May 31, 2019

Words of the Month - Body Language

        Few things are as familiar to us as our bodies - you know the human body like the back of your own hand; it’s as plain as the nose on your face.  So it’s not surprising that words for the parts of the human body get lots of use with extended meanings.  Today I’m looking at when words for body parts become verbs.  The most obvious verbs to start with are those that simply mean “to do with the body part that which the body part normally does.”  For example, you can
     eye someone suspiciously - eyes see
     elbow someone in the ribs - elbows poke
     mouth words silently or mouth off loudly - mouths speak
     face your companion (or the music, or the future) - faces turn frontwards
     muscle your way through a crowd - muscles exert force
     finger the keyboard, or the dress fabrics (or the sexual meaning) - fingers touch things

But some body parts get used in slightly less iconic ways when they turn into verbs, such as
     hand someone something - by putting it into their hands, rather than keeping it in your own
     shoulder a load - by carrying it on the shoulders
     knee a groin - by striking with the knee
     tongue notes on a wind instrument - by tapping with the tongue
     thumb a ride, or the pages of a book - by manipulating with the thumb, or by holding the thumb up in the hitchhiking symbol

Some body parts get used quite metaphorically when they become verbs, including
     toe a line - which could be literally placing the toes up to it but no farther, but usually is not literal
     stomach something unpalatable (or more commonly, be unable to stomach it) - which could be literally holding it in the stomach, but usually isn't literal
     head a company - by acting as the directive force
     nose around in someone’s affairs - as if by sniffing or leading with the nose
     finger a criminal - by metaphorically pointing them out

Some are an even further stretch.  Why should it be that
     necking uses arms and lips much more than the neck
     ribbing is teasing (though apparently derives from rib-tickling, so there is a connection)
     footing a bill has nothing obvious to do with feet at all

And finally there are those words which mean not using the body part but rather removing or destroying it…
     skin a knee - to remove the skin
     brain a victim - to smash the brains out

        These are the sorts of usages that are potentially particularly difficult in a non-native language.  You see the word finger used as a verb, and you guess it must mean something having to do with fingers… but what?  It could be touching, pointing, poking, pulling into protruding finger-shapes, wringing the hands, placing in very precise spots, beckoning… and that’s not even including the metaphorical or idiomatic possibilities.  So it turns out that while we know what our bodies can do, sometimes it isn’t so obvious what our body parts do when they become verbs.

[Pictures: Wood block prints from Orbis Sensualium Pictus by John Amos Comenius, 1777 English edition (Images from Google Books);
Wood block print from a Book of Hours, 1498/9 (Image from Bodleian Library).]


Rob Z Tobor said...

Chin Chin . . . . . . . Yes OK I know that doesn't really count . . . but.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Ha, good one! Actually, "chin chin" appeared in another installment of Words of the Month: Cheers!