or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Get Back

Back-formation is the process in which new words are created out of existing ones by the process of analogy. For example, many nouns in English that mean "one who does something" end in "-er" or "-or", such as "test/tester" or "imposture/impostor", and it's easy to create new nouns by adding these suffixes to words: you don't need to ever have heard "clarifier" or "disinfector" to use them with complete confidence that people will understand what you mean.

Because of this, it's easy, on hearing a word like "burglar", to imagine that the corresponding verb, "burgle", exists, even though "burglar" predates it by several hundred years. "Burgle" is a back-formation, and English teems with them: some have achieved complete respectability (it's hard to imagine that "donate" was once sneered at as a parvenu), while others have a sense of trying too hard, or feel like business jargon (I hope the gross "liaise" never becomes acceptable).

Here's the first paragraph from a story in The Consumerist about washing machines:

We recall hearing that a couple of you folks bought the Maytag Neptune front-loading washer and were less than enthused about the product. Well, we’ve got some good and bad news for you.

"Enthuse" is reasonably old: the Oxford English Dictionary dates its first appearance in written English from 1827. (It's older than "diagnose", which is unimpeachably acceptable English.) And yet "enthuse" still strikes me and many others as having a breathless, gum-snapping vulgarity; the OED says it's "an ignorant back-formation from 'enthusiasm'". ("Ignorant"! When was the last time you read a dictionary definition so haughtily opinionated?) I hate the word and I'd never use it, but it does get used and, most importantly, everyone understands what it means.

Three unassailable facts: 1) new words will continue to be concocted; 2) prescriptive grammarians will continue to judge such words and find some of them wanting; and 3) the words will nonetheless enter the language or not as its users, ignoring fact 2, see fit.


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