Food & Culture

Backformation Can Make You Invent New Words Without Realizing It

There are a number of ways new words come into English. We can put two words together to make a compound ("photobomb," "humblebrag"), add endings onto existing words ("hotness"), shorten longer words ("bro"), or simply make them up (That's so "fetch!") But one of the most common ways for a new word to come into English is for people to assume it must already exist. The process is called backformation, and it reveals our natural tendency to expand on the patterns that structure vocabulary.

Burgle My Heart

If you can "convalesce" and "acquiesce," why not "adolesce"? If you can "compensate" and "speculate," why not "conversate"? If a baker bakes, and an actor acts, what does a burglar do? People do sometimes use words like "adolesce," "conversate," and "burgle," but these words usually get a laugh. They aren't completely accepted as standard English, and despite the existence of their counterparts "adolescence," "conversation," and "burglar," they seem somehow wrong.

But there are also plenty of words that are completely accepted that were created in the exact same way: by stripping the ending off a noun to reveal what should be the verb behind that noun. "Escalate" was not a verb until after the invention of the escalator. There was no verb "to curate" until centuries after the curator. Other backformed verbs include injure (from injury), reminisce (from reminiscence), and scavenge (from scavenger). There's nothing funny or nonstandard about these verbs today. Backformation is a generally unremarkable process for vocabulary creation.

Backformation and Forth

Though the most common pathway to a backformation is from noun to verb, sometimes adjectives are stripped of their endings to form new nouns or verbs. "Greed" was formed from "greedy" and "ditz" from "ditzy." We can now "laze" around being "lazy." What seems to be important in the success of a backformation is how identifiable the ending of a word is as an ending. When there's an –y, or –ation, or –er, it's easy to read as an addition to a root word, even when it isn't. For example, the English word "cherry" comes from a misreading of the French borrowing "cherise" as "cherry" + "s."

Misreadings don't only occur with words borrowed from other languages, but also with English words transformed by historical changes. The verb "to grovel" was formed from a reading of groveling as "grovel" + "ing." It was originally "groof" + "ling," an adverb meaning "face down," akin to "headlong" or "sidelong." Pronunciation changes obscured the true root and ending and made the new reading not only possible but natural. It fit right into the extremely common verb+ing structure.

It's also helpful to the success of a backformation if there isn't a strong competitor for the word that results. "Grovel" evoked a more specific scenario than "abase oneself," but the meanings of "conversate" or "sanitate" are already captured by "converse" and "sanitize." Benefactors don't "benefact" because they already "support," "endow," or "donate." However, just because a competitor exists doesn't mean a backformation can't catch on. When "donate" itself was formed off of "donation," sticklers complained that it was ridiculous gobbledygook for the much simpler "give." But it turned out to be a useful expression for a very particular type of giving and has since been fully absorbed into the language.

There are many ways for us to exploit the resources of English to say what we want to say in a new way. Backformation is just another creative way to "liase," "emote," and "iridesce" with language.

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Have more fun with language with Arika Okrent's book, "In the Land of Invented Languages: Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Arika Okrent October 11, 2018

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