Back-forming back-formations

April 28, 2009

Back-formation (or back formation or backformation) is a term that describes the way certain words are formed. It also refers to the words themselves, so back-formations result from back-formation. If affixation means forming a word by adding an affix (e.g. frosty from frost, refusal from refuse, instrumentation from instrument), then back-formation is essentially this process in reverse: it adapts an existing word by removing its affix, usually a suffix (e.g. sulk from sulky, proliferate from proliferation, back-form from back-formation).

Sometimes a back-formation arises through the assumption that it must already exist, and that its source word is the derivative term. Such an assumption, while misguided, is altogether reasonable, being based on a summary analysis of the source word’s morphology. Consider donation. You might think it derives from donate, but the noun is several centuries older; donate is the back-formation. You are unlikely to recognise a back-formation just by looking at it.

burglars_toolsAnother everyday example is burgle, a back-formation from burglary. In U.S. English, burglarize (or -ise) is by far the more common verb, but burgle dominates in British English. That burgle has failed to take hold in U.S. English may be partly a result of its lowly origins as a back-formation, as well as its funny phonetic blend of burble and gurgle. But whatever the reasons, I wouldn’t call it “hideous”. Back-formations are not inherently wrong, but they can be redundant; before you use one that seems new or gimmicky, check if there is a standard alternative. [Image: burgling tools. Or are they burglarizing tools?]

Back-formations are frequently made by dropping -tion or -ion from a noun, and adding -e when appropriate, to form a new verb, such as donate from donation. From evolution we get evolute, which has technical meanings as a noun in mathematics and as an adjective in botany, but as a verb meaning the same as evolve, it is a needless variant. Similarly superfluous are cohabitate for cohabit, interpretate for interpret, and solicitate for solicit. Solicitate has a standard adjectival use; it is only its unnecessary use as a verb that I advise against. Last week I heard someone on the radio say installating, as if he had forgotten all about install. But some of these may eventually become standard, even installate.

In most of the examples I’ve included so far, the change has occurred at the end of the word, i.e. the removed affix has been a suffix. Back-forming by removing prefixes is less common, except in humorous contexts such as Jack Winter’s “How I met my wife”, which boasts a litany of deliberately malformed terms like chalant, ept, and peccable.

Regardless of how back-formations are formed, they are often initially considered to be irregular, even ignorant, and suitable only for informal use in slang or jokes. Sometimes, as we have seen, there is no need for them because the semantic niche they purport to inhabit has already been filled. Other back-formations, such as enthuse and liaise, inhabit a grey area of acceptability. And then there are many that serve a useful purpose and have become standard. Here are some I haven’t mentioned already:

automate from automation
beg from beggar
diagnose from diagnosis
drowse from drowsy
edit from editor
execute from execution
free associate from free association
grovel from grovelling (or -l-) (adj.)
injure from injury
intuit from intuition
kidnap from kidnapper
orate from oration
pea from pease
peddle from peddler
reminisce from reminiscence
resurrect from resurrection
scavenge from scavenger
self-destruct from self-destruction (from destroy, destruction)
sleaze from sleazy
statistic from statistics
surveil from surveillance
televise from television
vaccinate from vaccination
window-shop (v.) from window-shopping

The love life of pigeons

April 24, 2009

Step 1: Choose a romantic setting. Somewhere outdoors, perhaps, such as beside the sea on a sunny day.

Stan Carey - love life of pigeons 1

(Subjects in centre of photograph; click to enlarge.)

Step 2: Flirt a little. If male, circle female, bow, puff feathers, drag tail, chase female, shuffle about, coo romantically (using a pidgin).

If female, continue what you were doing for a while. Then, if you like him, join in the dance. Place bill inside male’s bill, bob heads together.

Stan Carey - love life of pigeons 2

If all goes well, proceed to step 3.

Step 3: If male, stand on female. If female, grin and bear it for a few seconds.

Stan Carey - love life of pigeons 3

Step 4: Regain composure and prepare for a lifetime of monogamous dove love.

Stan Carey - love life of pigeons 4

To find out more, have a look here (scroll down for courtship ritual).

Not only . . . but (also) . . .

April 22, 2009

Despite the apparent simplicity of these correlative conjunctions, there is uncertainty and disagreement over the suitability of their use and the correctness of their placement. Much of this discord relates to the need for parallelism and sentence balance. I’ll look at that later in the post, but first I’ll give an overview of how the conjunctions are used.

Not only is this post quite long and detailed, it also lacks images, so I’ve folded it up and divided it into three general sections: Usage, Parallelism, Opinions.


Writers typically, but not always, use both parts of the set, i.e. (1) not only, and (2) but (also). The first part is occasionally written not just or not alone, while the second part is commonly seen in the forms but . . . too and but . . . as well. These variants offer different nuances but not very different meanings.

It was not just a big bear, but a grumpy one as well.
Not alone did she win the race, but she also beat the record.
He not only used a fictitious example, but he reproduced it too.

