verse = compete vs. (1984)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Sat Oct 1 05:47:49 UTC 2005

On Fri, 30 Sep 2005 13:18:58 -0400, Benjamin Zimmer wrote:

>We've discussed the backformation "verse" from "versus" before, but I had
>only turned up examples (from Usenet) back to the mid-'90s:
>Here it is from 1984:
>New York Times, Feb. 20, 1984, B3/4
>"Latest Word: New Yorkese Of '84 Is Here"
>To verse: High school slang meaning to compete against another school's
>team, as in "We're going to be versing the Brown Bombers next week."
>>From the preposition "versus."

In William J. Rapaport's post to the Linguist List cross-posted here in
December, he wrote: "It seems to come from a misunderstanding, based on
pronunciation, of 'versus' as 'verses' (i.e., of a Latin term misheard as
an English 3rd-person verb):  The headline 'Michael vs. Tyler' is heard as
the active sentence 'Michael verses Tyler'."

But in a recent alt.usage.english discussion, Andrew Usher noted that the
preposition "versus" is often pronounced colloquially as "verse". This
strikes me as a more likely source for the back-formation "verse" (v). If
enough people are saying things like, "I watched the Yankees verse the Red
Sox last night," then it would be quite easy to reinterpret the
preposition as a verb.

--Ben Zimmer

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