How to get a word into the dictionary.

Language and how we use it.
May 12 2006 1:26 PM

Is Concept a Verb?

How to get a word into the dictionary.

If you work in the advertising industry, you may have come across the word concept used as a verb, as in, "He's the only creative person I ever met that had his ideas concepted, shot and edited the moment he presented it to you," from a recent issue of Adweek. If you're not in advertising—and even if you are—you may find this usage extremely unpleasant.

Copywriter Ray Del Savio is fond of it, though, and has started a series of linked blogs to help promote its inclusion in the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Del Savio's Verb4Concept campaign has generated a fair number of signatures and a fair amount of criticism. But if Del Savio is serious about his quest, he needs to change his tactics: Cajoling dictionary publishers won't work.

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The problem is not that his word is ugly. The dictionary is not a popularity contest, at least in part because tastes change over time. For example, many people today take umbrage at verbs that end in -ize, such as incentivize or prioritize. But such aesthetic objections are arbitrary; in the 19th century, critics railed against demoralize, deputize, and Americanize, words in which -ize now goes unnoticed.

Likewise, people love to hate nouns that get verbed. But for every recent example that sounds grating—effort ("Can we effort to spread democracy in the Middle East?") or architect ("They architected a solution") or office ("He's officing downtown")—there's an older one that's incredibly common. A quick survey of the human body alone leaves us with "head a committee," "eye the clock," "back the opposition," "elbow him out of the way," "stomach an argument," and "foot the bill," and no one minds these at all. And the noun verb was itself verbed as far back as the 1930s.

A word doesn't have to be useful to make it into the dictionary, either. A typical argument against disliked words is that there is another word that conveys the same sense, and thus the new one is unnecessary. A classic example is impact, as in, "This reorganization will positively impact our fourth-quarter earnings," which, the argument goes, could be replaced by affect or influence. Of course it could. So what? English has tons of close synonyms (enormous and immense, or tap and faucet), but people don't go around arguing that ailment shouldn't be used because malady is a perfectly acceptable substitute.

These newer forms often have different connotations, in any case; impact sounds punchier and more businesslike than affect, which may be why many people dislike it but is surely also why many people use it. With concept, the usual substitute is conceive. But these words have different meanings. Ad people use concept to refer to a broader range of work than just thinking up a general idea—it's closer to design but without the aesthetic notions usually associated with that word. (Interestingly, some engineers use the term in a similar sense.)

Del Savio's efforts to add to English have also been mocked because of his own poor command of the language. He describes his suggested entry for the verb as "one proposed edition," instead of addition. His sample sentence for the entry is, "The team set aside some time for concepting in order to flush out some plausible directions," which not only uses the verbal noun concepting instead of the verb concept but also flush out instead of flesh out. (This last error has since been corrected on the site.) Del Savio titles his exchanges with a Merriam-Webster editor "Converstations" and introduces them with, "Below find excerpts from Kory and I's conversations." If he is kidding, it is not obvious. But none of this matters. Dictionary editors look over all suggestions that come in, whether the suggester is a nonnative English speaker, a child, an idiot, a tenured professor of rhetoric, a newspaper editor, or a professional clubber of cute baby seals.

There is, however, one thing that Del Savio must be able to show to get concept v. into a major dictionary: that it's common.

Really, that's about it. Words that are widely used get into dictionaries. They can be regarded as ungrammatical, vulgar, unnecessary, racist, nonsensical, or ugly. Dictionaries aren't there to tell you how you should use words; they're there to show you how words are used, and if a word is used, it's likely to go in.

But the question of frequency is not a simple one, and dictionaries have different standards. Things that are taken into account are the pure number of examples, whether these occur in a broad range of contexts or a narrow range, and how old the term is. Del Savio has the right idea by encouraging people to send in quotations that show the word used in context; dictionaries give enormous weight to contextual examples.

The verb use of concept is not new; examples are known dating back to the early 1980s (and some of these examples imply that the term was well-established even then). However, it seems not to be especially common, even within its industry. For example, Adweek has used concepted or concepting only 12 times since 2003. (I searched for the inflected forms to distinguish the verb from the noun.) That's not nothing, but on average you could read the magazine weekly for three months before you'd find a single example; compare this to the 405 examples of creatives the magazine printed in the same period. (The noun creative referring to "a person who does creative work, esp. in advertising" is more than 50 years old and universally used in the industry, though often thought to be unusual by outsiders.)

Furthermore, established industry figures themselves deny that concept is a commonly used or accepted verb. One senior director, who writes a column in an advertising magazine, told me: "This is not true advertising jargon—it's something maybe used by a sub-subset of young creative people talking among themselves. It marks you as a philistine." A senior partner at a big-name firm said he found it "jarringly odd," adding that "if anyone on my team said it in a client meeting, I wouldn't fire them, but I would pull them aside and tell them, 'That is not English.' "

So, the problem here isn't that Merriam-Webster is keeping concept out of the dictionary because they're mean or because they have no respect for the creative process. It's that Del Savio is just too early; the word isn't ready yet. When it is, it'll get put in, the same way that the noun creative is already in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary—and the Oxford English Dictionary, and the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, and others. The best thing Del Savio can do to help concept's chances is not to blog about it but to spend more time doing his job. That way maybe he'll become influential enough to get other people to use the term. Then it will be a no-brainer.

E-mail your language questions to slatelanguage@gmail.com.

Correction, May 18, 2006: This piece originally misspelled the name of copywriter Ray Del Savio.

Jesse Sheidlower, formerly the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, is the president of the American Dialect Society. He is the author of The F-Word.

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