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The gift that keeps on "gifting"

A few weeks ago on Reddit, someone posted a clip from the Ellen Degeneres Show. The guest was Candice Payne, the Chicago woman who rented hotel rooms for homeless people during last month’s polar vortex.

The post’s headline was, “Ellen gifts $50k to Candice Payne, Chicago woman who help over 122 homeless people during brutal cold winter last week.”

In the comments below the post, one user asked the question, “When did ‘give,’ the verb, give way to ‘gift,’ the noun, becoming the verb?

“Gift” as a verb has been around for a few hundred years, meaning to hand over something as a present. The Oxford English Dictionary has evidence of it back into the 17th century. Here’s an example from 1639 Scotland: “The recovery of a parcel of ground, which the Queen had gifted to Mary Levinston.”

There is a useful distinction between “give” and “gift,” because you can give things that aren’t gifts. For example, you can give someone a cold. You can give thanks. A police officer can give you a speeding ticket.

Despite that, there are people who really don’t like “gift” as a verb. In this 2014 article from The Atlantic, Megan Garber calls it “the ‘moist’ of the action-word world.” She says, “Not all of us hate it, but those of us who do do so with a fervor that is excessive and irrational and – language being what it is – 100 percent correct.”

Garber goes on to talk about how “gift” as a verb got a new life in the 1920s when, in the United States, we saw the introduction of the “gift tax.” Once we started taxing gifting, people started talking about “gifting.”

In the 1980s and 90s, “gifting” takes off, which we suspect is why it feels like a newer expression to some of us. It also could have something to do with the 1995 Seinfeld episode "The Label Maker" and its hilarious discussion of “re-gifting.”

Can you “gift” something? Do you know a chronic “re-gifter”? Let us know!



Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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