Column: Verbing around the Christmas tree

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Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

We’re due a season of merriment. After all, we’ve all lived through the first 11 months of 2020, so, pass the eggnog, and let’s break some grammar rules!

There’s something about the holiday season that makes us want to “verbify” nouns. Take Volvo’s 2020 holiday ad campaign, in which we are encouraged to “Holiday safely.” The word “holiday” itself is a word created by combining “holy” and “day.” I can’t begin to explain to you how much advertising phrases like “holiday safely” are the linguistic equivalent of nails on a chalkboard to me, but this is not a new phenomenon.

Let’s look at the popular holiday song, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Songwriting duo Eddie Pola and George Wyle (Wyle also penned the “Gilligan’s Island” theme) wrote the song for Andy Williams’ Christmas album in 1963. Interestingly enough, Columbia Records opted to release a different song from the album as the single in 1963, when they chose Williams’ rendition of “White Christmas” (it reached No. 1). To date, it’s an iconic holiday classic that exudes the idealistic optimism of the season.

I love this song, but the writers played fast and loose with some nouns that found themselves playing the roles of verbs. For instance, “with the kids jingle belling” rhymes well with the next line “and everyone telling you ‘be of good cheer,’” but that doesn’t make “jingle belling” a verb. Later in the song, Pola and Wyle employed the same tactic when they wrote “There’ll be much mistletoeing and hearts will be glowing when loved ones are near.” I appreciate the rhyme, but I always thought “mistletoeing” is what happened when my great uncle clipped his overgrown toenails at the kitchen table.

You know what? Since it’s the holiday season, as Andy Williams reminds us in yet another Yuletide tune, I’m going to look deeply into my heart, wish it to grow three sizes, and give this lyrical limbo technique a pass this year. If it takes a bit of verbal gymnastics to put a smile on our long faces this season, then I’m all for it. In general (and still in Volvo’s case), “verbing nouns weirds language,” as Bill Watterson once wrote in “Calvin and Hobbes.” After all, this is the hap-happiest season of all.

Curtis Honeycutt is a syndicated humor columnist. He is the author of Good Grammar is the Life of the Party: Tips for a Wildly Successful Life. Find more at curtishoneycutt.com.


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