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TWTS: Don't let spellcheck thunderstorm on your parade

Few things can shut down an outdoor swimming pool faster than a good old-fashioned summer thunderstorm.

English professor Anne Curzan is a longtime swimmer who swims in a master’s program. Recently, one of her coaches emailed another swimmer about holding practice at an outdoor pool, as long as it wasn’t “thunderstorming.”

The email program’s spellchecker did not care for that and branded "thunderstorming" with a scarlet underline. But why? We take all kinds of nouns and turn them into verbs. Why not “thunderstorm?”

Thunderstorm as a noun goes back to the 1600s. The verb, however, seems to be quite new. Curzan couldn’t find it in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, or the Oxford English Dictionary.

The oldest example Curzan has found so far comes from a 1972 linguistics book by James McCawley. In it, McCawley writes, “We can say ‘A thunderstorm began,’ but not so naturally, ‘It is thunderstorming.’”

In other words, he doesn’t think “thunderstorm” makes a great verb.

McCawley goes on to argue that general terms like “rain” and “storm” tend to be the type of nouns that become verbs. He gives the example, “The thunderstorm began to rain down on us.” Here, “rain” becomes the verb and “thunderstorm” remains the noun.

However, there are plenty of examples of people happily using the verb form, such as this 1991 example: “The skies had gotten black and it was thunderstorming.”

“To thunderstorm” may be more specific than “to rain” or “to storm,” but at some point, we as speakers decided it was an okay verb. Do you use “thunderstorm” this way?

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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