Illusory Follies Andrew Flanagan's Blog

1Jan/085

Happy New Year!

It's 2008 and about time I say! I have high hopes for this year. Having resolved to not make resolutions I don't intend to carry through with (keep up with the double negatives there) I simply intend to continue to improve in every way possible this year. If I gained 10 lbs this last year, I bet I can double it this year! Wish me luck!

While it's fresh in my mind, I would like to mention that the word gift as a verb meaning to give as a gift is irritating. I'm a bit of a stickler for proper English, while realizing that of course languages do evolve. I also don't mind the use of new words for fun or for poetic/literary purposes. Obviously if the word gift was never used as a verb it could be a rather powerful bit of poetry that chose to use it as such. But what bothers me is the common use (and it really is getting common just in the last few months it seems) of gift as a verb. What irks me is that perfectly good words already exist that mean the same thing. Most often the verb give works well. When it doesn't, the words endow or bestow seem appropriate (maybe they feel a little too old-fashioned). I find it commonly used in church circles, especially in reference to what I think should be called making a donation, tithing, or giving.

Regifting is commonly used and makes good sense as a new word in my opinion. It has a highly specific meaning and purpose and doesn't replace an existing verb. Perhaps the recent increase in usage of gift as a verb is as a back-formation of regift.

I think also that one of the reasons I reject this verb so much is that it's very pretentious. It's redundant to say that I'm "gifting my son a present for Christmas". Of course it's a gift if it's for Christmas! Well, what if I am "gifting a tool to my neighbor". If you use the common verb "giving a tool to my neighbor" it means something slightly different. I may simply be handing it to him and expecting him to return it later. So you could argue that the use of gifting in this second example is in fact providing clarification to the verb give by showing clearly that it is a gift. But what's the real difference? I see it as a weasely way of drawing attention to your act of generosity. It's similar to give but just different enough that people notice it. For example, saying that "Mr. X gave $10,000 to the church" is not really different than "Mr. X gifted $10,000 to the church" except it really does sound like he was somehow more generous in the second phrase. Of course our fictional Mr. X isn't going to ask for the money back either way but with the second form it's rubbing it in.

When I was a kid, I remember using the phrase "for keeps" and tacking it to the end of statements such as "I'll give you my firetruck" (I was more of a police car guy). I would feel absurd saying, "I'll gift you my firetruck" and I have the hardest time imagining this ever becoming regular, non-pretentious English speech. As I'm writing this, I'm feeling more and more that this is really about culture, not grammar. If I randomly present someone with something, it's proper in Western culture to say something like "Here, you can have this angled, cordless DeWalt nail gun. Go ahead and keep it when you're done with it." It's rather immature to say "I'm giving you a gift -- this angled, cordless DeWalt nail gun". You don't call gifts "gifts" just like you don't call your own generosity "generosity". If it's Christmas or a birthday where a gift is expected, then it's redundant to gift rather than just give. It creates far too much ambiguity between the phrases "gifting Ted a present for his birthday" and "giving Ted a present for his birthday". I don't see a clear difference except now the presence or use of the first phrase creates odd connotations in the second. Maybe Ted has to let me borrow his present now.

So, in summary, it's bad. I encourage one and all to pretend to be confused whenever you hear this word used as a verb. "Do you mean give?" is a good response.

And if I do get a DeWalt nail gun I'm not gifting it to anyone!

Comments (5) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I, very generously, am giving you something–for keeps–and as I have generously gifted you, so you may also regift very generously as well.

    It is more blessed to gift than to receive. And using the word gift makes one feel even more blessed (and proud). Isn’t it neat how God always works everything to our good–even gifting makes us feel and think more about ourselves than about the receiver! Praise the Lord and gift the loot. “Now back to me”!!
    (Seriously, I like the post a lot. Quite enlightening).

  2. First: sorry for my English, I’ve read about your high claims, I won’t be able to fulfill them… 🙂
    In German there are two different words for giving (“geben”) and for to give as a present (“schenken”).
    This is normal traditional language and I am sure no one would think about dropping one of these words!
    It is very easy: just giving, handing over is “geben”.
    If you don’t need to give it back, if you can keep it as your property it is “schenken”.
    This is very clear, without any complications, and is helping to avoid confusion (“how is this giving meant, can I keep it? Is it impolite if I ask about that?”)

    You are always free to modestly “give” it, if you mean “schenken” (to give it as a present). But you can say it also very clear and easy, and it’s more like an honour than awkward for the giver (gifter 😉 )

  3. Alexander — thanks for the info. I’ve taken a little German (and had learned both verbs) but hadn’t thought of them in the context of this post. That’s neat…

    I don’t have a problem with two verbs — one for each meaning, but the issue is the odd connotations that become part of the traditional English verb “give” when a new verb is introduced. Essentially, if we could start over, it seems like it would might be helpful to introduce “gift” as a verb. But we’re always stuck with the legacy and tradition of our language.

    I found this online also:

    Gift has a long history of use as a verb meaning “to furnish with a gift; endow” as in “The world must love and fear him Whom I gift with heart and hand” (Elizabeth Barrett Browning). This sense provides a useful distinction from give, for give can sometimes be confusing because it means both “to transfer physical possession” and “to transfer ownership.” Unfortunately, the use of gift as a verb in Modern English is tainted by its association with the language of advertising and publicity (as in Gift her with this copper warming plate). A large majority of the Usage Panel rejected the usage in an earlier survey. When you want clarity, use a substitutes such as give as a gift, bestow, or donate.
    (From http://www.bartleby.com/64/C003/0142.html)

    I guess I’m picking up on this “tainted” feeling. I don’t know any of the older usage of this word as a verb but perhaps it once had a more “normal” meaning.

    Interestingly, doing a search on “gift as a verb” turns up a number of blogs of people who hate its use. I’m not the only one I guess.

  4. Also, I changed the phrase from “non-pretentious human speech” to “non-pretentious English speech”. I meant any human speaking English. I didn’t mean to make judgments on those of us who speak other languages with an accepted “give/gift” distinction.

  5. Interesting. It is possible that a motive of flattery could be behind the decision to select a verb that allows the recipient to be the direct object, not the gift. It highlights just how generous the wonderful giver was to the wonderful recipient.


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