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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

task (v.)

(1980’s | bureaucratese | “order,” “assign,” “give a job to”)

This verb never quite went away, as it turns out. “To task” is very old, and it persisted for centuries, turning up in Shakespeare and in both Johnson’s and Webster’s dictionaries. According to Google N-grams, there were more incidences of the verb (I used the word “tasked” as a search expression) in 1900 than in 1940; it did not appear as often between the 1930’s and the 1970’s as it did before or after. The lapse of a couple of generations was sufficient, however, to prompt several influential journalists to object to the verb’s revival in the eighties. The redoubtable Helen Thomas took Robert McFarlane, Reagan’s National Security Advisor, to task over his use of “the noun ‘task’ as a verb” (November 20, 1985); William Safire and George Will both deplored the same usage just a couple of years later, as the Iran-Contra hearings were giving the verb an airing. Its route into everyday language runs through government officials, especially those associated with the military or espionage. It has spread to all fields now, used easily in sports and entertainment writing and everywhere else. One wonders if “multitask” would have taken off as it did if the root verb hadn’t trickled into the mainstream in the eighties.

The meaning of the verb was not much different in 2000 than it was in 1900. In the olden days, there was a greater tendency to use “tasked” to mean “burdened”; use of the verb strongly implied that the duties prescribed were unwelcome or excessive. That may be true today, but the link is not as strong as it was back then. It’s basically the same word as “tax” — also both noun and verb — but it has long had the meaning of “prescribed work” as opposed to “prescribed levy.” You might see “overtask” used as a substitute for “overtax,” for example. It may be a metathesis analogous to the Middle English “aks” turning into the modern “ask.”

By 1990, certainly, there were several possible ways to use “task” as a verb. First, it can be transitive or intransitive, although it is usually transitive, which we can discern from the fact that it is often used in passive voice. If it was not followed by a direct object — the unfortunate person who had a job dropped on her plate — it was followed by a preposition, usually “with” or “by” (there’s that passive voice). Or it may be followed by an infinitive, as in a phrase like “tasked to make the donuts.” What would be the alternative? “Tasked with making the donuts.” Semantically, there’s not much difference, and I don’t believe we should attach too much importance to the grammatical distinction. My ear and LexisNexis agree that by now “task with” has won out over the other variants as the predominant verb phrase.

There is a small but plucky group of expressions whose members have been around for at least a century or two but have either never been used commonly or have undergone some kind of eclipse before flowering in our era. I call the roll for the benefit of future generations: “overthink” had disappeared long since, but now it’s ordinary. “Hurtful” spent five hundred years as a word that sounded wrong but has spent the last thirty proliferating. “Ramp up” has meant several different things, but it has never in its long life (it goes back to Middle English) gotten the workout it has gotten since 1990. “Template” is a technical term dating back to the eighteenth century whose use has spread and soared. “Life lesson” and “bloviate” date from the nineteenth century. The former was used infrequently by philosophers, poets, divines, and no one else until 1990 or so. “Bloviate” is similar to “task” (v.) because it fell into disuse during the mid-twentieth century. “On task” must bring up the rear; it has little linguistically to do with this week’s expression, despite sharing a headword.

Martha and Adam from Queens suggested “task force,” which turned out to date from the thirties and forties but did remind me that “task” as a verb (using it in the infinitive — “to task” — never sounds right somehow) had been on my list for a while. Another victory for the Queens contingent!


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