A Linguist Explains "Gifting"

Finally, some answers


Welcome to the second edition of my deep dive into not liking the word “gift” when it’s used as a verb. If you missed the introduction, please take a moment to familiarize yourself with the phenomenon. Are you back? Have you decided how you feel? Great.

“Gifting” Is Gross

I did a little data gathering after establishing my position last week, and in a 24-hour Twitter poll (where somehow exactly 500 people voted) I learned that 66% of participants shared my aversion:

That means 330 of the 500 people were anti-“gift” like me. While it’s nice to be in the majority, those results don’t give us much insight into why the word can be grating, so I talked to linguist Arika Okrent to see if we could get to the bottom of things. She told me there’s a set of steps a language professional walks through when examining questions like these:

1. Find a centuries-old example of the thing that people hate.

You will always find one. (Okay, maybe not for fuccboi). I go to the Oxford English Dictionary—yup, there’s a bunch. Here’s one from 1711: ‘This bell was gifted by the Earl of Kilmarnock to the town of Kilmarnock for their Council-house.’

This step heads off the idea that it’s bad because of kids these days and their lack of respect for language. Or the idea that it’s a grammar mistake a la, ‘You can’t use a noun as a verb.’

Okay, so “gift” as a verb has been happening for at least 305 years. This wasn’t invented online. Now for the next step:

2. Find an example like it that people used to hate and now don’t even notice anymore.

Back in the 1930’s version of Top 10 Words We Hate columns, you know what came up all the time? Contact. ‘It’s a noun, not a verb! You do not contact someone, you establish contact with them! This word needs to die!’ Or something like that. The rants haven’t changed much over the decades.

This step says, ‘Hey, relax, take the long view. The language will be fine. Civilization won’t end.’

I like this step because I learned that “contact” used to be a controversial word choice, and I dislike this step because it makes me sound like a snob. I don’t feel like a snob! By and large, I think wordplay is extremely fun and we should all engage in it more often. I suspect there’s something more specific bothering me here.

No one ever looks at this evidence and says, ‘Yeah, I guess I don’t mind this word now.’ These are visceral emotions we’re talking about! And you’re not saying, “This is terrible because it’s a grammar mistake and it’s ending civilization.” You’re not peeving, you’re introspecting! And you probably don’t mind that I just used introspect as a verb because you can tell I’m being a bit language-playful.

But what if I was leading a workshop at a corporate retreat you were forced to go to. What if I was laying out the 3 Core Principles of Productive Introspecting. Man, you’d probably hate it. You’d probably hate me too. And those two hates are probably related. I think a lot of time a word annoys us because the person we first heard that word from, or who uses that word a lot, annoys us. Your feeling that brands are using gift more might be true, but even if it isn’t, your perception that it is can make you hate it.

Mmm there it is. This rings true because I definitely don’t like the way brands talk to us online (especially when the seams are showing). So since the instances of “gift” I’m seeing are largely from companies tweeting out holiday guides, it would make sense that I’d experience it as smarmy.

I don’t usually hear people saying, “I gifted Janelle new earrings” out loud, but I do see brands tweeting, “13 things under $50 to gift a coworker.” In other words: instead of parroting trendy slang I’m familiar with back to me, advertisers are trying to shoehorn arbitrarily playful language into their sales pitch to seem fun, and for some reason this particular word is sticking. It’s like a parent interrupting the slumber party to ask everyone how to whip and nae nae. Get outta here, man! Isn’t “60 Minutes” on or something?

So what about my poll? Surely not everyone who voted “no icky” shares my allergy to advertisers.

Once you’ve staked out a position on a language issue, others might be inclined to go along with you just for the pure cathartic glee of hating something together. The Nickelback effect. I think that’s what happened with “literally.” One good rant or a charismatic teacher who really hates some thing can really get the ball rolling on a pet peeve. And then it’s part of your identity. Thus the Oxford comma flag waving.

So even though the majority of people I polled seemed to agree with me, a portion of those votes might simply reflect the fact that it’s fun to be part of a team. In getting pissed about “gift,” I inadvertently created an anti-gift agenda, which means that my poll results aren’t necessarily pure. A percentage of you might just be nice and subconsciously want to see me be correct (thank u). And if that’s not you? There’s a chance you’re either a snob or a brand-hater like me. Or maybe you’re a snob and a brand-hater and you love being part of a team. I’m not here to pigeonhole anyone. I’m just reporting the findings as I’ve come to understand them.

Let’s review: English-speaking people have been using “gift” as a verb since at least the 18th century; historically speaking, we tend to get worked up about new trends until they normalize and everyone forgets why anyone cared at all; and our reactions to word choice have just as much to do with context as they do with the meaning of the word. Will this stop me from thinking, “Ugh!” the next time I see “gift” in the wild? Probably not! But maybe my reaction will be abbreviated now that I know where it’s stemming from, and eventually, maybe I’ll even be able to pass it in my scroll without thinking, “There’s that word I dislike again.” Knowledge rules.