She covers the waterfront

17 Sep

We appear to have another case of that strange phenomenon, Ambitious Tabloid Verbing. Last time, we had “to marvel” meaning “to look marvellous” (“Elizabeth Olsen marvels in button-down maxi red dress at Comic-Con”). Now we have “to cover” meaning – apparently – “to be on the cover” (that is, of a magazine).

It’s in the Mail, of course:

This is not one of those “implied object” verbs that the Mail also loves (“Gwyneth stuns in taffeta dress” meaning “Gwyneth stuns onlookers in taffeta dress”). Nor is it an example of what are called unaccusative verbs – for example, “shimmer” – which lack an object of any kind and describe an involuntary state of the subject. (Indeed, “cover” in this new usage gives the impression of being transitive.)

In a sense, as described by Ben Zimmer in the New York Times, this is a denominal verb – that is, a noun turned into a verb. Just as, in sport, to win a medal has become “to medal” and to get on the podium has become “to podium”, here “to be on the cover” has become “to cover”. That perhaps makes it less ambitious than “marvel”, which was a verb created out of an adjective: many denominal verbs, although formally frowned upon, are easily understood.

But here “cover”, like “marvel”, does lead you astray. In both cases, a more natural sentence expressing the same thought might contain a stative verb, or verb of being: “She looks marvellous”; “she is on the cover”.  But these stative verbs have been replaced with dynamic verbs, or verbs of doing, which have the effect of spuriously increasing the sense of the subject’s agency, and send you hunting through the sentence in search of an object (or, to use a more grammatically precise term, a “patient” – that is, the thing on which the agent acts). In last time’s example, you were led to think that Olsen was “marvelling … at Comic-Con” – in other words, that the convention was the object of the intransitive verb “to marvel (at)”. In these new examples, “covers” in every case creates a slightly baffling direct object out of the magazine in question (“Zendaya covers the new issue”) in a way that makes you think the models might in some way be acting as reporters.

To be fair to the Mail, it hasn’t invented this usage. It has appeared before, largely in the fashion press, and the briefest Google search uncovers examples going back several years.

But my copy of Collins indicates that “cover”, as a verb, already has 23 meanings. I rather hope this doesn’t become the 24th. Unlike many of my fellow prescriptivist enforcers, I don’t necessarily believe that verbing weirds language. But constructions as ambitious as this certainly do.

One Response to “She covers the waterfront”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Stunning figure (of speech) | Ten minutes past deadline - September 15, 2020

    […] after all, look at its command of hyperbole and euphemism. So what’s next? Naomi Campbell covering her face and Vogue Australia? Kim Kardashian pouring herself into a swimsuit and her […]

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