There's "corporate gifting." There's "extreme gifting." There's "man gifting." A recent email from Groupon invited me to "get my gifting on." Sephora, not to be outdone, has made clear its availability to help me become "a gifting genius."
There is a very good reason for the word "gifting," as a synonym for "giving," to exist: It is wonderfully, and usefully, specific. You can give, after all, a lot of things—your money, your heart, a damn—but you can gift only one thing: an actual gift. "Gift" is both an action and its object, wrapped up in one little verb. Talk about efficiency! And the kind of precision "gift"-as-verb represents is exactly the kind of thing that gives English, or any other language, its richness and nuance. "Gifting," in theory, is the gift that keeps on
Why, then, does the word "gifting" make me cringe, and also make me suspect that if it didn't make me cringe, I might actually be a sociopath? Why do I have a sneaking suspicion that the mere existence of "gift"-as-a-verb is hindering the cause of humanity?
"Gifting" is the "moist" of the action-word world: Not all of us hate it, but those of us who do do so with a fervor that is excessive and irrational and—language being what it is—100 percent correct. As one commenter on The Nest put it, describing her own hatred of the word: "If you say give, instead of gift, it's not like people are so freaking stupid they won't figure out that you're an awesome and generous soul who is good with presents."
* * *
a feeling of intense, irrational distaste for the sound or sight of a particular word or phrase, not because its use is regarded as etymologically or logically or grammatically wrong, nor because it’s felt to be over-used or redundant or trendy or non-standard, but simply because the word itself somehow feels unpleasant or even disgusting.
Under this definition, there are many, many reasons to word-squirm. Some words we detest for what we might refer to as their mouth-feel—words like the much-reviled moist and the nearly-as-reviled ointment and fudge and tissue and, while we're at it, mouth-feel. Words that are simply disgusting, viscerally if obliquely—words that involve diphthongs and/or call to mind slimy things. Some words, on the other hand, gross us out for reasons that are slightly more intellectual: We hate them because they are insultingly infantilizing—panties, for example—or because they are dated (slacks), or because they are a vile combination of the two (underpants).
"Gifting," for me, falls into another category of word aversion: It is hateful because it's commercializing. It takes one of the purest expressions of generosity humans have—the gift—and turns it into something transactional. It takes "the gift economy" out of the realm of Silicon Valley novelty and places it, forcibly, into the arc of human history: It suggests that, on some level, we have always been willing participants in a complicated system of commercialized kindness.
The gifting industrial complex is immense, but most commonly associated with the kind of presents that might fall under the heading of "social lubrication." Lancôme offers a collection of makeup designed to capture "The Art of French Gifting." Kate Spade sells a collection of wine totes that are, indeed, perfect for "gifting." "Gifting" is what you do, these items suggest, when the gifts in question are things you simply check off a list, trudging wearily between Williams-Sonoma and Bath & Body Works in search of that perfect gift certificate. It takes the delights of the just-because present and converts them, via the cynical alchemy of the gerund, into something that is given just-because-you-have-to.
Put another way: Would you ever say "gifting" out loud? Would you ever, without a sense of irony or shame, ask someone the question, "What can I gift you for your birthday?" No, most likely, you would not. Not only because you are not (I am assuming) socially awkward, but also because, more to the point, you are not—or you would very much prefer not to be—a stooge of Madison Avenue.
And this is what makes "gifting" so implicitly pernicious. This is why it makes me, intuitively, cringe. It is marketingspeak that has made its way into the commercial vernacular. Gift-as-verb, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has been around since the 17th century; it's derived, like "gift"-as-noun, from the Old English "asgift," meaning "payment for a wife" in the singular and "wedding" in the plural. (The Middle Dutch "gift," now written as "gif," originally carried the same meaning; today, however, it means "poison." The Old High German "gift" followed a similar dowry-to-danger trajectory.)
While the 1800s brought some references to, say, "gifting children," "gift" as a verb generally fell into disuse—until, that is, the mid-1920s. In 1924, Congress introduced a "gift tax"—a tax, the IRS explains, "on the transfer of property by one individual to another while receiving nothing, or less than full value, in return." That first tax was repealed in 1926; it was updated and reinstated in 1932. And "since it was called the gift tax," the grammar expert Mignon Fogarty writes, "people started talking about gifting money (instead of giving money)."
From there, "gifting" followed the path of "parenting" and "thrifting" and "networking" and, of course, "friending": The common noun became a common verb. This may have been solidified, ironically and appropriately, by Seinfeld's famous discussion of "regifting"—with the modern proliferation of "gifting" being, on some level, a back-formation of that term.
At every point in the evolution of "gifting," in other words, from the early sense of the dowry to the later sense of the label maker, the word itself has been associated with obligatory transactionalism. As it's used today—in ad copy, in marketing emails—the term conveys, more than it ever has before, materialism. It emphasizes, implicitly, the gift itself over the act of giving. As the blog Grammar Party put it:
When you use gifted it sounds like you’re doing some thing more special than just giving something to someone. Like you deserve a medal or a certificate of generosity.
Giving isn’t about being the recipient of praise for doing a kind act. But gifting feels like it is—like the focus is on the giver on and not the recipient.
Exactly. Which means that the most generous thing we can do when it comes to "gifting"—for the good of our gifts, for the good of our loved ones, for the good of ourselves—is to give the word up. Let's give it a try.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.