Monday, 2 April 2012


I saw the verb oversuds used recently. Clearly it's derived from the noun suds, which became a verb in its own right first. The OED has an entry for suds (v.) dating it back to 1834:
1834   ‘C. Packard’ Recoll. Housekeeper 12   Ma'am Bridge was sudsing the clothes in a tub before her.
It doesn't list over-suds even in the derivatives of suds, though. The prefix over- is attached to suds to give the verb meaning (I presume) to lather up too vigorously or cover in too many soap suds (perhaps giving a surfeit of bubbles, or causing too much mess, or whatever). So far so boring. But I was quite taken with the fact that suds is plural. This is the case when the verb is transitive, as above, or intransitive:
1972   Fortune Jan. 73/1   Detergent foam first became a matter of national concern in the early 1960's, when Representative Henry S. Reuss of Wisconsin, among others, pointed out that detergents were persisting, and sometimes sudsing, in the environment.
Normally, when you form a verb from a noun by simple conversion (as opposed to using a verbal suffix or some other process), it's the singular form of the word that's used. Take the verb bubble. It may actually pre-date the noun bubble, but even if it does, for the purposes of demonstration that doesn't matter. What's important is that there are two words, one a noun and the other a verb, and the verb is homophonous with the singular form of the noun, despite the fact that bubbles, like suds, tend not to occur singularly (in this meaning). A pan of water that's boiling has many bubbles in it, but you still wouldn't say that the water was *bubblesing. Any morphological process is like this, in fact - it's a mousetrap, even if it's used to catch lots of mice, and tights can be footless, even though they lack both feet. It's even a bubble machine, not a bubbles machine, even though it makes millions of bubbles.

Perhaps it's because it's hard to identify a single sud. We can talk about a sud, but it's not generally used in the singular. It is still a count noun, not a mass noun that happens to look like a plural or a pseudo-plural like linguistics. We use it with plural agreement, for instance (though the OED says 'usually'). But we almost always use it in the plural, and I suppose that's influenced the verb formation process. It's very unusual, though.

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