouns, and a substantial proportion of them will be originally deverbal: call, show, play, push, kick, smell, … Are those "violently jarring" to you?

    As for search n., it's been used in English since 1400 or so. In 1833, Robert Browning wrote

    And on the morrow when he comes to lie
    For ever 'neath those garden-trees fruit-flushed
    Sung round by fairies, all his search is vain.

    Do you find the last phrase "violently jarring"? If so, perhaps you've been bewitched by a usage troll.

    And compute n., according to the OED, also goes back to the 15th century, and yields a 1533 citation for the phrase compute manual the 16th-century citation for "compute manual", glossed as "a medieval treatise on the art of reckoning on the hands the dates of Church feasts, etc., which contains many mnemonic nonsense-verses":

    1533   T. More Answere Poysened Bk. iv. viii,   The common verse of the compute manuell.



  34. Steve Fishboy said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 11:52 pm

    @MYL: Not a prescriptivist, nor bewitched by maven fairies. I simply find the two examples I gave genuinely jarring — the first time I heard this particular use of "search" I had trouble mentally parsing it (it was a quote from one of the Google founders several years ago, I believe, to the effect that "Search is the future".) I maintain that this noun, while a homophone of the "search" I've used since I was a child ("The search was called off"), is a different word from the "search" used in computing circles ("My grandmother has trouble with search"). Derived from the same verb, obviously.

    [(myl) What seems to bother you, then, is not the use of search as a noun, but rather its use as a singular noun without a determiner. This is common for nouns used in a generic or abstract sense: "Love is strange", "What we want is freedom"), so it seems normal for people in the search business to use search that way…]

  35. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 1:33 am

    @Andrew (not the same one),

    Hmm… except in the unique case where "the person is the chair" is supposed to be a spectral President Barack Obama in a recent lame, rambling RNC stand-up routine disguised as a cogent political speech delivered by veteran actor/ director Clint Eastwood. (Groan)

  36. M (was L) said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 9:56 pm

    @Steve Fishboy – in what way is the search conducted by Google through the web, a different noun from the search conducted by say a police force in a city, or for that matter an old-fashioned librarian's search through the stacks (or the catalog) or my search, ten minutes ago, though my fridge?

  37. Steve Fishboy said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 11:52 pm

    @M (was L): What I can gather is the following…

    (1.) The apparently newer meaning (I'll call it “search-2”) seems to be abstract, while the traditional meaning (“search-1”) seems to be concrete. Search-1 refers to specific acts of searching:

    “The police search failed to turn up a body.”
    “My Google search failed to turn up any hits.”

    Search-2, on the other hand, refers to computerized information retrieval in general, as an industry or discipline, and doesn't seem to be licit for use in any other domain:

    “Search is the future of the web.”

    * “The police bought two new helicopters for search.”

    “The police bought two new tanks for urban combat.”

    (2.) Search-1 admits (and even seems to require) determiners:

    “The mayor noted that the police search failed to find a body.”

    * “The mayor noted that police search failed to find a body.”

    Search-2 doesn't allow determiners:

    “Search is hard to monetize.”

    * “The search is hard to monetize.”

    (3.) Finally, search-2 doesn't seem to have a plural form, while search-1 obviously does:

    “The police performed two fugitive searches at once.” (s-1)
    “The police officer performed two Google searches at once.” (s-1)
    ? “Search is splitting into two searches: voice and typed”. (s-2)

    (Not that some of the sentences I mark with asterisks may sound okay if read in a telegraphic newspaper headline style, as do many others that would otherwise be unacceptable. That tells us something about telegraphic style, not search-2.)

  38. M (was L) said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 8:17 am

    @Steve Fishboy:

    You offer disproof by counter-example, which (if valid) is indeed absolute. Let me offer my own, subject to the same condition:

    > “Search is the future of the web.”
    > * “The police bought two new helicopters for search.”
    > “The police bought two new tanks for urban combat.”

    "Search is the future of the web."
    "Search is a discipline in police work."

    "Search, when performed by police, often involves helicopters."
    "Urban combat, when performed by soldiers, often involves tanks."

    I see no difference, in the actual parallel sentences.

    > Search-2 doesn't allow determiners:
    > “Search is hard to monetize.”
    > * “The search is hard to monetize.”

    I don't think that there is a difference in "search" just because a determiner has been added. The abstraction here is that sentence 1 speaks of search in the abstract or in the general case, while sentence two is specific about some given search in question. The parallel:

    "Search is hard for the police to budget in advance."
    "The search is hard for the police to budget in advanc> “The police performed two fugitive searches at once.”e."

    > “The police performed two fugitive searches at once.” (s-1)
    "Google performed ten million web searches at once." (s-1?)

    > “The police officer performed two Google searches at once.” (s-1)
    "Google performed two image-index searches at once." (It has that capability btw.)

    > ? “Search is splitting into two searches: voice and typed”. (s-2)
    "Search is splitting into two searches: computerized and fieldwork."

  39. un malpaso said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 8:17 pm

    Look out, in the road, a headman!

  40. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 11:57 am

    un malpaso,

    Possible Halloween season-appropriate variation on your exclamation.

    "Look out, in the road, a headless horseman*!" (D'oh!)

    *At least down Sleepy Hollow way.

  41. Mike G said,

    October 10, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

    @ Steve Fishboy & M (was L):

    In my (admittedly limited and non-expert) experience, "search" without a determiner (as a physical act performed by police, rangers, etc.) would almost always be paired with "and rescue." There is an established acronym–SAR–which stands for that exact formulation. Thus:

    *"The police bought two new helicopters for search."
    "The police bought two new helicopters for search and rescue."


    *"Search is a discipline in police work."
    "Search and rescue is a discipline in police work." (And yes, "is" is preferred because the combined term is singular, not two separate coordinated terms that would otherwise take the plural verb form. A quick Google search will confirm this commonplace usage.)


    *"Search, when performed by police, often involve helicopters."
    "Search and rescue, when performed by police, often involves helicopters."
    and "Searches, when performed by police, often involve helicopters."

    I would concur with Steve F. that "Search" (as a no-count noun sans determiner, and sans "and rescue") is a term of art specific to the cyberati referring to the field of algorithm & code design specific to what the masses use "search engines" to accomplish.

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