Verbing Names

You’ve probably seen or at least heard about Clint Eastwood’s speech at the Republican convention. It became noteworthy for his address to an imagined Obama represented by an empty chair. What is interesting to me linguistically, is what happened afterward: Eastwooding became a meme. This is the newest example (putting aside any potential queasiness about the implications of the mass mocking of an elderly person) of a process of verbing names. Of course, the other recent, notable example is Tebowing.

In these instances, a celebrity’s name stands in for a specific act (talking to an empty chair or kneeling in prayer), the –ing affix is added to the name, and the spread of the linguistic form is often accompanied by a visual representation (either a photo or a video). And the linguistic form (as –ing forms do) can function as a noun as it does in this headline:

Tebowing‘ makes transition from Internet meme to race horse

But can also be a verb in the progressive aspect as it is here:

I feel like I am Eastwooding on SS [Sweet Shangai] recently

The word formation process that makes verbs out of proper nouns isn’t new. From COHA, here’s an example of Xerox being used as a verb from 1969:

…given their obvious merit and high level of lubricity, to have them xeroxed while they were in my possession,

A well known example of an individual whose name became verbed is the basketball player Kevin Pitsnoggle. His name came to mean being beaten by an unlikely opponent or specifically by the 3-point shot:

In a dramatic twist of irony, West Virginia was pittsnogled last night.

Unlike Tebowing and Eastwooding, pittsnogled usually appears in the past participle (-ed form) and in the passive. These two two patterns (-ing and passive) seem to be the most frequent patterns of formation.

Part of what I think is interesting is that while there are certainly pre-Internet examples, I think the process of verbing the names of individuals is at least accelerating, particularly in computer-mediated spaces.

The names that are verbed seem to be (not surprisingly) celebrities of various stripes (actors, politicians, athletes). So, for example, U.S. Presidents are frequently verbed:

Reagan Coolidged Kennedy

Well, I’ve been Reaganed I suppose.

And then the unemployment benefits will start to run out for people, like me, where [sic] were Obamaed

There’s a reason the audio has been Nixoned.

For fun, I did some quick searches on COHA to see if there is any historical precedent for these kinds of uses, but couldn’t come up with any. Also, as the above example of Coolidged illustrates, the names that are verbed can be historical not just contemporary. So while you can go Eastwooding, you can also be Marie Antoinetted: