The Basics of Back-Formation

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A back-formation is a new word produced by excising an affix, such as producing the verb secrete from the noun secretion. Many back-formations, like that one, acquire respectability, but others, especially more recent coinages, are considered nonstandard, so use them with caution.

Back-formation can be seen as a form of clipping, though the distinction between one category and the other is that clipped forms (ad in place of advertisement, for example) are the same part of speech as the original form, whereas most back-formations are verbs formed from nouns. (Many back-formations are formed from words ending in -tion, such as automate and deconstruct.)

Most back-formations eventually take their place among other standard terms, though they are often initially met with skepticism. For example, curate and donate, now accepted without question (and associated with the high pursuits of art and philanthropy, respectively), were once considered abominations.

Newer back-formations that careful writers are wise to avoid include attrit, conversate, enthuse, incent, liaise, spectate, and surveil. These buzzwords are convenient — hence their creation — but they are widely considered inelegant, and in the case of at least a couple of them, concise synonyms are already available. (To spectate is to watch, and to surveil is to observe.)

Sometimes, a back-formation is derived from a noun describing an action, as with attendee from attendance, or from a noun describing an actor, as with mentee from mentor. Many people consider such terms aberrant, and they are also ill advised in formal writing.

Other back-formations derive from confusion about a base word. Cherry and pea both developed from the assumption that the original terms cherise and pease are plurals. More recently, biceps (and triceps) and kudos have been misunderstood as plurals, resulting in bicep, tricep, and kudo. Although cherry and pea were accepted without reservations into English long ago, bicep, tricep, and kudo are still considered nonstandard.

Another class of back-formations are those shorn of their prefixes for humorous effect, such as gruntled from disgruntled and kempt from unkempt; rarely do such truncations enter the general lexicon.

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16 thoughts on “The Basics of Back-Formation”

  1. “concise synonyms are already available!”

    Yes, indeed, and the failure to use such well-established words is a sure sign of having a poor vocabulary and not much of an education.

    Use “watch”, “observe”, “look at”, or “perform reconnaissance on” instead of that ugly backformation that I won’t even write here.

    Many of the ugly backformations come from a military or police background, and those do not reflect on the educations of such people. Why can’t they emulate Eisenhower, who was a very literate man. Try reading his book CRUSADE IN EUROPE. Such others as Washington, Robert E. Lee, George C. Marshall, and Sir Winston Churchill also knew how to write well. I have never read the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, but they sold well and they were widely read, which reflects well on them.

    Another ugly backformation is the word “to task”, used as a verb, when we alredy have the well-established verbs “to assign” and “to order”. There is nothing wrong with the example sentence “Task Force 24 was ordered [or assigned] to guard the Gulf of Alaska against pirates,” hence ugly backformations like “task” are not and will not be necessary.

  2. By the way, the noun “backformation” does not need a hyphen.

    Just glue it together like these:
    {backache, backbone, backdraft, backfield, backfire, backflash, background, backgammon, backstory}

    Whoever thought that these needed hyphens?

    However, I think that back porch and back yard should be left as they are.

  3. “bicep, tricep, and kudo are still considered nonstandard.”

    Just a quick note: Merriam-Webster treats the singular “bicep” and “kudo” as standard. They do consider “tricep” incorrect, however.

  4. Oh, Jen, I agree with you completely.
    Whoever wrote “conversate” never heard of “converse” or “talk”, adn whoever wrote “ideate” never thought of THINK.

  5. Not that I endorse them, but I believe that “enthuse” and “liaise” may be slowly gaining some ground, based on more or less widespread (corporatese) use. As to the others, the paper basket seems an apt repository.

