Boris Johnson, Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper suggests, is understood to have a personal interest in rewilding, ‘recently gifting his father beavers to release on his own Exmoor estate’. I started at the word gifting like a horse shying at a plastic bag caught in the hedge. Why didn’t I like it?
My first thought was that there was a perfectly good word, giving. My second was that gifting is an obtrusive case of verbing a noun. Thirdly, it belongs to a kind of speech adopted by copywriters for luxury cruises and retirement homes.
In 1996, Robert Burchfield in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage said that gift as a verb was ‘best avoided’, as it had fallen out of favor with speakers of standard English.
In 2015 Jeremy Butterfield’s revision of Fowler noted that gift as a verb is relatively more frequent in British English than in American. So I was wrong there. It has, however, been more frequent in Scottish English.
Both of these philologists observe that gift is a verb that has been in use for some time, at least from the 16th century. One could gift something to someone or gift someone with something.
In past centuries the gifts with which people were endowed often turned out to be miraculous, perhaps God-given (such as the gift of tongues) or a gift of nature, such as the gift of the gab. Anyone with these endowments could be called gifted, and we do not shy at it used as in ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’, recorded by Nina Simone in 1969, and then Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway and Meshell Ndegeocello: ‘When you’re young, gifted and black/ Your soul’s intact.’
One use of gift as a verb seems to Butterfield hard to replace: the sporting term, as in ‘Gary Neville gifted Arsenal their equalizer.’ This sits in the territory of the 19th-century slang sense of gift as ‘an easy task’. Just carry the till out of the pub, it’s an absolute gift.
Could one say that Neville gave away an equalizer to Arsenal? But why trouble yourself in this case once misgivings about commercialism and neologism have been laid to rest?
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s August 2021 World edition.