Welcome to the newest edition of The Why. “Why is it called a building when it’s already built?” you ask? Again, this might seem like a one-liner but in truth this type of thing is not uncommon. In fact, it is not only fairly common in the English language but others as well.
Much to the credit of those of us who have mastered the (unfortunately) unofficial language of the USA, we are seldom if ever truly confused by the different uses of words anymore than we are by the distinct uses of “the same word.” That is due in part to the fact that the actual use of the words makes the intended form and definition obvious.
Interestingly, there are a lot of examples of words like this in Modern English. Note these examples of nouns that refer to objects that—like the word building—are not “in process” when refer to them: bedding, clothing, dwelling, gathering, roofing, saying and writing,
Before we get too far into the language lesson, however, let’s peruse posts from people on Yahoo Answers. After all, they’re almost always interesting, mmmkay?
“JediMobius” had a philosophical response: “Architecture is an ongoing science and art, so maybe it’s called a building because it can always be improved upon and remodeled.”
“Johnny B”, a homeowner, had a realistic response: “Look around your house. Have a wall that needs painted? Maybe a few things (need to be) fixed?” It’s called a building because it is a work in progress.
“Mark” said we call it a building “because to call it a ‘whirly’ would be silly.”
“Layla” who admitted she “just wanted to contribute” responded with a barrage of questions of her own: “If oranges were blue, would they still be called oranges?” and “When you ship styrofoam, what do you pack it in?”
Now let’s consider the Old English version “byldan” and Middle English’s “bilden”. Notice these words for building don’t have the “ing” suffix or ending. Also remember that Old English had a suffix—two, in fact—to create nouns: “ung” and sometimes “ing”.
The noun form can relate to the verb form. It often refers to an object that is the end result of the action to which the verb refers. Note that Old English also employed other ways to create nouns out of verb roots. One is the suffix” (at)ion” as in decision, explanation or isolation.
In Old English, when it came to the verb form, participles ended with “ende” (which they still use in the German language). Fast-forward to Middle English where all these forms came together. Basically, the participle and noun ends became “ing”. Thus, the use of this form in phrases such as “the building of” is a later development and “building” as an object is an old form.
In this case, the “ing” suffix only has the appearance of a present participle when in truth it is merely an ending no longer popular in English once used to turn verbs into nouns. (Another example here would be cotton “wadding”.) So chalk it all up to the growth and fluidity of the English language.
Why is it called a building when it’s already built? Now you know.
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