Wack v. whack, and choosing enthusing

October 15, 2014

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The wacky world of ‘wack’ and ‘whack’ looks briefly at these similar (and sometimes overlapping) words with many meanings in informal usage:

Whack meaning ‘hit’, as a noun and verb, is centuries old but remains informal compared to such synonyms as strike, blow, and knock. It may be onomatopoeic in origin, which is why it’s used as a sound effect in comic books and the old Batman TV show. It also has the related meaning ‘kill’, for example in criminal slang.

Wack emerged more recently as a back-formation from wacky. Initially it was a noun used to refer to a crazy or eccentric person – He’s a real wack – with wacko and whacko emerging as slangy offshoots. This was followed by adjectival wack meaning bad, unfashionable, stupid or of low quality, as in the anti-drugs slogan Crack is wack.

I go on to describe some of the ways the two words are used, and the possible limits of their interchangeability.


Enthusing about freedom of usage considers (and defends) the much-maligned back-formation enthuse:

Lots of words and usages are criticised or considered ‘incorrect’ when really they’re just colloquial, relatively new, or unsuited to formal use. As Michael Rundell wrote recently, ‘what might be inappropriate in a very formal setting may be perfectly acceptable in a conversation between friends’. . . .

What one generation finds ignorant or ridiculous, the next might adopt without fuss. Enthuse retains a semblance of impropriety, and is still frowned on by conservative writers and readers. Others, myself included, may have nothing against it but prefer periphrastic alternatives like ‘show enthusiasm’ or ‘be enthusiastic’.

The post details some of the criticism and commentary enthuse has received, and summarises its status in different varieties of English.

Older posts are available in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.


Back formations and flag denotations

April 26, 2014

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.

A kempt back-formation

March 14, 2013

The word unkempt (untidy, dishevelled, slovenly, uncombed) is common enough, but kempt (tidy, neatly kept, combed) is much less so. I’m not sure why: it is itself a neat word, expressive and economical. Here’s an example from Denis Johnson’s great war novel Tree of Smoke:

At this point Jimmy Storm took notice of a patron sitting down to another table, a rather tall young Asian woman, prepossessing, strikingly kempt, sheathed in a glamour of silk . . .

And one from Sara Baume’s engrossing Spill Simmer Falter Wither:

His hands were so humanlike, his nails exquisitely kempt, much more so than my own.

Most sources say kempt is a back-formation from unkempt, which has been around for centuries. In Middle English unkempt took the form unkemd – from un– + kembed (or kempt), past participle of kemb “to comb”. Comb gradually replaced kemb except in isolated dialectal use.

Scythian combWe find kemb in Chaucer: “His longe hair was kembed behind his back.” In Old English it was cemban; the American Heritage Dictionary says this is derived from the Germanic form *kambaz, originating in the Indo-European root gembh– “tooth, nail”.

Jack Winter’s comical essay How I Met My Wife is full of unusual and improbable words created by removing negative prefixes, and sure enough he makes use of kempt: “Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way.” Various poems exploit the same terrain.

But kempt, as we’ve seen, can also be used with a straight face; contemporary examples may be browsed at Wordnik, many of them in the compound adjective well-kempt:

On the whole, she was not much cleaner or any better kempt than the ragamuffin boy. (Margaret Peterson Haddix, Uprising)

With his thick gray hair, salt-and-pepper beard, and aviator glasses, he looked like a well-kempt Jerry Garcia. (Paul Elie, ‘The Velvet Reformation’)

[Image shows a Scythian comb, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. I think its handle is a metaphor for knotty hair.]

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