Verbing the Plains

Nov 10, 2018

Some friends of mine, who share a common cognizance of native affairs on the northern plains, got to talking about a particular usage of language, a case of verbing, that is, of converting a noun into a verb, for effect. In this case the proper noun, Columbus, deployed as a verb, to Columbus.

As in, I found this, and it didn’t belong to me, but I just took it anyway and claimed it as my own. As in, I didn’t write this essay, I found it on the internet and Columbused it.

Ordinarily, as a writer, I disapprove of perversions of the language, but I like this kind of verbing, particularly when it makes a post-colonial statement on the part of plains folk - when it takes up language as defense of our life on the prairies.

In that spirit I would like to offer some manifestations of verbing for the northern plains. In each case I’ll give the term, then a definition, and then an example of usage. I made these up. None of them are Columbused.

Beginning with the obvious, to Custer: to gallop heedlessly into a situation, despite good counsel to the contrary, and suffer the consequences. As in, I told him it was a bad idea to plant so many beans this year, but he did anyway; he Custered on, and so now he’s taking Chapter 11.

Here’s one dear to my loyal heart, to Carson: meaning to carry on heroically, despite pain and suffering, persist, and eventually prevail over all odds. As in, I never saw such a blizzard, but I promised I would get to my daughter’s volleyball match, and so I had to Carson through the storm, and we won! Of course, if I had gone into the ditch, then I would have been Custering and come to grief on account of it. See how this works?

Likewise, to Cara: to carry yourself with grace and endure countless provocations, until finally you have had enough, and you call out your persecutors publicly. As in, I’ve been mayor here for twenty years, and all people ever do is complain about the potholes every spring. It’s North Dakota, we have potholes! You people know where they are, just drive around them until it gets warm enough to patch them! Leave me alone or I’ll Cara you!

Another one, to Chaska: to do one’s duty faithfully, but have your actions misunderstood, so that your neighbors turn against you and bring you down.

All right, that one is a little obscure. Chaska was a native scout with the Sibley Expedition of 1863, whom soldiers came to believe had something to do with the killing of their beef contractor, George Brackett, and so they poisoned poor Chaska - only to discover a few days later that Brackett was alive and kicking! Adding insult to injury after a century and a half, the state monument for Chaska, just north of Driscoll, is in a sorry state of disrepair. So, to Chaska, as in, I tried my best, but the rumor mill got started, and my so-called friends deserted me. I got Chaska-ed. It happens in prairie towns, you know.

Now I didn’t mean for all these verbals to begin with C, so breaking that pattern, here’s another one you need a little knowledge of political history to get, to Link: to assess the situation we are in, to recognize that we are being overtaken by great forces we cannot stop, nevertheless to draw a line at some point, take a stand for the sake of posterity. As in, well, as in what Art Link did in 1973 with “When the Landscape Is Quiet Again.” We need more Linking around here today.

~Tom Isern