References tell me that the term 'verb' originally means 'word'. This is easily understood by usages such as 'verbal abuse', 'verbal agreement', 'he's very verbal', etc.

That said, of all the various parts of speech, the term 'verb' is reserved only for a single part of speech. Technically, other parts of speech such as 'noun', 'adjective', 'preposition' are all 'words', are they not? Then, why would you use this term 'verb' (originally meaning 'word') only for this particular part of speech that we now call 'verb'?

I was just wondering if there has been any meaningful discussion about this issue in the linguistics community, and if so, could someone tell me the outcome of any such discussion and/or point me to any relevant literature?

  • It certainly weirded language. – Michael Wolf Dec 14 '15 at 22:06
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    It's worth noting that this type of semantic change, called narrowing or specialization, is quite common, even when the word isn't borrowed. There are countless examples in English: meat originally referred to any food, girl to any young person, deer to any animal, hound to any dog. – musicallinguist Dec 18 '15 at 14:00
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    Roman grammarians understood linguistic concepts a bit differently and there was a lot of variation in terminological use. For example, Donatus had nomina (proper personal nouns), vocabula (inanimate nouns) etc - see Hyman 2005 for more details. Most importantly, any serious discussion of this question would require a good knowledge of Latin. – Alex B. Dec 19 '15 at 0:42

Our English grammatical terminology is taken from Latin, where in turn it is calqued on Greek. Noun = nomen = onoma literally means “name”; the idea is that a noun is the name of a particular person or thing. A verb is not a “name”, but merely a “word” = verbum = rhēma that is predicated to a name/noun. Sometimes the Greeks used rhēma also in a broader sense to mean a predicate adjective.

References here: http://perseus.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/getobject.pl?c.66:2:87.LSJ

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  • What's even more interesting is that Greek rhema and Latin verbum are cognates, if one is to trust de Vaan. – Alex B. Dec 19 '15 at 5:17
  • If the grammar term "verb" is defined as "a word that is predicated to a noun," why do we have a different term "predicate" or "predicator", the latter of which some linguists use as an equivalent to "verb"? If we are to accept the term "predicator" as above, why do we need two different terms denoting the same concept? – JK2 Dec 21 '15 at 4:58
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    @JK2. Linguistic terminology is not something that is fixed for all eternity. At the time of Aristotle it was still in a state of flux. – fdb Dec 21 '15 at 10:55
  • @JK2 Even though the predicate should contain a verb, it does not mean there's no difference between the predicate and the verb, e.g. in "He is funny" the predicate contains the verb (be, present tense) and the adjective funny etc. – Alex B. Dec 21 '15 at 17:23

The simplest answer is that the English verbal doesn't come from the English verb.

They both have a common root in the Latin verbum, word, but came to English via different routes, and took on slightly different meanings in the process. And the Latin verbum means both word and verb, thanks to Greek.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first-known example of verb is from around 1397 in the prologue to the Old Testament in Wycliffe's' Bible:

Sumtyme it mai wel be resoluid into a verbe of the same tens.

Its etymology is fairly straightforward: English verb comes from either Old French verbe or Latin verbum, meaning both word and verb (more on this later!).


The first-known use of verbal is in Caxton's 1483 translation of Chartier's Le Curial:

We be verbal, or ful of wordes, and desyre more the wordes than the thynges.

Verbal means dealing with words, and this example also illustrates how it, according to the OED, especially refers to people who deal in mere words rather than things or realities.

English verbal also comes from Old French or Latin; either verbal or verbālis: consisting of words, pertaining to verbs. This comes from the shared root verbum, word and verb.


Part of the reason why we have verb for action words and verbal for words is because the Latin verbum means word in general, but also the subcategory of words expressing action, as opposed to those expressing names, nomen, name or noun.

This dichotomy is derived from Greek rhēma ("saying, utterance, word, verb") and onoma ("naming"). In the Sophist, Plato defined verbs (rhemata) as applied to actions, whilst names (onomata) are applied to those which perform those actions.

More meanings?

Of course, 500 and 600-year-old words don't survive for so long with a single meaning.

Verb has also referred to "the most-important thing" and to "word", although these are obsolete.

Verbal is more productive. The OED has seven senses as an adjective (with 18 sub-definitions), and five as a noun.

  • As an adjective, it refers to talkative people and people interested in the mere words of a composition; of things composed of words, and of the nature of a word; to detailed reports; to things only affecting words, or only expressed in words, or only consisting in words or speech; and expressed in speech rather than writing, or people using spoken words; and word-for-word; and things derived from a verb.

  • As a noun verbal can refer to nouns derived form a verb; a collection of words, a dictionary; words performing the role of a verb; a damaging verbal statement; and abuse.

So those verbal adjectives are more wordy whilst the nouns are more verby.

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  • Under the "Greek" heading, you seem to say that the naming of "verb" in the present English grammar is originally attributed to some Greek word denoting "the subcategory of words expressing action". But the English verb does not only express an "action" but also a "state" or "occurrence", as in "be", "love", "happen", etc. What's your take on this? – JK2 Dec 21 '15 at 4:52
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    I think you are overplaying the difference between "verb" and "verbal". You can say "a verbal report" (a report in words, rather than in writing), but also "a verbal clause" (a clause containing a verb). It all depends on the context. – fdb Dec 21 '15 at 17:36

In the late 14th century the term "verbe", adopted into English from Old French, was being used to mean "word; part of speech that expresses action or being". The Old French verbe itself came from the latin word verbum meaning "word", which was an incarnation of the Proto-Indo-European root *were- (to speak). So here we can observe the change in meaning over time from PIE, to Latin, to Old French and into modern English.

Now, if we look at the origins of the names for the other parts of speech, we find that Noun comes from the latin Nomen (meaning name as in the name for a thing i.e. tree, river, or Jack), Adjective creeps in from the Old French Adjectif and the before that the Latin adjectivum (to throw or place something near to). The word preposition shares the usual history of Latin (praeponere) to Old French to English and dissected means prae "before" ponere "put", or "to put some before".

What I think we are observing here, is the way in which authors of grammar books chose their naming conventions based on how the words behaved in sentences. Also worth noting is that these authors were almost always translating from Greek / Latin into English and had to create words that did not exist in the English of the times. For instance, "adverb" was coined by Flavius Sosipater Charisius as a translation for the Greek epirrhema "adverb," from epi- "upon, on" + rhema "verb".

Essentially, the words for the parts of speech are "scientific terms" translated from the original Latin or Greek terminology. The choices made are those translators choices and generally reflect their best intentions to transfer the meanings they observed in the corresponding Latin or Greek texts.

references: http://www.etymonline.com/

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  • You said at the outset that the late 14th century term "verbe" was being used -- already at the time -- to mean "word; part of speech that expresses action or being". That means that at least the latter meaning of "part of speech that expresses action or being" sort of survived into the present-day English with only a minor change in form (from "verbe" to "verb"). If so, why do you think the original "verbe" had two separate meanings "word" and "part of speech that expresses action or being" in the first place? – JK2 Dec 21 '15 at 6:07

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