A recent tweet by the Guardian Style Guide set me thinking about the use of ‘gift’ as a verb, and the unique nook it occupies in the language of football.

Screen Shot 2015-10-06 at 20.13.56The gift that keeps on gifting

‘He’s gifted him the ball’, ‘to gift possession’, ‘we’re gifting them the points’. In football ‘to gift’ means to surrender something, to give it up without a fight. Possession of the ball has not just been lost, it’s been made too easy for the other team to take.

Of course, instead of gift you could just say something along the lines of ‘handed over without a fight’, but this is a pretty cumbersome solution. ‘To gift’ sums up an idea which would otherwise require much further explanation. In football commentary, where brevity is key, it’s easy to see why it works.

What is interesting is that this meaning only exists (as far as I’m aware) in football. It doesn’t even pop up in other sports (shout me down if I’m wrong here). While there are a fair few words you only seem to hear in the world of football – ‘adjudged’, ‘footrace’ the sadly disappearing ‘stanchion’ (if you have any more, leave us a comment below) – an existing word with a meaning unique to the game is something much rarer.

Outside football

More generally, despite looking like a recent neologism ‘to gift’ goes back a lot further than jolly old football.

Its original use was simply ‘to give as a gift’, and dates back to the 16th century. It fell out of use long ago, but sprang back into consciousness (well, my consciousness anyway) in the 90s thanks to Seinfeld and Jerry’s woes over ‘regifting’.

‘To gift’ meaning ‘to give as a gift’ is quite common today, particularly in American English. And while it may be jarring to some, ‘to gift’ does convey a subtle shade of meaning that, say, ‘to give’ might not get across. It is entirely possible to give something without it being a gift, so the use of ‘to gift’ leaves the meaning unambiguous.

(Many other languages have got around this problem by having an entirely separate verb for ‘to give’ and ‘to give as a gift’, for example offrir in French and regalar in Spanish.)

Irk the purists

The merits of either use of ‘to give’ could be (and often are) called into question by language purists. These kind of backformed verbs will always attract criticism, and it’s a matter of personal taste that ‘to gift’ seems acceptable to this writer, but ‘to medal’ (urgh) does not. As ever in language, though, we can debate the hind legs off this one, but common usage will win out in the end.

Or, as the ever excellent Stan Carey puts it rather more succinctly, words change, and that’s OK.