Kids are crucibles of language, their molten words seeking the right form and tone, the assurance of adult speech. Raw and experimental, this is English in action. Consider the childhood chestnut of sheeps, as errant as it is logical. Or sleeped. The participle makes sense, even though the guess is askew.
In primary school, my kids filled the air with verbal fumblings. Like the day my daughter reported having a headache in her finger, or the ditty my son recited after being teased at prep: “Six-year-olds may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Rafael Nadal during a practice session at the Australian Open on Monday.Credit:Getty Images
Both glitches possess a smart hunch. Ditto for when Finn (aged eight) told me Jupiter was versing Venus in the four-square final. The planets, I should explain, belonged to the school’s house system. While four-square is the Victorian version of king-ping, being the name for handball in my own Sydney playground.
The game’s name, however, played second fiddle to the verb I’d overheard. Rather than correct my son on his so-called versing, which would only cool his crucible, I asked who would win between Jupiter versus Venus. My ploy was in vain. Then, and ever since, as verse has been remoulded in the mouths of a million children.
Initially I’d fought the scourge, hating the idea of my son being ridiculed for his pet solecism in later life. Family words are fine – like cajunker for a remote – but muddling a preposition for a verb felt hazardous. Until I saw this tweenage misdemeanour as another case of nimble language. More than that, the tic evolving from trend to new truth, this was how language happens.
Before you grumble, consider how English has come to be. There is no fixed absolute as to how we speak and write. Forsooth, if this be verray, I’d be spouting Chaucerian enow. Rather we knead grammar to fit our purposes, to mirror the way we see the world, and how we perceive language.
Versing adds up at several levels. Abraham Piper, a TikTok influencer, recently distilled the trend’s two driving forces with panache. The first is folk etymology, a euphemism for any flawed origin story.
Caterpillar, say, is a classic mishmash. The bug began as a hairy cat (or chatepelose in Old French), only for the pelose-tail to become pillager, after the larva’s habits. A century on, pillager turned into pillar, one more logical gaffe, this time saluting its cylindrical form.
That’s just one bug, and English is aswarm with them. Phony the word arose from fainne, an Irish ring, after the brass prop popular in a scam routine. L’oeuf – the egg we poached from French tennis – became its English echo of love. Eggcorns, or rational malapropisms, such as cold slaw and winfall, belong in the same box.
As an offshoot, versing heeds similar lineage. Kids hear versus as verses, where Venus verses Jupiter, so magicking a verb into being. We versed them. They’re versing us. Better than forgivable, the transition is traditional. Not to say useful, eclipsing many clunkier alternatives.
The second force at play is backformation. Avidity and unity pre-existed avid and unit. Both abstract nouns were pared into handy kernels over time. Donation spawned donate. Shall we ditch these, and the plenitude (which whelped plenty) of other examples, along with those phony caterpillars?
Best not, I’d say. Why should one real-time transition trouble you more than the thousands we already traffic with impunity? Or take your crusade to the courts, if you must. I’ll grab a ringside bench to see [your name here] versing the English language.
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