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14 December 2004 @ 11:25
Go faith  

Mark Liberman, at Language Log, points out yet another case in which attempting to impose semantic definitions on syntactic categories (e.g., "verbs are action words"; "a noun is the name of a person, place, or thing"; and so on) leads one into error. Apparently, there are people out there who insist that faith is a verb; as Liberman observes, "if you think that a verb is an "action word", and your theology tells you that faith is an active process rather than a stable state, then you'll conclude that faith is a verb." You'll be wrong, of course, and not for theological reasons.

At the very end of the post, Liberman writes, "There are not very many monosyllabic English nouns that have successfully resisted being verbed, but faith is one of them." It may be worth noting1 (or it may be worth nothing) that, for a couple of centuries, faith was sorely tested. The OED offers a few examples of faith as a verb ("Obs., f. prec. sb."), meaning "to place or rest one's faith on"; "to provide with a creed or standard of faith"; "to utter upon one's word of honour"; or "to give credit to, believe, trust." The earliest of these is from John ("the Anti-Chaucer") Lydgate's Chronicles of Troy (1430; also known simply as the Troy Book ):

By whose example women may well lere
How they shuld faith or trusten on any man.

The most recent is from act II, scene 1 of King Lear (1605):

Would the reposal of my trust ... in thee
Make thy words faith'd?2

After Shakespeare, apparently, the resistance prevailed. But who knows why? Why should, say, trust happily lead a double life while faith maintains its vows of nominal purity and non-conjugation? Or will the "faith is a verb" crowd put their mouths where their mouths are, start faithing things in earnest, and eventually turn the tide?

As for me, I think I could make faith into a verb, but only if I pronounced it /fejð/ instead of /fejθ/, by analogy with such pairs as shelf/shelve and bath/bathe. And if people are really using theological criteria to identify parts of speech, how come nobody seems to think that faith is a preposition?

1. In fact, by the time I (thought I had) finished this post, Liberman noted it himself.

2. At least, that's the way the OED quotes it. I think they're mistaken. The Project Gutenberg edition of the play has:

If I would stand against thee, would the reposall
Of any trust, vertue, or worth in thee
Make thy words faith'd?

Given the context ("If I would stand against thee..."), I think any trust is a lot more plausible than my trust.

feline soy producttofu_cat on 14. December, 2004 17:31 (UTC)
Hello, just thought I'd announce myself to have added you as a friend before you found out in some strange, possibly disturbing, way. I got here via yendi --> trochee --> q_pheevr, and found your writing interesting, especially the mourning of the death of the subjunctive.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 14. December, 2004 19:25 (UTC)

Hi! Thanks for posting.