Backformation to School
Posted by Neal on August 2, 2004
Here it is the beginning of August, and you know what that means. It means that for two or three weeks now, there have been “Back to School” displays in the stores. To my longstanding complaint about this shameless and tasteless jumping of the gun, I’ll add a morphosyntactic one.
Back to school is an adverb phrase–it can modify a verb, as in It’s time to go back to school! From here, it’s an easy step to turn it into an adjective: Just stick it in front of a noun, and maybe hyphenate it if it’s in written form: Back-to-school time, back-to-school sale, all your back-to-school needs. I have no problem with this; it’s the same thing that goes on with lots of phrases that get turned into adjectives, as in your I-don’t-care-about-anyone-but-myself attitude, or the appalling there’s-no-right-no-wrong-it’s-all-OK approach to grammar that these linguists have. What I don’t like to see is back to school as a noun. That’s what happens in these examples:
- Getting Ready for Back-to-School
- Back To School and Student Loans
- A teacher’s guide to online resources for back to school!
- Make Getting Ready For Back To School a Snap with this CDROM!
- Primary Teacher Time Savers For Back to School and Beyond!
- National survey shows back to school isn’t just pens and pencils anymore.
- Songs & Poems for “Back to School” and more!
- Make getting ready for Back to School fun with a supply list sponsored by Purell!
Why did back to school start acting as a noun? The most reasonable scenario for me involves my previously blogged-about, favorite morphological process, backformation. If we start off with a noun, it’s no big deal at all for it to be used as an adjective. This happens any time we make a compound word whose first element is a noun: spiral notebook, chemistry lab, hall pass, metal detector. But what happens if the adjectival use comes first, as in back-to-school anxiety? Then the usual analogy can go through:
spiral notebook:spiral::back-to-school anxiety:X
There. I’ve laid aside my animus toward this form long enough to analyze it. Strange, though. Why do I hate the backformed noun back to school, while I’m fascinated and amused by backformed verbs like peoplewatch or underage drink? It must just be because I had a grudge against back to school in all its uses years before I ever studied linguistics.