The many uses of the word ‘surface’

Image via Pixabay.

Let’s dive below the “surface” and look at some changing usage.

Most of the time, “surface” is a noun, meaning a coating or outer boundary. A road has a bitumen or tar “surface”; the air meets the water at the ocean’s “surface.” As is true of most nouns, “surface” can also be an adjective. The road has “surface requirements”; a submarine has a “surface cruising speed.”

Less often, though still pretty commonly, “surface” is a verb, meaning to cover something or break through that boundary. Highway workers “surface” a road; a submarine “surfaces” from the deep.

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So why does it sound so odd when someone says “you can also surface reports”?

That’s a different usage from saying the “reports surfaced,” which means the reports themselves showed up. In “you can also surface reports,” you bring the reports to the “surface,” or into view.

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“Surface” is both an intransitive verb and a transitive verb. In an intransitive verb, the object performs the action: “I surfaced and gulped air.” In a transitive verb, someone else performs the action upon the object: “I surfaced the sunken sub.”

“Surface” the noun first appeared in English in the late 16th century, the Oxford English Dictionary says. The first transitive usage of “surface” waited until 1775 to show up, to mean “To give a (particular kind of) surface to; to cover the surface of (with something); to smooth or polish the surface of.” It took another hundred years for the intransitive “surface” to arise, meaning “To come to the surface,esp. to rise to the surface of water. Also in figurative contexts. Apparently rare before mid 20th cent.” About the same time, the transitive “to bring or raise to the surface” emerged.

But in recent years, uses of the transitive “surface” have cropped up to mean “reveal” or “disclose.” A person or thing is doing the “surfacing” in a figurative sense, not a literal one. President Trump “accelerated his criticism of Silicon Valley and how it surfaces information,” The New York Times wrote, for example. An artificial intelligence platform called Jane “surfaces information through a real-time, conversational interface,” a public relations report said. In business and academic jargon, studies or reports “surface facts.”

It’s not wrong, though it might be what the OED calls “chiefly N. Amer.” It defines that transitive use of “to surface” this way: “To bring to public notice; to draw attention to. In early use also: spec. to expose or reveal the identity of (a spy, defector, etc.).” It traces the first appearance to The Times in 1955, though the earliest appearances are in quotation marks, highlighting the unusual usage.

It’s still unusual. Audiences’ brains assume the most common context for a word, and have to stop to process an unusual context. Since the most common use of “surface” is as a noun, anytime it’s used as a verb, transitive or intransitive, it takes a nanosecond for the audience to “get” it. A less-familiar usage of “surface,” like “surface information,” takes a few extra nanoseconds to process.

If you haven’t learned by now, we believe in “surfacing” new uses, but also in cautioning that audiences risk missing the message if they’re drowning in those new uses.

RELATED: Advice for journalists: Cut back on big words

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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.