RE-ENGINEERING CULTURE
Parent Is a Noun, Not a Verb

January 2006By Cliff Price

Cliff Price is a consultant living respectably in Berkeley, California, with his wife and those of their ten children not yet gone away to college.

There is some property of broccoli that evokes an almost instinctive revulsion in numerous children. Whether it is the texture, the color, or the smell, or whether it is some combination of these that is the cause, I do not know. I have read that both infant humans and monkeys have an analogous horror of objects that look like snakes. So perhaps the loathing of broccoli and snakes is somehow primordially hard-wired into the human brain.

I experience a similar, almost instinctive repugnance whenever I hear the word "parent" used as a verb. Since an unexamined revulsion is not worth adherence, I have pondered this usage for some time in order to determine whether my horror is reasonable or simply a pet peeve. This usage has crept into common parlance and become pervasive within the past twenty years. For the sake of the integrity of the language, for clarity, and for effective communication, we avoid neologisms because they make novelty trump accuracy and they confound our native tongue. Men of good sense have always eschewed neologisms. Completely made-up words and forced, inappropriate use of existing words both fall under the heading of neologisms. This is not to deny the legitimate uses of neologisms. An example of this is Einstein's "relativity." But the making up of new words is not to be casually undertaken. Boswell relates the following regarding the great Samuel Johnson: "Johnson assured me, that he had not taken upon him to add more than four or five words to the English language, of his own formation; and he was very much offended at the general license, by no means 'modestly taken' in his time not only to coin new words, but to use many words in senses quite different from their established meaning, and those frequently very fantastical."

Our examination will reveal that the conversion in use of the word "parent" from noun to verb is an invidious instance of the illegitimate sort of neologism. "Parent" in English has always been a noun meaning the immediate, biological ancestor; it expresses a relationship based on a natural fact. In the current usage as a verb, however, "to parent" has no such clear meaning. Expressions such as "parenting class," "parenting magazines," and "how to parent well" are not instructions in begetting. We can see that though the dictionaries still have it as a noun, "parent" is being used as a vague replacement for "child-rearing," or "raise" or "nurture" or "bring up" children. The verb "parent" implies "the things done by a parent," without specifying what those things are or specifying the identity of the person doing them. Further, it negates the meaning of parent: a man or woman in an undeniable relationship with a child by reason of a biological fact.


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