Back-Formation

By Maeve Maddox

Back-formation is one of several methods by which new words are added to the language. An often-quoted example is the word pea. Before pea was created by back-formation, English had the singular noun pease. Here are two examples of its early use from the OED, (some spellings altered):

All this world’s pride is not worth a pease.
As like as one pease is to another.

The plural was peasen:

The leaves of beans and peasen
Cherries, gooseberries, and green peasen

Over time, as -s shoved out -en as the sign of the plural, speakers came to feel that pease was a plural; thus was born our singular pea and its plural form peas.

Back-formation is especially frequent in the creation of new verbs. Some writers use the verb “to back form,” a back-formation of back-formation; so far, this coinage hasn’t made it into either the OED or M-W.

Sometimes the coinage is intentionally jocular, as with the verb buttle from butler: “Nobody could buttle like James…” Sometimes the new verb formed from a noun fills a need and is quietly absorbed into the language, like the verb edit from editor.

At their first appearance in the language, back-formations often stir feelings of revulsion. Test your own reactions to the following sentences:

I hate it when people enthuse too much over food.

I’ve met him twice, but never had the chance to conversate.

To what extent…did the US intelligence community surveil the anti-apartheid movement in the United States?”

Now I would never dis my own mama just to get recognition. 

Britain’s most senior police officer is liaising with US law agencies….

Have you accepted the legitimacy of the back-formations that have created the verbs enthuse, conversate, surveil, dis (also spelled diss), and liaise? Or do you get that fingernail on the blackboard feeling when you see them or hear them?

Conversely, gauge your reaction to these verbs: diagnose, donate, eavesdrop, evaluate, kidnap, manipulate, proliferate, and vaccinate.

My guess is that the second list raised nobody’s blood pressure. Yet, each of the verbs in this list is a back-formation from a pre-existing noun: diagnosis, donation, eavesdropper, evaluation, kidnapper, manipulation, proliferation, and vaccination.

Time and usage will determine whether back-formations like surveil and conversate will prevail. The determining factor will be usefulness. If the coinage is felt to fill a gap in the language, speakers will eventually embrace it.

Related posts:
“Kudo vs Kudos”
“Vaccination and Baccalaureate”
“Why We Love To Hate Liaise”

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13 Responses to “Back-Formation”

  • AnWulf

    Enthuse as a verb has been here for a long, long time. I often hear it more as: He was not enthused by the …

    Conversate? That grates on my ears and in my part of the country is noted mostly by demographic groop. But then, I don’t say converse, meaning to talk, either. I pretty much stick to talk or chat.

    Surveil doesn’t bother me as a back-shaping. It does bother me in that it is a 50-cent word for ‘watch’.

    Diss as a shortening of disrespect doesn’t bother me.

    Again, liaise doesn’t bother me as a back-shaping but as as unneeded, snooty word in the first place … “Britain’s most senior police officer is working with US law agencies….” is much clearer and shorter.

    For that matter, ‘linkman’ is better, clearer word than liaison.

    Making a noun from a verb or a verb from a noun is wonted and not to be fear’d.

  • Danny

    I love to hear about language history. Great post, Maeve. I quibble with “conversate” as an example of back formation. This strikes me more as just poor “word choice.” The word converse fills the need. “Conversate” belongs in a class with “orientate.” There’s got to be a word for that …

  • Katharine

    First, let me thank you for not using disqus.

    Do we not already have a verb that fills the perceived need for “conversate”? Do we not converse? Is that not the verb form, already?
    “Converse” is a verb, already, in the romance languages group: “conversar” in Spanish.
    On the other hand, with “kidnap”, “-nap” is an alternate for “nab” making “kid-nab” a verb for nabbing or snatching children? Webster has it as a verb from antiquity…
    Ah well.
    Mostly I get the fingernail reaction, really.

  • Roberta B.

