It’s the holidays, which means I’m starting to get complaints about people who use “gift” instead of “give” as a verb.
Here’s a real message I received from someone who makes her living as a writer: “This year we want to gift our customers with a book.” Not “give our customers a book,” but “gift our customers with a book.” It’s cringeworthy, but it’s also pretty common.
The History of 'Gifting'
People talking about gifting items may sound new and grating, but according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “gift” has been a verb for nearly 400 years. It meant “endow,” as in “He has been gifted (or endowed) with a photographic memory,” but more relevant to our discussion today, it also meant “to give” as in to give a gift. For example, “The History of the Church and State of Scotland,” written in the 1600s, includes the line “The recovery of a parcel of ground which the Queen had gifted to Mary Levinston.”
The OED and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage both make a point to mention that using “gift” as a verb is especially common in Scottish English. The OED calls it “chiefly Scottish” and Merriam-Webster says that much of their own evidence for the usage comes from Scottish sources.
However, it wasn’t limited to just Scotland. Here’s an example from 1801 from the “History of France” (1):
Parents were prohibited from selling, gifting, or pledging their children.
Wow. People really thought about children differently back then. If you’re a long-time listener, you may remember that it was just a few years earlier than this that the prominent grammarian Lindley Murray said we shouldn’t use “who” to refer to children because they aren’t rational beings.
But I digress.
'Gifting' and the Gift Tax
Even though they were talking about pledging and gifting children in the 1800s, “gifting” had fallen out of common use as a verb, at least outside of Scotland, until the tax code changed and people started talking about the gift tax sometime around the late 1930s. Since it was called the gift tax, people started talking about gifting money (instead of giving money).
A commenter named Tim Morris on the Language Log website noted that “‘gifting’ is a well-established term in cultural anthropology, for formal giving that cements reciprocal or patronage relationships,” and searching my university library seemed to confirm the comment. For example, a 1977 book called “World Anthropology: The New Wind” includes the line “Many…recent attempts have appeared that have discussed the topics of gifting and exchange to illustrate further their forms, functions, and cultural meanings under different ceremonial and social situations,” and more recently, the 2013 book “Conflict in the Early Americas” has a section called “The Practice of Gifting” that includes passages such as this one:
“When Europeans and indigenous people met each other in colonial encounter, the practice of gifting established relationships, commenced the project of cultural and commercial exchange, and symbolized the status and power of the ‘giver.’”
'Gifting' and 'Regifting' on Seinfeld
Technically, it’s not wrong to use “gifting” as a verb.
Even so, “gifting” was mostly limited to tax conversations and anthropology until a 1995 episode of the sitcom “Seinfeld” called "The Label Maker," in which Elaine called a minor character a “regifter." Here’s the clip:
Jerry: Hey, how would you like to go to the Super Bowl?
Tim: Are you kidding?
Jerry: Here. Two tickets. Have a good time.
Jerry: Tim, you didn’t have to get me a thank-you gift. I know. It’s a label maker.
Elaine: Oh, is that a label maker.
Jerry: Yes it is, I got it as a gift. It’s a Label Baby Jr.
Elaine: You know those make great gifts, I just got one of those for Tim Whatley for Christmas.
Jerry: Tim Whatley?
Elaine: Yeah. Who sent you that one?
Jerry: One Tim Whatley!
Elaine: No, my Tim Whatley?
Jerry: The same. He sent it as a thank you for my Super Bowl tickets.
Elaine: He recycled this gift. He’s a regifter!
Shocking! After that “Seinfeld” episode, people seemed to start using “gift” as a verb more often, maybe as a back-formation of “regifting.”
Other words have gone from noun to verb like “gift” went to “gifting.” For example “parent” gave us “to parent” and “parenting,” and in a similar example that also annoys some people, “adult” gave us “adulting.”
Given the history of the word “gifting,” it’s not technically wrong to say something such as “I gifted her a label maker this year," but it does still bother a lot of people. I get email about it, so I have to say that "give" is still a much better choice. It’s going to be less distracting. But if people are kind enough to gift you something, it’s truly best to just say “Thank you!”
Mignon Fogarty is the author of The Grammar Devotional, a book people will treasure—not regift.
1. gift. Oxford English Dictionary. Second Edition. Oxford University Press. 1989 http://j.mp/uOGOJW (accessed December 7, 2011) [registration required.]
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