Back-forming back-formations

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


16 Responses to Back-forming back-formations

  1. Fascinating post. And “burgling tools” is a lot more easier to say than “”burglarising tools”…

    “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.”

    An example of back-forming in popular culture: Homer Simpson, annoyed by something, exclaims: “Now I’m disgruntled! And before this I was relatively gruntled!” (I’m assuming that ‘gruntle’ is not a word!)

  2. Winter’s piece is hilarious, by the way (and he uses ‘gruntled’ too!) Interestingly, if you back-form ‘disappointed’, you change its meaning substantially enough to make it entirely inappropriate: “Winter’s piece appointed me…”

  3. Stan says:

    Thanks for the pop cultural example, Doubtful! Yes, gruntled showed up in Winter’s piece, and is one I’ve heard and read in various places. For example, “The Code of the Woosters” by P.G. Wodehouse included the phrase “far from gruntled”. There is a little more about it here, where you can also read a short history of gruntle. See also: Merriam-Webster.

    The Simpsons might not have coined gruntled, but they did contribute a few novel back-formations, e.g. Otto: “They call ’em fingers but I never see ’em fing!” And Homer: “I’m a Rageaholic! I’m addicted to rageahol!”

    Strictly speaking [*momentarily dons strict hat*], appoint would not be a back-formation, because it is the established root from which disappoint derived.

  4. You’re technically correct (the best kind of correct! as was once stated in Futurama) but I still find it curious that with the words ‘appoint’ and ‘disappoint’, while one is derived from the other, their meanings bear no real relation (compared to ‘comfort’ and ‘discomfort’ or ‘satisfaction’ and ‘dissatisfaction’) (but not ‘disturb’; “Everything was fine, and I was turbed.”). If I assign someone to do a job, I’m appointing them, yet if I remove them, I’m not disappointing them (except possibly in an emotional sense). Or is that the word’s original meaning, hence our usage of it today to express our feeling of being let down?

  5. Stan says:

    It is a curious discrepancy, but your intuition is correct – the words appoint and disappoint used to be more closely related, and modern usage has seen the root diverge. (Sorry about bombarding you with links! Two of them are short dictionary entries, and the third is relevant and interesting.)

    When I wrote that back-formation was “essentially [affixation] in reverse”, I was simplifying matters somewhat. Although the two processes impose converse structural changes on words – the subtraction or addition of a suffix – they are not direct opposites.

    By the way, much as I love The Simpsons, I think I love Futurama even more.

  6. I am answered, and then some! The last link is very interesting. And although I think both have gone off the boil quite badly (like an elderly dog, The Simpsons really should be gently put to sleep, and the last few Futuramas I found amusing but a bit lazy and puerile) they still were, at their best, among the funniest things on television.

  7. Stan says:

    You’re probably right about the deterioration of those shows. I lost touch with The Simpsons over the years, and Futurama went a little soft over time, but in their prime they consistently reached comedic and pop cultural greatness. Maybe I’ll watch the films some day for old time’s sake…

  8. […] the very same journal that seems to have introduced orientation, from which orientate may have been back-formed. Or maybe not. Since then orientate has been used by writers such as Aldous Huxley, Margaret Mead, […]

  9. […] which was supplied in a subsequent comment, the trisyllabic burglarize is preferred to the tidy burgle in U.S. English. A post I wrote last year about the differences and similarities between orient and […]

  10. […] to modify them, or to make new words or longer bases (see diagram*). The process contrasts with back-formation and is endlessly productive. Affixes are very useful in technical and academic fields, where many […]

  11. […] it changes the word’s category, I thought at first it might be a derivation or back-formation. Some sources, however, say derivation and back-formation require, respectively, the addition and […]

  12. […] sources say kempt is a back-formation from unkempt, which has been around for centuries. In Middle English unkempt took the form unkemd […]

  13. […] a new back formation considers the word-formation process known as back formation, focusing in particular on surveil, a recent entry to Macmillan […]

  14. […] clipped (totes); affixed (globalisation), acronymised (radar); blended (snowmageddon); back-formed (donate); reduplicated (mishmash); coined (blurb); or formed from onomatopoeia (cuckoo), proper nouns […]


    is diner the backformation of dinner?

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