But (also) is the most common root form, so I’ll focus on it in this discussion. Where the alternatives are not mentioned, consider them implied. When but is included you can either add also (or its alternatives) or not; both forms are common and standard. Hence the parentheses in but (also), which could also be written as (but) also, since but sometimes doesn’t appear either.

He not only used a fictitious example, but he also reproduced it.
He not only used a fictitious example, he also reproduced it.
Rowers not only face backward, they race backward.

The last example, from the New Yorker, is effective because of its succinctness and punchy rhythm. Adding but would impair it, while adding also would do little or nothing to improve it. Doing without but or also tends to reduce formality, or to reduce stiffness in formal prose, and can benefit short and straightforward constructions. Here are a few more:

“The street door of the rooming-house was not only unlocked but wide open” (Dashiell Hammett, ‘The Big Knockover’)
“Borges not only wrote stories but transformed them” (The Mirror Man documentary)
“She not only consults, she insults.” (Muriel Spark, Aiding and Abetting)
“The shape of Cleopatra’s nose influences not only wars, but ideologies” (Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers)
“The omission of the also is not only frequent but Standard” (Kenneth G. Wilson, Columbia Guide to Standard American English)
“Not only are there verbs with similar meanings and different past-tense forms, there are verbs with different meanings and the same past-tense forms. (Steven Pinker, Words and Rules)
“…his application was not only refused by Bonn, it was hardly noticed and remained totally unsupported.” (Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem)

[Read the rest of this post]

Link love: language (2)

April 20, 2009

“She texted him”, “She text him”, or what? Ben Zimmer investigates.

A short history of the Comic Sans font and the (over)reactions it has provoked.

What is Standard English? Here are three views.

What is centre-embedding and why is it so interesting? or, “You are what what you eat eats”.

David Crystal reads from his essay on the future of the English language (8 minutes 42 seconds).

Geoffrey K. Pullum on The Elements of Style: “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice”, and a follow-up on National Public Radio.

I saved the longest for last: W. Tecumseh Fitch, an evolutionary biologist and cognitive scientist, revisits Charles Darwin’s ideas on the evolution of language.

Gelett Burgess and the blurb

April 14, 2009

A few weeks ago I started writing about the origin of the word blurb, but ended up writing instead about tintiddle, also known as l’esprit de l’escalier. In this post I’ll finish what I started.

Gelett Burgess (1866–1951) coined both blurb and tintiddle, though blurb is sometimes attributed to Brander Matthews. Matthews set the record straight in a 1922 article (PDF) in the New York Times, in which he also describes the art of the blurb.

The story began at the 1907 American Booksellers Association banquet, where Burgess handed out copies of his new book Are You A Bromide? The book had a parodic jacket with a photo of a woman who effusively praised the book and its author. Burgess had borrowed the image from a dental advertisement and had given its subject a new name, Miss Belinda Blurb, and a new role: blurbing.

[Image source: Library of Congress, Printed Ephemera Collection.]

The word quickly became popular and remains so today. The Oxford English Dictionary defines blurb as “a short promotional description of a book, film, or other product”. Some dictionaries, e.g. Merriam-Webster, include blurb as a verb: “to describe or praise in a blurb”.

These definitions remain close to the originals in Burgess’s later book Burgess Unabridged: A Dictionary of Words you have always needed, though they lack Burgess’s playfulness and gentle mockery:

Praise from one’s self, inspired laudation. (p. xvii)


Blurb, n. 1. A flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial. 2. Fulsome praise; a sound like a publisher. (p. 7)

Blurb, v. 1. To flatter from interested motives; to compliment oneself.


Here is a photograph of Burgess at work and at play – to his credit, he seems to have combined these activities throughout his career. He was well known for his humorous drawings and writings, including children’s books, comic strips, and poetry – such as a parody of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

His short verse “The Purple Cow” became so popular that Burgess wrote a sequel threatening to kill anyone who recited it! The poem also inspired rewrites in the styles of other poets. Although his writing amused and entertained, it could also edify: an example is “The Wild Men of Paris”, his fascinating essay on Cubism.

To finish this post I will leave you with an excerpt and a nonsense poem from his introduction to Burgess Unabridged, which is available online in scanned and text versions:

We have no Academy, thank Heaven, to tell what is real English and what isn’t. Our Grand Jury is that ubiquitous person, Usage, and we keep him pretty busy at his job. He’s a Progressive and what he likes, he’ll have, in spite of lexicographers, college professors and authors of “His Complete Works.” That’s the reason why English has ousted Volapük and Esperanto as a world language. It snuggles right down where you live and makes itself at home.

How does English shape itself so comfortably to the body of our thought? With a new wrinkle here and a little more breadth there, with fancy trimmings, new styles, fresh materials and a genius for adapting itself to all sorts of wear. Everybody is working at it, tailoring it, fitting it, decorating it. There is no person so humble but that he can suggest an improvement that may easily become the reigning mode.



