Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Verses vs. versus

Posted by Neal on June 7, 2005

A year ago, I did a guest post on Agoraphilia about Doug’s use of the word verse to mean, “fight against, especially in a contest or tournament setting.” I predicted we’d see more of it as members of his generation grew up. A year later, Doug is still using verse in this way:

I don’t like soccer practice, because we always have to verse the yellow team, and I don’t like versing them.

As Adam has learned to play some of Doug’s videogames, he’s picked up this verb, too. He’ll watch Doug playing a videogame and ask, “Who are you versing?” And just this afternoon, I heard it from two other kids. Doug and Adam and I were at Chuck E. Cheese this afternoon with a friend of Doug’s. This friend had run out of game tokens, so he was pleased when another kid there invited him to play on a two-person game with him, and even spotted him a token to do it. Doug’s friend said:

He’s giving me a token so I can verse him!

I scarcely had time to register that attestation of the innovative verse when I heard it again. This time it came from a friend of Adam’s that we’d met there, who was about to do a different two-player game with his brother. He said,

Mom, I want to verse him!

Their mother confirmed that her boys used verse as a verb all the time at home when they played on their Playstation.

And now, this very evening, what should I find but an account of kids in British Columbia with the verse innovation, in this post from Derryl Murphy (thanks to languagehat). He reports:

Also, when teams face each other in a sporting event, or when there is any other sort of contest, it’s now Us verse Them. I versed him shooting hoops today. We’ll verse the Lions in soccer tomorrow.

Not to mention the colleague of Glen’s in California who said she heard it quite a bit from her son and his friends. Yes, the new verse is definitely getting around. In fact…

Sometimes, when I’ve been playing on the kids’ SpongeBob Typing Skills program, and they’ve asked me how far I’ve gotten, I’ll tell them,

I’m … going against … Mr . Krabs now.

The pause is me thinking, “What’s the word? Versing? No! I know I had a word for this before verse was invented. Oh, yeah, going against (I think). Hmmm… versing… so short, so convenient… No! Must resist!”

43 Responses to “Verses vs. versus

  1. Anonymous said

    Here on Long Island, I’ve heard “verse” used as you’ve described by my stepson and his friends, starting around age 5. They seem to have outgrown that usage now at age 11.

  2. language said

    “Verse” isn’t as new as you imply. From a comment to my entry:

    The usage of “verse” as a back-formation from “versus” has become widespread even among adults. The Usenet archive suggests that the verb found popularity amongst gamers and then spread to wider usage in the mid-’90s:

    Date: 1995/02/13
    Its a fairly pointless exercise, Versing characters from different arcades against each other anyway…

    Date: 1995/09/23
    When versing the black car, remember that the first is a warmup lap…

    Date: 1996/01/22
    So if I’m right, the next one should be on 1/28 at 3pm est on ESPN2. Unfortunately, it’s versing the Superbowl!

    Date: 1996/06/10
    I have noticed one thing, there seems to be a lot of “B”s versing “S”s.

    Date: 1996/09/27
    I saw a game with them, but I don’t know who they were versing …
    Posted by: Ben Zimmer at June 5, 2005 11:58 PM

  3. blahedo said

    Well, there’s always simply “I’m against Mr Krab now”, or “I’m fighting Mr Krab now”, or even just “I’m at Mr Krab”. Outside the realm of fight games, you’ve got playing, as in “the Rabbits are playing the Cougars, and you might guess how that will turn out.”

    So it’s not like there was a total void being filled by “verse”.

  4. Luke T said

    I have to admit that the “vs.”=”verse” {verb} innovation has always been a pet peeve of mine–I’m 24, from the greater Bridgeport area in southern Connecticut, and I grew up hearing this, both during video games and during various other games (“OK lets play pingpong, you and bob wanna verse me and tom?”). {note to self–was that punctuation correct?) It seems to me a pretty intuitive jump–the latin term “versus” seen in the context of “this one against that one” would lead anyone young enough to be grammatically/linguistically flexible to adapt this specialized usage to a more general one. Granted there are preexisting alternatives, but when you always see and hear it used in the context of sporting events, it’s easy to misconstrue its usage.
    But even though I can understand how the change came about, I still don’t like it!

  5. vivav said

    I think that versing is right because people always say thngs like”who are you versing in sport today”. And nearly everyone in my class says so too. I think that only older people use versus and younger people use versing.But older people sometimes use it too. So nearly everybody uses it.I think it’s an everyday word. My parents and I have used it since we were able to talk. I don’t think it matters if it’s not a verb but we can still use it because it’s not against the law.

