Verb for Shoe

Originally published May 9, 2008

Sometimes it takes a crazy kind of name to snap a name inspector out of a long dry spell. Verb for Shoe is just that kind of name. It belongs to a computerized, interactive shoe created by MIT-spinoff VectraSense Technologies. Apparently this shoe detects different activities of its wearer and inflates and deflates cushions in its insole to provide custom comfort and support. Part of The Name Inspector thinks “Wow!” and the other, larger, more sensible part is reminded of the old Onion headline: “U.S. Dentists Can’t Make Nation’s Teeth Any Damn Whiter“. Just exactly how comfortable can our feet get? $700 comfortable?

As he writes this, The Name Inspector is wearing a $90 pair of Keens, and his feet are just about as happy as they ever have been. But, to be fair, there’s more to the Verb for Shoe experience, apparently. According to talk2myShirt, these shoes are networked. Just why is a little unclear. Something about interacting with people in virtual and real space at the same time. But why through your shoes? So many questions, which at the time of this writing are not answered on the Verb for Shoe website.

But technology aside, the name Verb for Shoe is not only linguistically and conceptually bizarre, but it makes reference to grammatical categories as well. What could be better than that?

Verb for Shoe is a noun (verb) modified by a prepositional phrase (for shoe). But that prepositional phrase ain’t right. Normally a noun like shoe would be preceded by some kind of determiner: a shoethe shoeyour shoe, etc. Determiners can be left out only in certain situations, like when the noun is plural (for shoes) or when it refers, concretely or abstractly, to an undifferentiated mass of stuff (for mudfor fun). The word shoe is neither a plural noun nor a mass noun. So what’s going on? When do you encounter a prepositional phrase like for shoe? Well, when you’re talking about words and their meanings, as in “What’s the word for shoe in French?”. In that sentence, shoe doesn’t refer to a shoe–it refers to the idea of a shoe.

So the name Verb for Shoe is about the idea of a shoe, or more specifically, changing our collective idea of a shoe. Why Verb for Shoe rather than Word for Shoe? Because we think of shoes as objects, but VectraSense wants us to think of this shoe as an occurrence. Verbs name actions and processes–hence, Verb for Shoe. You can imagine someone in a namestorming session saying, “What’s a verb for shoe? Whatever the verb for shoe is, that should be the name”. And then everyone realizes there is no verb for shoe, and they just go with the phrase that describes the mythical word they’re looking for. This is a very “meta” name.

A great thing about Verb for Shoe is that it gives The Name Inspector a reason to talk about notional (or conceptual) versus grammatical categories. The popular understanding of grammatical categories is that they express the notional ones. When you first learned about nouns and verbs, you probably learned that nouns are for people, places, and things and verbs are for actions. While the correlation between the two types of category is strong, linguists are always quick to point out that it’s imperfect, and that grammatical categories are best understood in morphosyntactic terms–that is, in terms of the kinds of suffixes that attach to words and the positions that words occupy in sentences.

How is the correlation between notional and grammatical categories imperfect? Well, while many nouns do refer to people, places, and things, there are also nouns, like funkissgame, and trial, that name action- and event-like phenomena. And while many verbs name actions and processes, there are verbs like resembleremain, and cost that name things less dynamic and/or more abstract.

The situation is actually kind of complicated, because different grammatical categories have different degrees of freedom to name different things. Nouns can name just about anything, because people have conceptual reasons to reify all kinds of phenomena that are not very thing-like. Verbs are more restricted than nouns–they never name people, places, and things, for example.

So how do you define nouns and verbs? You can’t do it right without mentioning things like this: Nouns are preceded by determiners and head noun phrases, which can be subjects of clauses. Verbs are marked for tense and aspect and head verb phrases, which join with noun phrases to make clauses. If this all seems a little circular, it is, in a way. Grammatical description is all about how systems hang together. And if it all seems a little a bit dry, well, it probably is. The strange and lucky subculture of language geeks, of which The Name Inspector is a proud member, is able to delight in this kind of grammatical detail. Others find it hard to stand, even if they’re standing in $700 networked shoes.

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