Words of the week: verbs and nouns

I was talking to an actor during Covid. Work had stopped savagely. Theatres shut; filming seriously reduced.

‘I’ve got too much time to think,’ he said, ‘but honestly, I don’t know what the word actor means any more. After all, I’m not acting – so what does ‘actor’ mean? And I am aware,’ he added, ‘there are people out there with worse things to face than my coffee shop existential crisis!’


But with acting jobs rare, and deprived of contact with the theatre community (even auditions were virtual), actors could easily feel isolated, de-skilled and foolish; and they are not alone.

Many of us have felt this on giving up a role which has become an important part of our identity. I have known consultants cry when, in retirement. They have lost the ‘consultant’ noun; and it was one they rather liked.

Or a mother traumatised by her child leaving home, going to uni. ‘Who am I now? I have always been a “mother”.’

I don’t know what labels you attach to yourself when describing your identity; perhaps you resist the temptation. But, in this territory, I prefer verbs to nouns – words which describe what we’re doing rather than what we are.

So, for our actor friend, we felt ‘acting’ was more helpful than ‘actor’, because he was still sending in audition tapes, whether he was getting the jobs or not. His heart was still pointing in that direction.

Verbs describe our direction rather than our identity. So when, twenty years ago, I let go of the ‘vicar’ noun, it was fine. I replaced it with a verb, ‘stepping out’ and went to work in a supermarket.

So what are you doing? What are your five verbs at present?

For myself, I suppose I’m running, (getting less dark and chill now) laughing, piano-ing (is that a verb?), composing (that is), doubting, writing, raging, counselling (which includes listening, but which is bigger than listening), organising (I have a small business to oversee), delighting (in creation) and wondering…always wondering, because I have no sense of anything beyond tomorrow.

Oh, and and failing, of course, and that’s an important verb, because I am not a failure, as the noun would have me. Failing, the verb, is just something we do because we’re human; it’s not something we are.

I feel happier with verbs as my identity, rather than nouns; they are less pompous, more fluid. They say ‘Here is my heart today, the direction of my energies. Though tomorrow, who knows?’

Leave a Reply