    • waynevan said

      Wrong. Tonights game is Cronulla versus Manly but you don’t say “Cronulla is versing Manly” you say “Cronulla is playing (or playing against) Manly”

  6. […] Words Don’t Sound the SameScooby-Doo CounterfactualLike a RacehorseWhomever Is Never Actually RightVerses vs. versusBooger-Eating and Eating BoogersTweetle Poodles and Beetle NoodlesHarry Potter and the Grammar […]

  7. TootsNYC said

    Sorry to bring this up again, but I was looking to see if anyone else had ever noticed this verb, and found this.

    My kids have been using the verb “verse”–“He was versing me in basketball”–for YEARS, since G1 (the oldest, a DD) was in kindergarten. She’s in 8th now.

    It’s a very valuable verb–they and their friends have used it quite happily for years.

    I’m ready to start lobbying for inclusion in dictionaries–it’s just so useful!

  8. Holt said

    Dear Mr. Neal,
    Yep, Holt again. I actually use verse all the time (I think it’s a kids thing (I mean, what do you expect? I’m nine-years-old! Doug’s age now!)). I might have got it from Doug, but I was saying it WAY before I met him.

  9. I found your site while searching to prove to my wife there is no grammatically-correct usage of “versing” as a verb meaning to challenge or play against. I am horrified at this low-grade proliferation and hope it ceases.

  10. Gus said

    I’m a seventh grade English teacher on Long Island. I get the douche chills every time I hear a child use “verse” as a verb. They actually argue with me when I try to teach them how to use the prepostion “versus” correctly. “That sounds weird,” is the most common reply, followed by “But they say it on TV all the time.” Really? When? Where? Who? This has to end. We need to band together to end the stupity.

  11. Prem said

    Honestly, this shocked and worried me. I’m a big video game player, and also a resident editor for an English translation group. Now, my English may not be perfect, but to hear both my little Canadian cousins, aged 10 and 8, saying this… it makes me rather upset. In my entire life I’ve not met a game that uses such a ridiculous word, and indeed, many (fighting) games spell out ‘versus’ with every match. How hard is it to say ‘fighting’, ‘facing’, or as you put it simply ‘going against’…
    I think parents should say something when young kids say this, because who else will teach them the ways of the world? I don’t know about you but I’m not holding my breath waiting for video games that pipe up and tell you off when you say something wrong. That’s what parents are for.

  12. Daryn said

    I just heard a DJ on an FM station here in Melbourne, Australia use the word “versing” in relation to a competition they were running. I’ve managed to teach my two young kids that there is no such word, but really, who are we kidding? It will be in the Oxford Dictionary before too much longer, I’m sure. *sigh* The death of the English language continues apace.

    • Uly said

      Of course there is such a word. You know what it means. They know what it means. Other people know what it means. How can you say it is not a word?

      This is not the death of the English language, it is the *life* of the English language. A language is considered dead when there are no more speakers – but the nature of speakers is to play with, to change, to alter their language. How can any language be considered to be dying when people have so much fun with it?

      • Peter Podkowinski said

        This is a VERY interesting discussion. I bristled the first time my son used “verse” as a verb, but I INSTANTLY realized the “natural” tendency for an INTELLIGENT – he IS MY kid, after all… 🙂 – person to create words in context as appropriate. AND, I also must bow to the “fluidity” of LANGUAGE…think of how English has changed since the time of Shakespeare. To expect language to NOT change over time is actually quite selfish and arrogant. Besides, what’s the big deal? as one of the other posters said “…everybody KNOWS what it means…”.

  13. rootberlin said

    Isn’t this just how English has functioned since it stopped being German? We have lots of words that weren’t verbs a few generations ago. ‘I’ll text you my e-mail address.’ English evolves constantly, and this just seems to be a fairly straight forward example of the birth of a word. I plan on using ‘to verse’ as soon as I find an appropriate opportunity.

  14. David said

    Try: “oppose”; pretty simple.

  15. David said

    Or “play”.

  16. David2 said

    Great post. Hilarious. I’m going to keep my ears open for this one. I’m glad you kept this post up from 2005, its a post that keeps on giving.

