Think Verb, Not Noun

red flowers in a blue sky blooming

Getty/Ulrike Leone

Breath action into everyday words. “You might be surprised at how many nouns in the English language can be used as verbs.”

Words have always fascinated me. One thing I discovered by playing with words is that they don’t always fit into neat categories or have clear definitions.

Take the word “hope” for example. I know hope can be a noun (thing) or a verb (action). That’s a fascinating thought in itself. But then I read that “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Does this make sense? Emily Dickenson seems to think so, as she takes the thought another step. “Hope”, she says, “perches in the soul—And sings the tune without the words.”

One thing I like to do is turn nouns into verbs. Nouns are a bit too static for me. So I take a word like “happiness” and think of it as a verb—an action word. Rather than viewing happiness as something I want or strive for, I think of happiness as something I do.

Turning nouns into verbs helps me experience such a world.

My way of transforming nouns into verbs seems to be more in line with Potawatomi language than English. I learned this from reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Kimmerer explains how English is a noun-based language, which she finds appropriate for a culture so obsessed with things. In English, only 30 percent of the words are verbs; in Potawatomi, verbs make up 70 percent of the language. This makes me think that the Potawatomi culture may be more alive than the English culture.

As I read further in Kimmerer’s book, I gained a deeper understanding of overlaps between the way language is used and how we view and experience the world. More verbs make the world more alive. Kimmerer writes about recognizing “Saturday” as a verb. In her dictionary, the verb is “to be a Saturday.” Her dictionary tells her that all kinds of things can be verbs: “to be a hill,” “to be a bay,” etc. Thinking about bay as a verb transports Kimmerer to a place where she can smell the water, watch it rock against the shore, and hear it sift onto the sand. When bay is a noun, the water is dead, “trapped between its shores.” Bay as a verb, however, “releases the water from bondage and lets it live.”

If you haven’t thought about this before, you might be surprised at how many nouns in the English language can be used as verbs—maybe not technically, but at least in the way we think about them. My list includes life, peace, health, goodness, kindness, joy, God, nature, and justice. Sometimes I think even words like “Christmas” and “morning” can be verbs.

When I think about what makes life really good, I realize it’s not things (nouns). What makes life really good for me is the realization that everything has a certain “aliveness” about it, that everything can be experienced as a verb. With this in mind, I’ll continue to take liberties with how I think about words. I want to live in a world that shimmers with life and liveliness. Turning nouns into verbs helps me experience such a world.

Life is a magical thing when we make it so.

Read more: “Limitations of Concrete: Disease is a Verb, Not a Noun.”


About the Author

Ruth Wilson

Ruth Wilson, Ph.D., is a retired educator who now works with the Children and Nature Network as curator of the Research...

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