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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1990’s | militarese? | “cite,” “refer to,” “mention”)

As far as I can tell, the use of this word as a verb first became common in military and industrial circles. The derivation seems mind-numbingly simple. There’s this thing called a “reference,” see, which is what happens when you when you talk about or quote a text different from the one you’re writing. It may include a citation if you’re academically inclined. “Reference” has been the customary noun for a long time, and engineers and brasshats aren’t known for their care in preserving traditional grammatical distinctions. So “reference” becomes a verb through the usual process of sag and drift that causes words to gobble up new definitions and fields of use — in this case, the process of nouns turning into verbs.

That may be all there is to it, but some other streams feeding into the “reference” ocean may have had an effect. “Cross-reference” was already (albeit recently) established as a verb in the 1970’s to mean “link two separated but related items”; it seems like a clear precursor. Educators used “referenced” frequently as an adjective in phrases like “norm-referenced,” “criterion-referenced,” or “community-referenced.” These phrases all denoted different kinds of tests designed to measure student achievement, and “referenced” meant something like “pegged to” — that is, appealing to a particular standard, created by a duly authorized body or derived statistically through measuring past performance of a certain group. Such terms were thrown around enough in the 1970’s to help pave the way for the new verb, but “reference” was itself not used as a verb in such constructions. Another stream springs from the old legal phrase: “incorporate by reference.” It’s a shortcut. You want to include a quotation from an opinion or brief (or any document), but instead of retyping the whole passage you cite it and say it should be understood to appear in your text as well. Here again, “reference” is not a verb, but it isn’t too hard to imagine a slippage from the longer phrase to the single word, if only as a further space-saving measure.

By the 1980’s, the verb was beginning to emerge in everyday language, having crept into academese, where one would expect to find it, and legalese. Then the computer jocks picked it up. The word has always had the secondary sense of “correspond to an independent standard” found both in militarese and education. The word also has the more specific meaning in academic writing of “provide a citation for,” which is subtly different from “cite.” Specialized meanings aside, there doesn’t seem to be much to the rise of this verb other than ease and convenience, a shedding of the hoity-toity tone and tiresome preposition that go with “allude” or “refer” and replacing an indirect object with a direct object. Or maybe it’s a matter of the ignorant and illiterate parroting slovenly usages which settle on our language like a foul miasma.

Most on-line discussion of “reference” tends decisively toward the latter. The usage is widely deplored; google “reference as a verb” (exact phrase) and you will find any number of snide, stern, or despairing commentaries. I sympathize, mind you. I don’t recall ever using “reference” as a verb and have no plans to do so. It still sounds wrong to me. But our crotchets, however defensible, have little effect on the march of language, and no crabby blogger has ever diverted the course of linguistic history, as far as I know.

That’s all true, yet we are entitled to stick to our guns. Not all changes to the language are salutary or even harmless. Is a new word necessary to denote a new object, process, or state, or does it just poach on words that are already doing the job? Is it weaker, flabbier, more vague? Sticking up for pointed and fitting words, however old-fashioned, or resisting additions to the language that serve no semantic purpose or add elegance, will now and then put us on the side of the angels. Grace and precision never go out of style, and God help us when they do.

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