  17. Kras Atler said

    my wife just asked me what happens to the verb verse if you have to verse someone for a second time…

  18. Jenni said

    I’m 42, live in New Zealand and have two daughters aged 6 and 8. They’ve been coming home from school using “versing” as a verb for the past few months and I’ve been trying to correct them. I’m with Research Guy – I found this site trying to get any info on the use of verse as a verb. I’m also with Luke as far as where it came from – it IS a fairly logical error to make, in the same way as a young child would say “I falled down”. However, we haven’t turn “falled” into an acceptable word yet! I’m intrigued to see how long this word has been around – apparently it’s now about 15 years since it was first being coined. I acknowledge that we do create new words from time to time, such as the use of “texted” as a verb and I guess it is not that different, but I would argue that in that case we HAD to have a new verb to describe that activity whereas in this case we’ve managed fine for centuries without it. Personally, I hate the use of “verse” as a verb and I’m trying to educate my kids out of it. I do, however, think that it may come into usage inevitably as a new word anyway, as Daryn said. But I expect it will always be considered slang and something that demonstrates a certain lack of education i.e. designates the user as a lower social class. The last straw was reading it used in our school newsletter today in the sports section (re which other schools our water polo team was versing!!) – I think I will be taking it up with the school principal.

  19. Neal said

    Check out this discussion of versing on Grammar Girl’s Facebook wall. A little disheartening to read how many parents say they keep correcting their kids when the kids say it. I think it’s kind of neat. I optimistically wonder how many just say they correct it because they think the other commenters expect it of them.

  20. Louise said

    I am very interested in all the discussion above. I am editing my 7 year old student’s recount, and I have also heard it said many times by the children and I tell them that it is not a word,
    (like ‘brang’ instead of brought, that they often use). I think, though, like Rootberlin above writes, that it is the english language evolving, and not just a word used incorrectly. So I will be leaving it in as part of this child’s language.

  21. Pia said

    I was horrified to see versed the verb on my little brother’s school newsletter so I pulled the Macquarie Australian Dictionary off the shelf to righteously prove their error only to find, to my total dismay, that versed is listed as a verb meaning to play against!

  22. Lynn said

    My kids are now 20 & 18 and they started using the word “verse” as a verb back in the early days of Pokemon, roughly about 1996-97. Before the different Pokemon would battle each other in a tournament, the annnouncer would declare, “It’s Pickachu versus Charmander!” I was one of those parents that corrected their kids 🙂 so they’ve never used it as a verb, thank goodness. However, all their friends, and, I assume, new generations up to the age of 20, do, so I guess it’s something we’ll just have to concede.

  23. Robert Lowe said

    I am not concerned by the event of a new verb. To verse will live or die as is the fate of all new words and only time will tell. What bothers me is the error in grammer when “verse”, a verb, is used for “versus”, a preposition, as in Brown versus the Board of Education. My secondary concern is that young people might be informed of the structure, form, use, and even history of a gorgeous lnguage. Apologies for “gorgeousing” my comments.

  24. samiam said

    I’ve never heard anyone use it as a verb, as in “versing” someone. I have, however been using ‘verse’ as the pronunciation of ‘vs’ since I was a kid, along with my friends. We’re talking about the 1980s here…we all knew it was appropriately pronounced “versus”, but the extra syllable when being spoken in a sentence, seemed inefficient. That has always been a beef of mine, when abbreviating words to make them more efficient, the pronunciation isn’t anymore efficient. Also, words like ‘until’; the proper abbreviation is ’till’…where did that extra ‘l’ come from? If the entire point of abbreviating a word is to make it shorter and more efficient why is there an added letter? I always make a point to use ’til’, even though it’s wrong I know it’s right.

  25. dw said

    I’m an Old Fogey (well, in my late thirties at least…) so I ought to hate this innovation, but I actually quite like it. I’ve not yet come across it in the field, but no doubt my two-year-old daughter will start using it soon.

    As an aside, I have split weak vowels (e.g. “fission” and “fishing” differ in the vowel, as well as the consonant, of the second syllable: “fission” has schwa, while “fishing” has the vowel of KIT). All other words ending in “-us” have schwa for me, but for some reason “versus” has the KIT vowel, making it homophonous with “verses”. I wonder whether that homophony is the result of the same kind of confusion that leads to the newly-coined verb “verse”.

  26. di said

    I have heard teenagers use this for several years now and wondered where it came from. But the other day I heard a sports announcer on the radio use it and had to look it up to find out if I was wrong and it IS a real word. I’ve enjoyed this post and am glad to know that I’m not losing my mind.

  27. Andrew said

    I hadn’t heard versing until my children started using it. I think it’s a great word. It’s not just in widespread use with Queensland (Australia) children, but seems to have completely replaced alternatives.

