From the attention it attracts, you'd think silent body language — the way we communicate our feelings through posture, gesture and expression — was a recent discovery. But it must be the oldest form of communication around. I suspect that nine out of ten cavemen were fluent in silent body language.
Anyway, what I want to write about here is the other kind of body language, in which the nouns for parts of our body function as verbs or adjectives. Most of our external anatomy falls into this category, and even some of our internal organs.
What I like best about this kind of body language is that it's so vivid. A single word introduces a host of impressions and images. When did these nouns of anatomy first handle multiple roles? It's difficult to give precise dates, but it's probable that some of the words were already multi-tasking by the time of Shakespeare.
Body language offers colourful alternatives to bland verbs. The sentence "He's got lots of responsibility" gains power when we turn it into "He shoulders lots of responsibility." The mental image I see is of a man with huge loads packed on his shoulders, a heavy weight that can potentially crush a person, as responsibility sometimes will.
Let's describe an act of thievery: "I watched him stealing the diamond necklace" is straightforward and uninspired, something you'd expect to read in a police report. "I watched him fingering the diamond necklace" conjures up the picture of a thief deftly slipping the loot into his pocket.
The verb to nose describes an action performed by the nose. It can mean to put our nose close to something in order to examine or smell it. If we accompany the verb with the adverb out, we can use it figuratively to mean that we have tracked down or discovered something, as in "I nosed out what they were doing."
For lack of space I'll mention only one more example from among many. Cheek can serve as a verb, although the adjective cheeky is more common. In colloquial speech cheeky describes insolent or naughty behaviour, often accompanied by the gesture of throwing back the head and proffering the cheek. To give cheek can also be used to refer to disrespectful conduct, as in the sentence "Don't give me any cheek," in other words, "Don't be impudent."
A party game from the days when entertainment was witty and imaginative required people to compose a single sentence using as many "anatomical" verbs as possible. The sentence could be silly, but not totally nonsensical, as in my example: No longer SHOULDERING my load, I TIP-TOED up the stairs and ELBOWED my way through the crowd as I HEADED for the table, where, EYEING the display, I FINGERED a silver spoon and NOSED out the lost spider, which I HANDED to a couple of teenagers NECKING in the corner, who tossed it to the KNEEING man FOOTING the bill, whereupon he ARMED himself, and although he looked strong enough to BREAST any danger, he HEELED away, and I LEGGED it as well, MOUTHING my good-byes, all the while fearing that I'd be BRAINED and not able to STOMACH the thought of FACING the consequences.
Can you beat my nineteen verbs? Knuckle down and give it a try!
This page last updated: March 31, 2012.