Getting Over Gifting

cheap-gifts2Christmas and Hanukkah have done their work, and it’s time to look soberly at the wreckage. You have given gifts and received them, whether you liked it or not. And whether you’ve liked it or not, you’ve gifted or been gifted.

Two weeks ago, the marketplace of gifts was at a white heat. Now, in early January, the gifting is a done thing, and it’s all over but the returns.

Seasonal Language Disorder (SLD) affects many of us at this time of year. There are no words to adequately express certain emotional states: winter gloom, political despair, fear of the new semester. None of these being fixable anyway, we can always turn to words we don’t like, or words we do except not in ways we don’t condone.

Today’s example is the use of gift as a verb and the related term gifting. My Chronicle colleague Andrew Mytelka has written about it very recently (I loved his rewrite of Patrick Henry: “Gift me liberty or gift me death”).

Gifting is everywhere.

“Gladys gifted her nephew Elmo with a tenor sax.” Why couldn’t Gladys have made Elmo a gift of that tenor sax? Or, Elmo’s parents think, a nice quiet chess set instead?

As language commentators repeatedly remind us (see, for example, Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty), to gift is an old usage. So old, in fact, that the Oxford English Dictionary can provide centuries of examples without even moving beyond 1884.

Presents can be nice enough, but a gift can be deadly, as the Trojans knew best. Everyone who studies German learns early on that, on the banks of the Rhine, Gift is the word for poison. Which would make the advertising come-on “A Gift for Everyone on Your List” the classic example of bilingual bad faith.

Less familiar might be the connections between the word gift and good old-fashioned patriarchy. The OED’s etymological trace turns up an earliest sense of the noun gift as Old English, “recorded only in the sense ‘payment for a wife,’ and in the plural with the sense of ‘wedding’.”

The gift and the bride-price share a misty origin, none of which makes me feel better about the discomfort and sense of pointlessness that most gifts generate in the recipient. I’m not too keen on bride-prices, either.

As to language usage, however, there are solid historical grounds for using gift as a verb. We don’t have to blame Madison Avenue or Amazon or the Seinfeld show (putative source of regifter). To gift means “to endow or furnish with gifts,”  and has since the 16th century.

Charmingly, to gift has also meant “to invest with charm, to impart a fascination to.” We’ve lost that sense, as we have most charming things.

Instead of worrying whether to gift is a legitimate verb form, however, we might better ask whether gifts really exist at all.

In The Gift, the most famous of all writings on gifts and gift-giving, Marcel Mauss exposed the complexities of reciprocity as the centerpiece of this seemingly simple social nicety. Writing about Mauss’s famous text, the anthropologist Mary Douglas observed that “A gift that does nothing to enhance solidarity is a contradiction.”

I’m OK with to gift. As to the word’s related forms, it may be just the moment — and just the year — to see every act of gifting as an act of solidarity, and every impulse to gift an impulse to make strengthening connections in a world that has turned a dark corner.




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