Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Backformation Collection

Posted by Neal on January 2, 2011

Longtime family friends Jim and Mary paid us a visit last week to deliver some cookies and a Christmas present for Doug and Adam. Mary does a lot of crafts, particularly those involving sewing. Doug and Adam still use the hand-sewn trick-or-treat bags that she gave them almost ten years ago, and we still use the white felt Christmas tree apron she gave us at around the same time. It’s nice, with felt holly leaves and berries decorating the outer circumference, snap buttons to close the apron after you put it around the base of the tree, and a drawstring sewn into the inner circumference to allow adjustment for different trunk thicknesses. The white felt is somewhat dimmed by an accumulation of cat hairs that are effectively impossible to remove, and we have to make do with just the buttons, because cats exploring under the tree have chewed off both ends of the drawstring over last several Christmases. But we put it under the tree every year because it’s just that well made, not just because we know Mary will be coming by sometime while the tree’s still up.

Jim and Mary gave Doug and Adam each a decorative, hand-sewn bag this year, with a miniature version of the kind of drawstring that the Christmas tree apron used to have. Doug and Adam opened their bags to find a smaller drawstring bag inside. A still smaller drawstring bag was inside that one, and inside that, a gift card to a book store. Doug and Adam said thank you, and Doug went on to express appreciation for the bags, too. They would be useful, he said, because

I coin-collect, bottlecap-collect, and rock-collect.

There’s no way his rock collection would fit into any of those bags, or even all three together, but the thought was nice. And the coins or bottlecaps might just fit. We just need to make sure the cats don’t chew those little drawstrings off and us end up having to take them to the animal clinic. But if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that what caught my ear was Doug’s compound verbs coin-collect, bottlecap-collect, and rock-collect. They’re three more additions to the list of compound verbs formed via reanalysis and backformation from compound verbal nouns. To recap with just one of them: The compound noun coin-collecting (or maybe coin collection) is reanalyzed as the suffix -ing attaching to a putative verb coin-collect. Remove the suffix and you’re left with that newly formed verb.

By now, this process is old hat to regular readers (and if it’s not, it will be by the time you finish reading the other posts in the Backformation category). What especially struck me about Doug’s phrasing was that this backformation process is so strong in his grammar that not only do compound verbs like coin-collect prevail over verb phrases like collect coins, but they do so even when using the regular VP syntax would save him two repetitions of a word. He could have just said,

I collect coins, bottlecaps, and rocks.

You know what would be even more unusual than that? If the verb-compounding became so much the norm that Doug could say this:

I coin-, bottlecap-, and rock-collect.

Maybe there are even speakers out there now who can do that. If you’re reading, make yourselves known in the comments!

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7 Responses to “Backformation Collection”

  1. Ran said

    I’m pretty sure I’d never say “coin-, bottlecap-, and rock-collect” myself, but it actually doesn’t sound bad to me. But even the much likelier “baby and house sat” gets only one hit on Google, so the construction doesn’t seem to be making much headway.

    By the way, “coin collector” may be another contributing source here. It seems even more likely to me than “coin collection”, actually.

  2. I think I could actually say “I coin-, bottlecap-, and rock-collect.” if I wanted to underline that they’re different activities. It actually sounds better than “I coin-collect, bottlecap-collect, and rock-collect.” to me.

    “I collect coins, bottlecaps, and rocks.” doesn’t have to imply *different* collections on the other hand.

  3. I think I could say I coin, bottlecap and rock collect rather that coin-collect, bottlecap-collect and rock-collect. But it would be a lot easier to say I collect coins, battlecaps and rocks…

  4. AJ said

    I enjoyed a short blog post of yours on back formation. I presume the American English ‘burglarised’ arose this way as we have the verb ‘to burgle’ in British English, giving the noun ‘burglar’. Or are American burglars ‘burglarisers’?! But then I suppose they’d have to ‘burglarisaficate’ or somesuch…

    • Ran said

      Maybe I’m misunderstanding what you’re saying, but — the nouns “burglar” and “burglary” came first, with the verbs “burgle” and “burglarize” both being formed from them — “burgle” via backformation (removing “-ar”), “burglarize” via suffixation (adding “-ize”).

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