    “Who are we versing?”

    versus (a word that’s still useful!)

    “playing”. Most people consider sport, even gaming, to be beyond play.

    “going against”. Why use two words when one will suffice?

    “fighting”. Great for blood sports.

    “facing”. Quite good for a staring competition.

    I agree with Uly’s comments. English is successful because it’s constantly evolving.

    • Charlee said

      I agree with the evolution of the English language. If they can add “jiggy” to the dictionary, it seems the creation and acceptance of new words is all for grabs.

  28. […] I had never heard verse used instead of versus, but I discovered that this usage is widespread. I heard my nephew — who lives in another state – use it this way. I asked my freshman writing students, and most of them said verse was used to mean “play against” when they were kids, too. Verse has been used this way for at least ten years. One student said it was used in his home state of California. From coast to coast for more than a decade, kids have been versing each other in sports and video games. The use of verse this way can be seen in the examples from 1995 posted with the reader comments at Literal-Minded. […]

  29. Charlee said

    My soon -to-be 11 year old son and his teammates are still “versing” other teams in sports. I tried to to correct them when they first started saying it years ago, and sometimes still correct them today. I decided to pick my battles and let them continue to use it and be happy they are still active in sports!

  30. Alex said

    For me, English is a second language. I learned the USA version of it formally from previous generations of my countrymen who, in turn, learned it in the early 1900s mostly from missionaries and US occupation forces. I struggle with colloquiallisms and local slang. A few years after we migrated to Australia, I noticed my children using “verse” in sports and video games. I thought it was only an Australian thing. It took a while, but I have learned to accept it. English is a living language. It cannot be standardised (for those in USA and Canada, this is no typo, this is the Australian spelling). English is now very global. It has many versions both in spoken and written form – come to Australia and you will see what I mean. Not one nation can now claim to have the “correct” English, not even the English themselves. There is, in fact, an emerging global version – the one driven by the internet, movies and video games. Let us move on.

  31. Emma Mason said

    My stepkids say it too and we live in the UK.
    Makes sense that its from gaming, my stepson plays on his PlayStation all the time!
    I thought it was due to the decline of Latin being taught in schools. I didn’t do Latin, but my Mum was a word nerd. :o)

  32. Paul H. said

    I teach High School at a Magnet School in Brooklyn NY. Our students are gifted and must score above a cut-off (varies by year) in order to gain acceptance. Many of our students are not native english speakers, having emigrated to NYC around age 4-9. I first noticed the use of “verse” and “versing” and “versed” to refer to athletic and gaming competitions around 10 years ago. It used to bother me and I tried to eradicate this mis-use of verse as a verb . . . but after reading the posts here I have changed my strategy. I will simply explain that it is not currently acceptable correct english (yet) and when they have an Ivy League interview, they should realize they are using an expression that is still classified as slang. I will ask them to not use “verse” as a verb (“so we versed Bronx Science in swimming and totally OWNED them!”) just as they would not greet their interviewer by saying “What up son?”.

  33. eleanor cotton said

    kids in Australia also say versing. I
    try to explain it is versus (latin for against) but to no avail. Interested to find its an international phenomenon
    Globalisation of language I suppose.

  34. Coireall said

    I am an old man, so I am immediately suspected of not knowing what the young say. Wrong there. I am surrounded by young people off and on, and to their credit, I have never heard anyone use the word “verse.” And I don’t want to. The English language, like all languages, change over time, but the change that takes hold is a gradual one.

  35. I had to look this us as it drives me around the bend. Then I heard Matt Lauer use it the other day – Team X verse Team Y and I nearly lost my television – just stopped the “clicker” from being thrown at the last second. When used in this way it sounds stupid, not cute, as though an intelligent person is either a) not that educated, or b) trying to sound “hip.”

  36. Erica Willoughby said

    Yah, I gotta agree. I gonna put it in my list of good words to use later. English has lotsa good words I can use alltogether and be cool. I could of used “played”, but it was cooler to use “verse”. 🙂

  37. amt said

    My first reaction upon hearing the use of the word “verse” as a verb was that it was so very wrong. However, having listened to how kids use it in certain semantic contexts, I’ve come to realize that this handy little neologism is a perfect example of people (in this case, kids), inventing a word to fill a very specific semantic void. While it hasn’t turned up in the OED yet, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it there sometime soon as this next generation brings it along with them into their adult years. I love that languages shed and add new words as need demands…they are mirrors of our culture and times!

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