Wordle: two’s company, three’s a cloud

April 10, 2009

The word “cloud” refers primarily to the familiar watery wisps overhead. It can also refer to analogous physical phenomena (a cloud of dust, an electron cloud, a cloud in glass or translucent stone), or to figurative concepts (a cloud of suspicion or gloom hanging over someone). In computing, cloud has acquired other meanings, such as cloud computing, which I won’t be writing about, and word clouds or tag clouds, which I will. If you already know this terrain, feel free to skip forward.

A simple example is the category cloud on the right hand side of this blog. [Edit: I have since replaced the category cloud with a tag cloud.] First, I categorise and label (“tag”) each of my blog posts. For example, this post is categorised under blogging and is tagged blogging, tagging, toys, words, Wordle, tag clouds, and word clouds. The resulting metadata can be displayed automatically, thereby informing visitors of the general content of the blog, instantly and aesthetically.

The size of a tag in a cloud is directly proportionate to its popularity; a glance at the category tag cloud shows that “usage” is my most frequently used category tag at the time of writing. Clicking on a tag will select the content with that tag, or in this case within that category. Word clouds have been applied to all sorts of text, from politicians’ speeches to rugby tweets. Smashing Magazine has an excellent presentation of tag cloud examples and uses.

That’s the summary: now for the fun. Wordle is a toy and a tool that creates word clouds from any text you give it. Its website is a model of good design and clear information. Once you have created a Wordle cloud, you can modify it by colour, font type, and tag alignment. You can also remove common words (such as the, to, and, it, and of) from English or from 25 other languages. This gives the cloud a much more accurate flavour of the submitted content.

Now that Sentence first has been on the go for a while, I decided to give it the Wordle treatment. I included post titles and text, but not tags or comments (or this post). Here is the result, which you can click on to enlarge:

Stan Carey - wordle Sentence first

Some random observations. Because there is no stemming, the cloud includes common and commonly; usage, use, useful, and used. Certain words appear because of their prominence in posts dedicated to them, such as however, principal, and mwdeu. Others appear because they feature a few times in a set phrase, such as death in Blue Screen of Death, and splices in comma splice.

One thing I love about Wordle clouds is the way arbitrary sentence fragments emerge, often incongruously and sometimes almost poetically, like the results of using cut-ups.* In the Sentence first word cloud I see the sensible advice “first make word”, the Tarzanesque “language good”, and the more lyrical but enigmatic “whether sometimes something though Irish better”.

And now, for fun and mystery, here is an unidentified word cloud:

Stan Carey - wordle mystery

Can you guess or work out its source? If you don’t know or don’t want to guess, you could tell me your favourite fragments. All words are lower case, and apostrophes are omitted, so id means I’d, ill means I’ll, etc.

If you want a clue, you will find one in invisible writing (i.e. white font) on the next line. Highlight (left-click and drag) to see the hidden text.

It has already been mentioned on this blog!

If it proves too difficult, I’ll supply the answer or another clue next week. In the meantime, Happy Easter and happy wordling.

* Wikipedia page on cut-ups; mp3 of William S Burroughs describing the technique.

À la carte, à la, Al

April 8, 2009

In my previous blog post I introduced Al the principal, as part of a mnemonic to help distinguish principal from principle. Here is another Al, not imaginary this time, but more mysterious. If he was a chef at this restaurant, or its owner, there might be an acceptable pun in this sign, but as a misspelling for À it doesn’t cut the mustard.

Stan Carey - a la carte, al la carte

À la is short for à la mode de, which means “in the manner of” or “in the style of”. U.S. English often drops the grave accent (`). In French the preposition is followed by a feminine noun (the masculine form is au, a contraction of à + le), but as an English compound preposition it is independent of gender:

He staged a thrilling comeback à la Rocky.
The city plans a bicycle rental scheme à la Vélib’.
Their goodbye was bittersweet, à la Casablanca.

À la carte roughly means “by the card” or “according to the menu”, and implies that the customer can select from a choice of items, each of which is priced separately — as distinct from a menu with set meals and fixed prices (table d’hôte or prix fixe). The phrase may act as a noun, i.e. as shorthand for an à la carte menu or meal, but its adjectival and adverbial uses seem more common — an impression borne out by a search at the British National Corpus).

The menu is à la carte (adj.)
Shall we eat à la carte? (adv.)

À la was first used in English at the end of the 16th century, while à la carte appeared in 1826. The latter is one of many food-related à la… phrases imported from French and now thoroughly integrated into English. Sometimes à la carte has nothing to do with food. Neither à la nor à la carte needs to be italicised; I do so here only when discussing them in the context of their usage.

The widespread use of à la and à la carte makes one wonder how the misspelling “Al la carte” arose. An apostrophe is missing from “childrens”, and there is a strong case for making “menu” plural, but these lapses are so frequent in signs as to be mundane; it is the appearance of “Al” that makes it irresistible.