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A Child’s Garden of ‘Verses’

ms-soccer1218

Middle schoolers playing soccer: “White versed red.”

You learn all kinds of things on Facebook. The other day, my friend Michael Regan, a suburban dad who in his other life is a journalist for Bloomberg News, posted: “Are my kids the only ones who use the word ‘versus’ as a verb? Like, ‘What team are we versing at the game on Saturday?’”

Uh, no. That was clear from the torrent of comments — 67, to this point. Here is the first bunch (names cut off on purpose):

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My own kids’ sporting days are long gone, and I am not aware of ever having heard verse used in this way. One of Mike’s friends helpfully linked to a 2012 post on the subject by Mignon Fogarty, aka “Grammar Girl,” the comments to which suggested the usage has long been common in Australia and New Zealand. Mignon cited the language blogger Neal Whitman, who in a 2004 post said he had observed his own son saying, in reference to a video game, “My Ice could verse his Flame.” Neal offered a credible origin story:

… there’s one game called “Super Smash Brothers,” with all the characters from all the Nintendo games engaged in a big tournament, and at the beginning of every round, the announcer will say, “Mario versus Pikachu!” or “Link versus Jiggly Puff!” or something similar. If I were 5 years old, and heard the formula “X versus Y,” without seeing it written down (or knowing how to read it if I did see it), what would the more rational conclusion be? That there is some weird preposition that I’ve never heard anywhere else, used only when two people are fighting, or that there is a verb, verse, which means “to fight”? Option B, of course! And all this time, when Doug and I talked about Mario vs. Pikachu, little did I know that I was saying Mario versus Pikachu while he was saying Mario verses Pikachu.

Grammar Girl quoted Urban Dictionary’s 2004 definition, which supports the Whitman interpretation: “Derived from the common term ‘vs.’ in video games where choices are either 1 Player or 2 Player (commonly listed as ‘vs.’).” Mignon surmised that the usage had been around in gaming circles since the 1990s, and quoted (via Ben Zimmer) a line from a Sony video game listserv in 1995: “When versing the black car, remember that the first is a warmup lap. … ” I’ll add that verse‘s success makes sense in view of the less-than-ideal alternatives: Play is weak because it can be used transitively or intransitively and initially a listener may not know which is meant; and oppose and compete against sound stiff or formal.

In any case, by the time of that 1995 listserv quote, the usage had been around for more than 10 years. I know that because of a 1984 New York Times article posted by a Regan friend: “Latest Word: New Yorkese of ’84 Is Here.” The piece — under the once-familiar byline of Eric Pace — listed “some new or new-seeming words or phrases tripping off New Yorkers’ tongues.” The final one was “To verse: High school slang meaning to compete against another school’s team, as in ‘We’re going to be versing the Brown Bombers next week.’”

The rest of the items on the list offer a time capsule of terms that had just popped onto the radar 33 years ago. I quote Pace:

  • Binuclear family: a family reorganized after a divorce into a new system that can include former spouses, children, and new partners.
  • To demagogue: used in city politics, meaning to embellish a speech with hyperbole.
  • To fedex: to send something by overnight air express. Evidently a slang reference to the Federal Express Corporation, a Memphis-based overnight air express company.
  • Fern bar: Young-adult slang, heard as far afield as New Haven, for the sort of trendy bar that has hanging plants.
  • Gloomster: Defined by Louis Rukeyser, the financial journalist, as ”one who perennially merchandises pessimism and exploits people’s natural fears.”
  • Goin’ Hollywood: Getting a divorce. Slang phrase, in use notably by Upper West Siders in their 20′s.
  • Oilitics: loosely, the politics of oil.
  • Putty: a shade of gray. One of many new words that have come to be used in chic mail-order catalogues to describe color. ”An extravaganza of framboise and putty.”
  • Signage: A technical term, used notably in architecture and zoning, meaning the signs in a given architectural project, zoning unit, or the like. Now used by some laymen. ”The signage stinks.”
  • User-friendly: A term born in the computer world meaning easy to use or understand. It is now spreading to noncomputer contexts.

It’s a fascinating list. Binuclear family, goin’ Hollywood, and oilitics were flashes in the pan: They may have had a brief, shining moment but quickly disappeared. Gloomster isn’t too much in evidence these days, but it may have been a early example of the still-popular trend of  -ster suffixing. As for fern bar – the sort of place where you can order quiche and a Harvey Wallbanger and ask people what their sign is — my sense is that it would already have been dated in 1984. It’s generally agreed that the first one was Henry Africa’s in San Francisco, which opened in 1969; the term — credited both to a friend of the bar’s owner and to San Francisco columnist Herb Caen — was in use no later than 1975. Perhaps inevitably, there is talk of a revival.

Still very much with us are demagogue, FedEx (capitalized), putty, signage, and user-friendly. They popped up in the ’80s, were tested in the red-in-tooth-and-claw crucible of language evolution, and survived. For better or verse.

 

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