    The one I tend to hear a lot is “administrate” when to “administer” would seem to be appropriate.
    Using “surveil” as a verb really grates on my ears. However, other verbs like to “survey” (the root, I believe), watch, or track actually may not provide a truly accurate description. To spy on someone implies a more sinister, but also a pre-emptive, intent. Sometimes the word “bird-dog” is used as a verb (more back formation), but that has more of a sporting or informal management connotation. “Surveil” may catch on as a verb, but eventually (and hopefully) a better word for discreetly watching or following someone for an extended period of time may evolve.

  • Roberta B.

    ……but something less obsessive than stalking.

  • apk

    Danny, the word you are looking for is “wrong.”

    The forces of ignorance and ambiguity have their champions in the form of deluded politically correct pseudo-egalitarians. We “purists” should not hesitate to call them out.

  • Maeve

    Danny,
    “Orientate” is a word Americans love to hate, but it is the preferred form for British speakers. To us, “orientate” sounds hopelessly clumsy; to them, “orient” as a verb sounds unfinished.

    http://www.dailywritingtips.com/do-you-orient-yourself-or-orientate-yourself/

  • ApK

    Maeve, that article you linked mention an interesting counter-example to “administrate ” and “conversate” in the form of “demonstrate.”

    Also interesting to note that my browser’s spell checker complains about “conversate” but is OK with “administrate.”

    The list of standard back-formed verbs stuns me. “Manipulation,” etc. I had always figured -tion was a suffix added on to an existing word. I can’t understand how it could come about the other way. Who would coin a word like “manipulation” if there was not already something “to manipulate,” so to speak?

  • Rich Wheeler

    (Sorry about any typos. My eyes aren’t focusing well today.)

    The -ance and -tion suffixes of many of the examples lead naturally to back formation. Focusing on the -ation leads to the conclusion that conversation is the process of conversing, and focusing on the -ance leads to the idea that surveillance is the process or subject of surveilling.

    Watch implies “visually.” Survey implies a one-time observation. Surveillance denotes a continuous act that includes not only visual observation, but also audible and indirect means such as intercepting communications. Surveil, therefore, has a distinct and useful meaning that fills a need. (I notice that ieSpell does not recognize the word.)

    Conversate, on the other hand, duplicates converse; so a person who uses it sounds pretentious.

    Dis, as a shortening of disrespect, is slang. It raises another subject. We have some euphemisms that originate from the culture (or lack thereof) of Prohibition-era organized crime. We generally recognize those terms as slang. Current urban music has popularized the language and fashions of criminal, urban culture. Dis is a prime example.

    Whereas surveil has a distinct meaning and meets a need, dis duplicates the meaning of disrespect and serves only as a counter-cultural statement. In its original cultural context, it accompanied a counter ethic that raises accidental slights to the level of offenses worthy of violent responses.

    Yes, dis grates on my ear; not only because it is unnecessary, but also because it makes an antisocial political statement.

  • Cygnifier

    Interesting article. The only one that grates on my ear is “conversate,” which as others point out may be because it seems less due to back-formation and more due to poor word choice.

    Roberta B. — Your mention of “bird-dog” made me chuckle. Where I am from (hills of North Carolina), bird-dogging is when one male sets out to take away another male’s girlfriend. The Everly Brothers 1958 song “Bird Dog” uses the term as a noun — perhaps the verb was back-formed.

  • Roberta B.

    Cygnifer – Ha! I haven’t heard that one for a long time. “Bird Dog, you better leave my lovey dove alone!”

  • venqax

    The one I hear that makes me turn blue is from the military ever since the Gulf War: attrit. As in, “we will cut off their supply lines and attrit the enemy.” God that is awful. Even written it looks bad, like a strange non-English word.

    Interesting one I stumble on was “burgle”, as in to commit burglary. I figured it was either very old, or else a very new product. Neither, it turns out. It is a back-formation from burglar, but only a fairly old one, circa the 1860s and not much if any younger than burglarize, also back-formed. Evidently before the 1860s there was no verb form of burglary, so you just had to “commit” it, no shortcuts!

  • Maeve

    Venqax,
    Well, durn! I’m working on a post about “burgle.” It is used quite seriously by British speakers,

    As for “attrit,” I agree. It looks like something that crawls around on the page when the lights are out.

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