  6. I think “surveil” looks kind of terrible, and the look of it begs mispronunciation. Obviously coming from chopping off the rest of the French word, in which the double L is pronounced as a Y. So do people who use “surveil” pronounce it like sir-VAY or sir-VALE? It’s not really quite the same as observe or watch, or even survey, because it has overtones of doing so clandestinely, so that whoever is being observed doesn’t know it. So what I’m saying is, I see the utility of such a word, but I don’t really like how it looks, and I am not sure how it should be pronounced. I guess one would have to pronounce the L at the end, so that it’s not confused (almost correctly) with survey.
    I think “enthuse” has a place in the language.
    “Conversate” is disgusting but might be appropriate in the setting in which it may have been created; for example, the bulls*** guys talk when they go clubbing or partying and are just trying to lure women to their, uh, “cribs.”
    “Ideate,” meh. Not sure what to do with that word. Don’t really understand what it means.
    “Liaise,” eh, maybe. We do have other words for this concept, though; get together, collaborate, hook up (the OLD meaning), meet…but maybe there’s a slightly different connotation with liaise that the other words don’t hold.
    Bicep/tricep/kudo are abominable, and the ignoranti could be cured with education. Imagine my surprise when I was playing “Words With Friends” and “kudo” was accepted as a word. Ewwww!

  7. As a fitness instructor, I hear quite a few back-formations of body parts, including tricep and bicep and glut (‘gloot’). I also hear questionably made-up body parts like toe mound and rib joint or neck hinge. I suppose it could be considered nicknames or shop talk, but when it’s actually found in a published book on exercise, I’m worried the formality of the English language may be fading into oblivion.

  8. Many of the ugliest seem to come from that malodorous swamp of capitalist double-speak known as Business Management.

    @ D.A.W
    ‘Task’ as a verb is not a back-formation, so much as a transfer of function, rather like ‘to oversight.’ Both grate on the ear, IMO.

    As an aside, the practice of verbing nouns seems to alternate with that of nouning verbs in the history of English.

    I totally agree on ‘surveil,’ ‘conversate’ and ‘ideate.’

  9. How I loved reading the comments on this one! But my main reason for today’s comment is Nicks post on the 18th, Compound Words in Technological Contexts, which kinda ties in. I just had no time to respond to it then.

    The subject word is “cation.” When I first saw it, I made the pronunciation from the last part of, vacation, which works, as written. Alas! the word really should be written, cat-ion! That addition of the hyphen is critical to a proper pronunciation, for that is the way it is spoken in the industry.

    Apparently the word was created by a scientist, William Albrecht, who studied the negative ion exchange in soils, I believe it was back in 1954. I see plenty of other -ion(ated) (I could not resist 😉 words out there, it just seems they missed this one!

    I would love to hear your thoughts on this one! Am I out to lunch, or not?

  10. With the current trend toward “text speak” and the like, this is a very timely post.

    This is also a great place for writing tips. I wish you had a G+ Share icon. It would be easier to share with the nearly 2000 people who have me circled there, many of them writers, freelancers, authors etc.


  11. @Art,
    The oppositely-charged ion is an anion — which looks like it should rhyme with canyon, but it doesn’t. Engineering jargon; it’s like an inside joke.

  12. @Kate: It’s not just formality that makes biceps, triceps and gluteus correct. However, for the record: the biceps muscle looks “plural” because it comprises two “heads.” ONE muscle made up of TWO parts. The triceps contains three parts. Like “moose,” which is singular and plural, biceps and triceps are both singular and plural (I don’t think anyone says “tricepses”). Not so for gluteus; one gluteus, two glutei! It has been shortened to glute at the gym (or glutes, for plural). I never heard of a toe mound or a neck hinge. A rib joint is a possibility, maybe referring to the costochondral area (where the rib ends in the cartilage that joins the sternum), or maybe the costovertebral areas (where the ribs meet the vertebrae in the back). My impression is that a joint has some kind of movement, and these areas have very little movement, certainly in the back, a bit more up front. But we’re not talking as much movement as, say, a knuckle or a shoulder joint.
    I would guess that books on exercise are aimed at an audience that understands toe mounds and neck hinges and such!

  13. @Curtis,
    Thank you for your note.

    I suppose every industry has such. I am in construction and in building we use studs, a 2 inch by 4 inch by 8 foot long board, all the time. But in a group of girls a stud is something far different….

  14. I quite like spectate as a noun, although in quite a specific context: that of attending an event as a spectator when one would normally be expected to enter as a competitor. So:

    “I’m going to Goodwood this weekend?”

    “Which car are you taking?”

    “For once, I’m not driving. I’m just going to spectate.”

    Maybe it’s a British thing.

  15. Of course what I meant to say was ‘ as a back-formation from the noun’ in the comment above. That’ll teach me to post early on a Sunday morning while rushing to catch up with a week of blog posts.

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