Wednesday, July 28, 2010

WNW: Where'd It Come From? Back-formation

One of my favorite quirks of English is how versatile it is in creating new words, and often without us even realizing it.

A common way of creating new words is essentially tweaking a current word in a process called back-formation.

With back-formation, the new word usually looks like it is the original one and that the other word or words came from it.

That idea make sense grammatically, because we tend to just slide into creating back-formations. The new word is typically shorter, because often a typical prefix or suffix was removed to create the word.

The first I heard of this concept was with the word EDIT. It wasn't the original word.

But wait: isn't that's what an EDITOR does?

Well, yes. That's what we call it today. But the person (EDITOR) was given the name, and what they do was later called editing.

English uses -OR and -ER endings to mean "one who" (a teacher teaches, a sweeper sweeps), so it's easy to take a noun that happens to have a similar ending and apply the rule we're used to.

Therefore an editor must . . . edit! EDIT is a back-formation of EDITOR.

Other examples that were surprising for me to stumble on:

Taking off the -ion suffix:
  • resurrect from resurrection.
  • aviate from aviation
  • conversate from conversation
  • evaluate from evaluation
  • absorb from absorption
Removing the -er, -ar, -or suffix to create a verb (as with edit/editor):
  • beg from beggar
  • buttle from butler
  • burgle from burglar
  • curate from curator
  • commentate from commentator
  • swindle from swindler
  • tweeze from tweezers
Removing the -y suffix:
  • choreograph from choreography
  • haze from hazy
  • injure from injury
  • jell from jelly
  • sulk from sulky
Taking off a prefix like un-:
  • kempt from unkempt
One from a nursery rhyme:
  • pea from pease (Remember the old rhyme: "Pease porridge hot. Pease porridge cold." Pease was singular.)
And my two favorites:
  • mentee from mentor
  • enthuse from enthusiasm

Sometimes we use back-formations as jokes, like how (see Wikipedia) comedian Bill Bryson reportedly suggested that we should call someone who has tidy hair "sheveled" (as opposed to disheveled).

And in an episode of the sitcom Scrubs (a show I found brilliantly written from a Word Nerd standpoint), Turk tells Dr. Cox, "I don't disdain you! It's quite the opposite–I dain you."


Kristina P. said...

Very interesting. I agree that I would assume that the shorter word would come first.

Susan Anderson said...

Fun post.


Lara Neves said...


My husband always says he's just "whelmed," so I really see how this can happen. And some of the examples seem more obvious, like buttle or burgle, but others are pretty hard to fathom that they weren't there first!

TisforTonya said...

since I spent last year as a "mentor" I had a lot of fun whenever I had to fill out all the paperwork on my mentees. (dang, the spelling big brother is insisting that's spelled wrong - it didn't like mentee either... sometimes we are just smarter than a computer!)

TisforTonya said...

I was also a tutor... but I just can't bring myself to call those kids tutees. I stuck with "students"

Jordan McCollum said...

As a former visiting teaching coordinator, I used the word "teachees" a lot ;) .

But I despise backformations that try to replace valid words. I feel like people say "conversate" and "orientate" to sound smart. (But they fail. "Converse" and "orient," people.)

(Note: unless by "orientate" you mean to "face east." Then yes, orientate is right.)

I didn't know edit was a backformation, though. Cool!

Jordan said...

(And commentate!!)

Gina said...

Oh, my gosh, I was actually going to say almost the exact same thing as Tonya!

I developed a mentoring program at work, and the system always told me that "mentee" was not a word at all. I just forged ahead and decided I didn't care. If Shakespeare and Rowling can invent words, who says I can't?

Now, you have stolen my dream. I did not invent a word. Microsoft spell check is just retarded.


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