The English Lexicon Will Always Be Back-Formated

By Mark Nichol

Back-formation, the development of a new form of a word by subtracting an element from an existing word, often results in additions to our word-hoard that people deem grotesque, but many words we consider members in good standing of the English language—usually verbs—have been created this way.

Derided terms of recent vintage frequently originate in business-speak: Conversate is inexplicably more complicated than the verb it supplants (converse); incentivize takes too long to speak or write, perhaps, so now we have incent; liaise awkwardly abridges the phrase “form a liaison”; protégé has inexplicably surrendered to mentee as the logical counterpart of mentor; and notate is derived from notation, because note somehow does not suffice.

However, common—and quite acceptable—noun-to-verb back-formations starting with nearly every letter of the alphabet abound, including automate (automation), babysit (babysitter), curate (curator), diagnose (diagnosis), evaluate (evaluation), flouresce (fluorescence), gamble (gambler), hustle (hustler), injure (injury), jell (jelly), kidnap (kidnapper), legislate (legislator), manipulate (manipulation), nitpick (nit-picking), orientate (orientation), peddle (peddler), reminisce (reminiscence), swindle (swindler), televise (television), upholster (upholstery), and vaccinate (vaccination).

Some less obviously produced yet patently useful back-formations include the verbs derived from nouns beg (beggar) and moonlight (from moonlighter, the slang term for one who works a second job). Back-formation of nouns from adjectives has produced diplomat (diplomatic), greed (greedy), haze (hazy), peeve (peevish), and suburb (suburban), while adjectival back-formations from nouns include complicit (complicity), decadent (decadence), and surreal (surrealism).

Two noun-to-noun developments denoting individual specimens based on words for collective concepts are ideologue (ideology) and statistic (statistics); yet another, stave, is a redundant back-formation of staves, the plural of staff in the sense of “a long stick or strip of wood.” Unit, meanwhile, derives from unity.

Cherry, pea, and tamale are back-formations based on linguistic ignorance of terms borrowed from another language or descended from a previous version of one (from, respectively, the French word cherise, the Middle English term pease, and tamales, the Spanish plural of tamal). Similar back-formations considered nonstandard (now and, one can hope, forever) include bicep (and tricep) and kudo, based on the erroneous assumption that the words biceps (and triceps) and kudos (the former from Latin and the latter from Greek) are plural.

Back-formations fill a need—whether valid or merely perceived as valid—and though some of them may, thankfully, wither from neglect, others will acquire legitimacy over time, while still others will proliferate (that word is itself a back-formation) anew.

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3 Responses to “The English Lexicon Will Always Be Back-Formated”

  • Mark Nichol

    The coinage was an attempt to humorously point out how awkward words created through back-formation can appear.

  • Joyce Frye

    I have a question about your use of ‘back-formated’. I am unable to find this word in the dictionary, online at M-W, or doing a search in Google. I can find back-formatted, but no verb for back-formation. Is this a word you’ve made up? I agree with venqax. Wouldn’t it be back-formed, or should you just use the noun here: back-formation?

  • venqax

    ”Back-formations fill a need—whether valid or merely perceived as valid. I don’t think so. If something is only perceived as a need but is not in fact needed, then it is not a need, right? An important point can be revealed by this: Change in language is inevitable, but does not have to be ungoverned. Changes driven by need can be good. Changes driven by ignorance and/or confusion, not so much. Most of the examples given, and probably most in reality, do serve a purpose and therefore should be welcomed as additions to the language. But some do not and should be actively rejected by educated and responsible speakers and writers. Words that end in an S are not necessarily or automatically plural. They simply are not. So don’t use them that way. Period. There is no need to and doing so adds nothing to communication except signaling to those who know better that the speaker or writer is semi-literate. Something he probably does not wish to do. Kudos, biceps, chupacabras. “Stave” is the same problem in reverse. “Statistic” presents more problems (and I admit I have a personal dislike that word) which as it happens are connected with “data”—a word that in fact isplural but often unrecognized as such. Data has a singular form—datum—which sits unused and forgotten while actually being what “statistic” maliciously impersonates. What is “a statistic”? Is a single proof of problem “a mathematic” or can an economy be referred to as “an economic”? Of course not. Statistics, like the other ics, is (singular) a study/practice/science.

    Wouldn’t it be “back-formed” when it’s done?

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