Posted by Neal on April 13, 2009
One book that we recently finished reading aloud was Nim’s Island, by Wendy Orr (now a minor motion picture from Walden Media). Doug and Adam had to stand by for a minute while I made a note of this passage near the end of the book:
…thought Alex as she roller-coasted from one [wave] to the next.
Something sounded funny about rollercoasted. I would have said rollercoastered, converting the noun rollercoaster into a verb (“verbing a noun”, as it’s sometimes known). Why didn’t Wendy Orr take that option?
Then I realized: It was another backformation. The steps in the history:
- Long before rollercoasters existed, the nouns roller and coaster were formed by suffixing the agentive suffix -er to the verbs roll and coast.
- When the devices now known as rollercoasters were invented, the noun rollercoaster was created via compounding: roller + coaster, meaning something that coasted on rollers. The OED’s earliest known attestation is from 1888.
- Next, the reanalysis, illustrated with the original structure on the left, and the reanalyzed structure on the right:
- The backformation comes to light when a speaker retrieves the verb form that logically must exist, given the noun consisting of Verb+-er. In this case, it’s rollercoast. The OED’s earliest attestation is from 1973, and others from the past few years can be found in reference to markets, emotions, hypermiling, and moving time slots for troubled TV shows.
This is where the actual backformation occurs, but you can’t tell, because [roller][coaster] sounds just like [rollercoast] [er].
So if rollercoast is such a typical backformation, like a lot of the ones I’ve written about before, why did it stop me in mid-page and send me looking for a napkin to write it down on? My guess is that it’s because the noun rollercoaster is not an animate agent. A bartender is a person who bartends; a babysitter is a person who babysits; a rollercoaster is an object. To falsify this hypothesis, I now open the floor for other Noun+Verber compounds that denote objects, and that have yielded Noun+Verb backformations, and which sound as normal as peoplewatch or speed-read to me.