A host of hosts

Photo: Wikicommons

If you are like many people, you “gifted” a lot of things in the last couple of weeks, and may even have “regifted” a few. You may have “hosted” a party, or “guested” one.

And if you are like some people, you are grinding your teeth at a few of the verbs used above.

They’re all legitimate, depending on context, and some of them are really, really old.

Let’s start with the “gifting” words.

Most dictionaries say that “gift” is perfectly fine as a verb, with Merriam-Webster giving the example “gifted her with flowers.” Even Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the one used by many journalists, says it’s fine to “gift”: “to present a gift to.” It has said so since the second edition, in 1980.

Just because the dictionary lets it in, though, doesn’t mean it’s acceptable everywhere. While the Associated Press accepts it, The New York Times style blog often greets its usage with something like “ugh.”

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Garner’s Modern American Usage is also dismissive of the verb “gift,” even as it notes that the usage has been around since the 16th century. Garner’s makes the distinction, though, between the traditional sense that someone is “gifted” with talent or land and the newer one.

The difference, Garner’s says, is that “we already have a perfectly good verb (give),” so don’t need “gift.” Garner’s places the verb “gift” at Stage 2 on the five-stage Language-Change Index, the equivalent of “gifting” a bottle of cheap wine to an oenophile.

It’s curious, then, that Garner’s does not hold the same contempt for the verb “regift.” Without much discussion, “regift” is listed as Stage 4, all but standard English. Major dictionaries agree.

Though “gift” has taken more than 400 years to reach grudging acceptance, “regift” took the fast track to standardization. Most sources attribute the first use to an episode of Seinfeld in 1995:

 

George: Well, didn’t he regift the label maker?

Jerry: Possibly.

George: Well, if he can regift, why can’t you degift?

 

The Oxford English Dictionary, though, traces “regift” to 1837, to mean “To gift (a person) with something again; to re-endow” or “to give us a gift again,” and sniffs that the meaning of giving an unwanted gift to someone else “is chiefly North American.”

Let’s move on to the parties.

Until 2008, The New York Times did not allow “host” as a verb, following newspaper convention going back decades. (The OED says it has been used as a verb since the 15th century.) Someone “played host” to a party, but did not “host” one. WNW added the verb “host” the same time it acceded to “gift,” but The Times held out, though other style manuals had given in much earlier. In 2013, an answer to an Associated Press’ “Ask the Editor” question about “play host” advised, “Save a word, avoid a cliche: host or hosted usually suffices.”

The prohibition against the verb “host” has fallen to the extent that hardly anyone mentions it anymore, even The Times, especially given the modern use of “hosting” websites. But in its place is an admonition about the people attending the party: They do not “guest” the party, both the AP and The Times say, except in direct quotations.

Interestingly, the OED says an obsolete meaning of the verb “host” was “To be a guest”; one could both “host” a party by giving it and “host” it by attending it, possibly the source of much confusion. But “guest” as a verb traces to 1330, the OED says: “To make a guest of; to receive as a guest; to entertain, lodge; to put up (a horse).” That’s not quite the way we use it today, “To appear as a guest or as a guest artist,” which the OED says originated on our shores.

WNW also says “guest,” meaning “to be, or perform as, a guest,” is an Americanism. It’s traceable, in fact, to none other than H.L. Mencken, in the 1936 fourth edition of The American Language: “To guest, to appear as a guest.”

If it’s good enough for Mencken, who are we to argue? Even so, it will grate on many ears, so be careful who you invite to the party.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.