Back formations and flag denotations

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The first, False and flying colours in metaphor, looks at a particular sense of the word colours that refers to flags, in turn an abstraction of identity:

Like many phrases now in common figurative use, with flying colours was literal at first (inasmuch as hanging a flag is literally flying it). But the expression, with its vivid imagery and connotations of success, has obvious appeal, and people duly broadened it to refer to achievements unaccompanied by flag-flying.

A related expression, also of naval pedigree, is to sail [or fight] under false colours, synonymous with under false pretences. It refers to an old seafaring trick associated with pirates but not limited to them, who misrepresented their identity by hoisting ‘friendly’ flags, and so were able to get close enough to a target ship to catch its crew unawares.

You can read the rest for more on the origins and uses of these metaphors.


Surveilling a new back formation considers the word-formation process known as back formation, focusing in particular on surveil, a recent entry to Macmillan Dictionary:

Some back formations are deliberately comical. Jack Winter’s essay ‘How I Met My Wife’ features such novelties as chalant and petuous (from nonchalant and impetuous); here, the removal of prefixes rather than the usual suffixes gives them a playful feel. Other back formations are obviously redundant, such as conversate, cohabitate, and evolute. The use of these and similar words is likely to invite criticism and complaint – sometimes unfounded, as with orientate. Certain others, such as enthuse, occupy a grey area of acceptability.

More often, back formations are developed because there’s a need for them. Surveil is a case in point.

See the full post for more discussion and examples of back formation, or my archive at Macmillan for older stuff.

5 Responses to Back formations and flag denotations

  1. alexmccrae1546 says:

    I was surprisingly gruntled to discover that “gruntled”is an actual legitimate word meaning ‘put in good humor’; apparently a back-formation of “disgruntled”, defined as being in a state of upset. Although these days, we rarely see “gruntled” used in common, everyday parlance, or literature. “Disgruntled”… fairly common.

    I figured the word “combobulated” might pass muster, as well; in this instance a tempting back-formation of the familiar “discombobulated”. Yet according to the more credible dictionaries of record (and you folks know whom they are), “combobulated” is not recognized as a bona fide word. Although the less perhaps less rigorous, hipster urban DICTIONARY does view it as a legitimate word… “combomulate” — a verb meaning “to organize or pull together”.

    • Stan says:

      Alex: Those are good examples. Gruntled has been more successful than most such jocular coinages if we go by longevity: records go back almost a century; and use: it’s been added to some of the major dictionaries, including Oxford and Merriam-Webster. Combobulated, as you say, has attained less recognition, though that’s not to say it won’t eventually gain in status. Imagine how discombobulated some people would be if they saw combobulated in the OED.

  2. This is really interesting, a good fact to share with my brother, who loves flags. To add to the back-formation-sharing begun by Alex, apparently “diplomat” is a back-formation from “diplomatic!”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: