I am like any other person. I wake up in the morning; I go to sleep at night, and I have very strong opinions about the sociolinguistic implications of the "to be" verb.
I have many many thoughts about this topic, many of which I understand won't be accessible to a common audience. So to start with something simple, I'd like to direct my readers' attention to one way that internet users (and an increasing of individuals IRL) are phasing out one use of the "to be" verb.
The word "adulting."
Before I launch into that, I want to note that I in no way believe that the "to be" verb can be eliminated from the English language entirely. That's an absurd assumption, and I'm not even peaved if "to be" is used as an auxiliary verb (I am swimming; I will be swimming).
What I wish to do is outline a few circumstances where I believe the verb fails due to cultural shifts in the concept of identity. And while it may sound like Judith Butler is piloting me Ratatouille style, I raise the question that she ever heard use of the verb, adulting!
(What's that? She's not dead? She's 61 and lives in California? Maybe I should send her an email...)
I raise the question if she has ever published anything about the verb adulting!
So, this verb adulting. I'm sure you've seen it on social media before, usually in a context like the following: "I just did my taxes today! #Adulting!" "Just cooked a multi-course meal and washed all the dishes! #adulting" "I've been adulting this week. I made an appt for a flu shot, showed up for the appt on time, and didn't cry when I got it. Somebody give me a cookie."
Here's a slideshow of adulting memes I stole from the internet:
The verb isn't new by any means. Katy Steinmetz in her Times article about contemporary use of the word, cites some linguists who tracked down a tweet from 2008 with the word. Books have been published with the word adulting in the title, a YouTube miniseries, #Adulting, was produced in 2016, and many news outlets have gotten around to talking about the language in the last couple of years. So I think my anger at my autocorrect changing the word to "adulating" is somewhat justified.
When I first started hearing the word, I was initially annoyed. Jessica Grose in her Washington Post article, "The word 'adulting is gross. It's also sexist" argues that the word adulting is "wielded most frequently by young women," and that women use the word in a self-oppressive manner, sharing small accomplishments because they "are just afraid to be public about their actual achievements because if their public persona is self-assured, they are also perceived to be less likeable" (emphasis in original). Steinmetz takes a slightly less gendered approach, agreeing that the word is often used in a bragging manner. She also cites insecurity and ironic humor as other driving factors for using the word.
I think this 'bragging about small accomplishments' notion is what caused my initial aversion. I would find myself internally responding with things "oh goodie, I've been filing my taxes since I was 16." I've seen fairly even use on my social media from across the gender spectrum, so I'd like to think that misogyny doesn't have anything to do with it.
Merriam-Webster Online takes a stab at defining the verb form of adult as "to behave like an adult, specifically to do the things - often mundane - that an adult is expected to do." English Oxford Living Dictionaries Online defines adulting as "the practice of behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, especially the accomplishment of mundane but necessary tasks." An interesting difference there is the addition of the word "responsible," which I will come back to soon.
So the word adult can be used as a noun, "an adult, some adults, so many adults." It can also be used as an adjective, "discounted adult rates, adult films, adult behavior." I would assume that the word came about as a noun first, but since I have graduated I lost access to the complete Oxford English Dictionary, so I would appreciate if somebody did the sourcing on that for me.
The verb "to adult" or in gerund form "adulting" is a very clear cut verb form of the noun "adult." It's just like how the word "Google" used to be noun and can now be used as a verb ("let me quick google that").
The theory I posit is that the verb "to adult" came about in response to the weakness of the verb "to be" in the phrasing of "to be an adult."
(side note: I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin and spent three years living in Winona, Minnesota. These are the regional language spheres in which I have lived, and the social use of language I have experienced.)
It sounds quite the cliché philosophical question to ask "what does it mean 'to be' an adult," and I think that the difficulty in answering that question functions as evidence of the weakness of "to be."
Typically to my understanding, the verb "to be" is used in the English language as shorthand, describing all facets of a commonly understood and universally established identity. I find that traditional job roles provide great examples; "I am a Plumber," means "I plumb," or more specifically, "I plumb as my occupation." A Teacher teaches, a Tax Advisor advises you on your taxes, an Assistant assists. Many noun-form jobs derive their title from the verb of their duty: to teach → Teacher. Or are more direct: to judge → Judge, to critique → Critic.
Now this isn't the case for all positions. A Secretary doesn't secretate and any 'study of' title like Scientist, Biologist, or Economist, work in other ways. And things start to get murky when you throw in roles with fewer set boundaries. What would you say "I am an artist" means? To some it means "I make art as my occupation," to others it means "I make art," and I'm sure there are many out there that say that we are all artists, regardless of action or behavior. An artist is much harder to define than a plumber. Which leads me back to role of "an adult." What does it mean "to be an adult"?
The three easy ways to define what "an adult" (as outlined by Wikipedia, and I agree so I'm stealing their divisions) is by legal definition, biological definition, or social definition.
In the US, we legally define an adult as "one who has reached the age of majority," typically 18 years of age.
In biology, we define an adult as "a living thing that has reached the age of physical and sexual maturity," which will change depending on a lieu of demographic information.
Socially, it isn't quite clear, but I believe it's a mixture of the legal and biological definitions with an added "takes on the responsibilities traditionally ascribed to independent individuals."
And I think the disjunction between these three definitions has led to the use of the word adult as a verb.
To illustrate the problem further, a thought experiment:
If you shared this experience, I believe it's because of the way we use the verb "to be." On your birthday you're celebrating your legal status of "being" an adult. Nothing else has changed. At 18 you've most likely hit biological adulthood already so that excitement is over. Time is a gradient and age works on a linear spectrum, so all that's left is the social concept of an adult.
And this is where we get adulting.
Adulting, as I understand it, is a way of reconciling this mystic, ethereal, intangible, and unestablished concept of "being an adult." Adulting pushes away the legal-bio-social trifecta and privileges the social definition as being something of a "true adult."
Being a legal adult carries little meaning. There is no true change to your actions or your identity. Celebration of legal adulthood and the tradition of birthday celebration as a whole have led to this time-based definition to become a regrettably common definition of adult.
Being a social adult (adulting) carries more meaning. Being a social adult is doing your taxes, cooking for yourself, making appointments. (I repeat these three because of how I've seen the word adulting used on Facebook. I am in no way implying that this is the triforce of social adulthood. You are allowed to have your own definition and philosophy of what constitutes social adulthood). This is what I believe the English Oxford Living Dictionaries Online was getting at with their use of the word "responsible."
Language surrounding biological adulthood carries with it a stadium sized can of gender-theory worms.
To risk compromising my argument by simplifying it too much, I conclude with the following:
The verb "to adult" commonly used in the gerund form "adulting" came about out of necessity as a solution to the problem of the weakness of the verb "to be" in the phrase "to be an adult," and the incongruent and parallel definitions of what it means "to be an adult" used in tandem and without clear differentiation in the English Language.